'I don't expect any mercy': Record number of girls playing tackle football at Sun Youth

Hayley Harrison says she'd like to keep playing in college or university next season. But even if that doesn't happen, she wants to keep working to inspire other girls to enter the sport.

Coach says more female players are seeing a place for themselves in the sport

Hayley Harrison is one of 11 girls playing tackle football across all five age categories for the Sun Youth Hornets this season. It's a record high in female participation for the organization. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

When Hayley Harrison first took to the football field with the Sun Youth Hornets six years ago, she didn't recall seeing any other girls out there with her.

But now things have changed.

"This year it's booming," says Sun Youth football co-ordinator Jesse Blizzard.

There are 11 girls playing football for Sun Youth across their five teams this season. It's the highest level of female participation in Hornets football history.

"They enjoy the sport. They wanna be able to hit some boys. And there's nothing wrong with that." Blizzard says.

Harrison, 17, is the only girl playing in her age group. But at the younger levels, more and more young girls are signing up to play.

Hayley's coach, Dimitrios Manolopoulos, says girls have always been welcome at Sun Youth but perhaps what has tipped things recently is the increased visibility of women in the game.

"You're seeing a ramp up of (girls) and women being part of the sport. On Tampa Bay, for example, when they won the Super Bowl they had a woman assistant coach, so you know the sky is limitless." Manolopoulos said.

Most of the girls play in younger divisions. Harrison, 17, hopes she can be an inspiration for them. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

When young girls see players like Harrison going toe-to-toe with the boys, it shows them that they can do it, too.

"It's nice to think that I'm an inspiration to them, I used to play with another girl and we became really close," Harrison said. "She would tell me how much of an inspiration I was to her. And going forward, we got to see all the younger girls join."

Not always easy

Harrison says there are times when she gets targeted because she is a girl.

"They just wanted to come get the girl," Harrison said, "but I don't expect any mercy … so when they come at me it just gives me the opportunity to go harder and give my all."

Harrison says her late grandfather remains her inspiration to play. Jack Harrison, who died in 2008, was a huge supporter of Sun Youth football.

She says she'd like to keep playing in college or university after she ages out of minor football at the end of this season. But she also understands that it might be tough, given the level of physicality required to play her position on the defensive line at the next level.

Hayley Harrison says she'd love to keep playing tackle football after she ages out of Sun Youth, but unfortunately there aren't many options for her. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"I'm not saying it's impossible, because I [once] thought it was impossible to play at this age division," she said. "But if it doesn't work out going into the football career, I would love to come back for Sun Youth and help coach and give back to everyone because this is like a second home to me."

Unfortunately, there aren't many all-female opportunities for women to keep playing competitive tackle football in Quebec into their late teens and 20s.

But Harrison hopes that will change for the next generation of girls who want to play. She encourages them to come give it a try.

"Just go out and do it, be fearless, try it. Even if it's not for you, at least you can say that you tried it. But for me it's my passion and I never would have known that if I didn't try out," Harrison said.

"It's good for the program and it's good for us."


Douglas Gelevan is a national award-winning journalist who has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. In addition to his role as host of CBC Montreal Weekend News, Doug also covers community sports and sports news.