Reina Iizuka ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside her USPORTS gridiron contemporaries

In a year that has seen Kendall Coyne become the first woman to compete in the National Hockey League All-Star Skills Competition, the momentum for women shattering the glass ceiling in sport continues with an unparalleled revelation from the University of Manitoba. Having made national news, Reina Iizuka, a red-shirted player with the University’s Bisons football team during the 2018 season, is aspiring to become the first active female player on a USPORTS tackle football roster.

Standing at five-foot-seven, the native of Mississauga, Ontario, competes at the defensive back position, bringing a solid body of work to the prospect of a new chapter in her sporting narrative. Having started the gridiron game at the tender age of nine years young, Iizuka, with the support of her single-mother, commuted throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), participating in practices and games.

Prior to university, Iizuka spent her formative years with the Mississauga Warriors (playing peewee and bantam football), followed by gridiron heroics with the St. Marcellinus Spirit, the alma mater of former Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Brandon Bridge, and the Toronto Junior Argos.

Recognized as a 10-time team captain, testament to her inspirational status, her gridiron journey also included recognized on the Team Ontario Selects thrice. As a side note, the 2013 season, which coincided with her freshman year in high school resulted in a leadership award.

Of note, Iizuka’s story gained traction when it was revealed that she was one of five Canadian women to attend the National Football League’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Indianapolis, Indiana, home of the Colts. Running parallel to the league’s Scouting Combine, also held in the same city, the event consists of numerous breakout sessions, panel discussions and presentations.

Worth noting, the Forum also holds a unique Canadian linkage. Samantha Rapoport, a native of Montreal and former quarterback for the Blitz is the NFL’s director of football development and co-founder of the Women’s World Football Games is one of the Forum’s biggest proponents.

Joining Iizuka at the Forum were other women who have made their marks in the Canadian university football ranks. Among them are Erin Craig, who serves as the director of strength and conditioning director for the Saint Mary’s Huskies, one of the signature football programs in Atlantic University Sports. Craig’s credentials also include serving with the Dalhousie Tigers women’s ice hockey program, along with a stint at the Montreal Alouettes training camp last summer.

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Andrea Eccleston, who resides in the football mad province of Saskatchewan, already possesses a notable gridiron resume. A volunteer with Football Canada, one of her most notable achievements included a role as Chef de Mission for the Canadian contingent that competed at the IFAF Women’s Worlds. Currently, she serves as the equipment manager with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies program.

Holding the position of strength and conditioning coordinator with the University of Western Ontario, Kristine Walker has worked with hundreds of the school’s varsity teams, including its dynastic football program. Worth noting, she has also been part of camps with the Ontario Hockey League.

Completing the group is Christina Litz, who serves in the role of Chief Marketing Officer for the Canadian Football League (CFL). Of note, this marks the second consecutive year that there has been a CFL presence at the Women’s Careers in Football Forum.

In 2018, Catherine Raiche, the Toronto Argonauts’ director of football administration attended. Raiche also holds her own unique place in the role of women in football. Having become the first woman hired into the CFL since Jo-Anne Polak by the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1988, Raiche earned the opportunity to serve as the Alouettes assistant general manager in 2017 before joining the Argonauts.

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Undoubtedly, the CFL holds a unique influence for Iizuka. An early fan of the British Columbia Lions, watching them attentively on television, one of the trainers during her teens was Natey Adjei. Selected 22nd overall by the Argonauts in the 2013 CFL Draft, the University of Buffalo alum currently competes for the Edmonton Eskimos.

In addition, Pierre’s Elite Performance, a performance training facility that Iizuka currently frequents sees former CFL defensive back Shea Pierre (and a coach with the University of Guelph Gryphons) as the proprietor. Akin to Adjei, Pierre was also an Argonauts draft pick, acquired in the 2012 edition of the Draft.

Of all the influences in her career, perhaps none are as impactful as Brian Dobie, the Bisons’ head coach. Back in the summer of 2015, Iizuka established her first contact with Dobie, who was serving in the capacity of guest coach for a football camp staged in the GTA.

Impressed by the tenacious work ethic of Iizuka, and her assiduous tackling abilities, it augmented Dobie’s interest. One year before, Dobie’s daughter, Caleigh, captured a Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championship with the Bisons’ women’s volleyball team, making him highly familiar with the empowering possibilities for women in sport. In 2017, Caleigh also captured the Bisons Sports Student-Athlete Leadership and Community Development Award.

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Although 2015 would also mark the same year that Iizuka tore her ACL, along with the meeting of Dobie, both would serve as defining moments. Maintaining contact with Dobie during her recuperation, her ability to rebound and recover, her commitment to the game never dwindling.

Arriving at the University of Manitoba as an undergrad in the autumn of 2017, Iizuka, realizing that the Bisons already had their recruits in place, asked Dobie if she could gain the privilege of continuing to learn and grow as a prospecitive player by watching film, observing practice and participating in workouts, despite still undergoing her recovery. Such perseverance displayed the kind of character that not only embodied the essence of female football, but uncovered the type of team player that she can become.

With the 2019 season representing Dobie’s 24th with the Bisons, it may stand as his most memorable should Iizuka gain a roster spot. Having accumulated 92 wins, the most in program history, a win with Iizuka on his roster would represent an unprecedented brush with history, propelling both into a treasured place in modern sporting Canadiana.

Equally important, the possibility of Iizuka gracing the gridiron in the Bisons’ garb would also enhance the unique legacy that Manitoba holds with female football. Most notable in this movement includes Tannis Wilson, whose long service with the Manitoba Fearless also makes her an integral part of Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL) lore.

Contributing to the province’s sporting zeitgeist as a founder of the Manitoba Girls Football Association (MGFA), it propelled Wilson into one of the game’s builders. Providing preteen girls with the chance to develop their football skills, competing against each other in the Association’s Spring leagues, it is the first of its kind in Western Canada.

Enriching the Association’s relevance and budding legacy is the fact that numerous girls have graduated into WWCFL play in later years. Certainly, the awareness of Iizuka is destined to serve as the stimulus towards inspiring more girls in the province to try the game.

Another notable individual in Manitoba’s unfolding history of female football involves Alexa Matwyczuk. A current star in the WWCFL with the Manitoba Fearless, she played for her high school’s boys varsity football team in Winnipeg. Having also competed on the offensive line with Canada’s entries at both the 2014 and 2017 IFAF Women’s Worlds.

Perhaps Matwyczuk’s empowering experiences shall foreshadow future Manitoba football glories for Iizuka, which may also be destined by the prospect of one day seeing her wear the Maple Leaf of the national team on her helmet.

Pondering the future with a tremendous optimism, Iizuka has already established a tremendous victory for women in football. Even if she does not qualify for the Bisons roster, the conversation has already been established, setting a welcoming tone for women to join the huddle, enabling the potential for new and empowering possibilities.


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