Calgary women's football team sees spike in new players, including girls who grew up tackling

Amira Harb, 16, is a rookie linebacker with the Calgary Rage, although she comes to the team with years of football experience.  (James Young/CBC - image credit)
Amira Harb, 16, is a rookie linebacker with the Calgary Rage, although she comes to the team with years of football experience. (James Young/CBC - image credit)

Amira Harb, a rookie linebacker with the Calgary Rage, says she was drawn to play football because of the game's in-your-face physicality.

"I love tackling," the 16-year-old said during a recent team practice. 

Harb also plays football for Chestermere High School, but she says there's something more intense about playing with the Rage in the Western Women's Canadian Football League.

"High school, it's slower," she said. "It's still fast-paced, but it's not as rough as this."

Harb finds the intensity of playing with the WWCFL empowering.

"It makes me feel like I'm a better football player, because I'm surrounded by women," she said. "I feel like they understand me more as a player."

All the Rage

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Harb's first season with the Rage, which started with a weekend win over the Edmonton Storm, comes as women's football is experiencing something of a renaissance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Female football is taking off … specifically in Calgary, it's unbelievable," said Keith Crawford, the Rage's head coach of six years.

Last year, the team fielded 25 players. This year, the team has 43 players, enough for them to practise 12-on-12 and have backups for injured athletes.

Jessica Liubicich, a veteran defensive end, appreciates not having to play both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball.

"It's a relief to know that I don't have to kill myself for the team, and we can all kind of go out and do it together," she said. 

Twyla Misurko, the Rage's general manager, said the team struggled to find players during the first years of the pandemic. 

So, ahead of this season, the team started aggressively recruiting, approaching athletes at high school football games and connecting with coaches at the University of Calgary.

Some athletes, like Harb, started playing football in bantam competition, meaning they came to the Rage with years of experience.

"Women are growing up playing football now," Misurko said. "So they are going all the way through, and that's really changing the level of the game, because we have people on our sidelines and people on the field who have been in football their whole lives."

The Rage doesn't require its athletes to have prior football experience. Players on the team range in age from 16 to 60. Some are former high school or college athletes looking for a new outlet, while others are experienced in other sports, such as hockey or rugby, and looking for a fresh challenge.

"[Football] is one of the fastest growing sports in Canada," Misurko said. "Both women's tackle and flag football are two of the fastest growing sports."

Toppling tradition

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport, said she was impressed to hear of the success the Rage has had in recruiting players.

"[Football] is, historically, for boys and men," she said. "You know, you don't get to see women playing football on our TV screens and in our media.

"So for [the Rage] to overcome that significant hurdle to recruiting girls, it clearly means they are putting in a very significant effort," Sandmeyer-Graves said.

This is important, she added, because overall sports participation rates among Canadian girls and women remain relatively low.

Only about 50 per cent of Canadian girls are still participating in sport by the time they reach adolescence. After that, rates drop even further. According to research, roughly 20 per cent of Canadian women ages 16-63 are involved in sport.

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Between work and family, many women struggle to find time for sport, let alone high-calibre competition. Yet what's lost aren't just the benefits to physical and mental health, but also avenues to build confidence, interact with others and become part of a community.  

For Liubicich, the veteran defensive end, the Rage and broader Alberta football community — with players young and old, seasoned and new — have become one big family. 

"I love them like my sisters," she said.

'People come to us now'

Tatrina Medvescek has been on the team since the beginning. This is her 14th season with the Rage. She started as a quarterback and now plays safety. 

"It's amazing to see so many women playing football," she said, referring to the growth the team has experienced. 

The Rage also have a new partnership with the Stampeders, Calgary's Canadian Football League team.

The teams are working to promote each other, and some players, such as Medvescek, are participating as coaches for their fellow squad's training camps. 

For Medvescek, the increased publicity surrounding the Rage has made a real difference. When she goes out, people come up to her knowing what the Rage is.

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

"Not having to explain myself, or explain what our sports is, it means the world to me that people know who we are," she said. "People come to us now."

In the past, there was sometimes the misconception that the Rage was part of a lingerie league, not full contact football, the same game as played in the CFL.

The growth of the women's game opens opportunities for football to be a lifelong pursuit.  

"The idea that a little girl might be growing up right now thinking she might want to be the head coach of a pro team — that's an option," said Misurko, the team's general manager. "It was never an option when I was a kid."

For Harb, the 16-year-old linebacker, she wants to continue making tackles for decades to come. 

"I'd like to play as long as I can," she said.