It was love at first sight—or rather, love at first throw. The spiraling motion of the football transfixed nine-year-old Reina Iizuka. Enrolled at an after-school program in Mississauga, Ontario, because her mother worked late-night shifts, she found herself learning how to throw a football from a teacher.
Now 20, Iizuka is breaking barriers and creating history. The philosophy student at the University of Manitoba is the first-ever female to be on a men’s football roster in U Sports history. Although she is still searching for her first minutes of play, having a woman on a men’s roster is a huge leap for football in Canada.
Bisons coach Brian Dobie discovered Iizuka through a camp held in the Toronto area.
“Wow, that guy’s a great tackler,” Dobie said at the time. A couple of coaches turned to him and said, “Well, that guy’s a girl,”
Iizuka kept in touch with Dobie during the lengthy recruiting process. Although she had different plans, Dobie still encouraged her to apply to the U of M, and the rest is history.
Comparisons and doubts come naturally to a player who is 5' 7" and noticeably smaller than her male teammates. She proves them wrong by displaying her determination and perseverance, all while being humble.
“They're not in your shoes, and they don't know, so it's O.K. Anywhere you go, anything you do, every single person has someone who doubts them,” Iizuka explained.
Doubts haven’t only come from others, but also, she says, from herself. There have been times that she’s wanted to quit, but her love for football overruled her uncertainty. One of the times being at the end of her senior year of high school, when she tore her ACL. Injuries discourage many athletes, but not Iizuka. She wasn’t going to throw away all the time and hard work she had dedicated to the sport.
Kid Reporter Ayesha and Reina Iizuka
For many, role models—whether it’s an athlete, a parents, a sibling, or someone else—are a critical part of growing up. Iizuka had to look inward—and forward—for inspiration.
“My role model was always what I envisioned myself at my best in the future,” Iizuka said
She has had the same mentality since she was younger, but was never able to put it into words. Then, she stumbled onto a speech by American actor Matthew McConaughey and it was exactly what she had been looking for.
“When I was ten, I thought to myself, Oh what do I want to be when I’m 16? When I’m 16, Where do I want to be when I’m 20? Now that I’m 20, Where do I want to be in a couple of years?” Iizuka said.
Historically speaking, football has been labeled as a sport for boys, but more girls have been picking up the sport. Hailey Friesen, a freshman at Steinbach Regional Secondary School is the only girl on her junior varsity football squad. Younger kids are constantly in attendance for their home games. Through this, she hopes to inspire more girls to take on the sport.
“I hope I inspire younger girls to do the best they can, even if something has been labeled a 'guys sport' or 'guys job.' I don’t like that it’s been labeled as a 'guys sport.' I can’t change the past, but I can help change the future and break labels,” Friesen explained.
Like Friesen, Iizuka doesn’t believe in labels. To her, gender is also just a label.
“It’s not about male or female, it’s about whether you’re qualified or not,” Iizuka said. “Be the best person you can be.”
Photo credit: University of Manitoba;