Reina Iizuka is Canadian university football‘s best-kept secret.
Red-shirted players, who practise but do not dress for games, usually aren’t in the spotlight. However, it’s a different story for the 19-year-old Iizuka, who is believed to be the first woman to appear on a U Sports football roster.
The well-spoken native of Mississauga, Ont., applied to Manitoba in 2017, but wasn’t on the roster her first year, working out with the team while she recovered from a knee injury.
Iizuka sees herself as a football player first, but understands how others can consider her a trail-blazer and pioneer in her chosen sport.
“I’m someone who plays the game but I also realize with that will be responsibility,” she said during a telephone interview. “I’m just a player but at the same time I’m that (pioneer) as well.
“It’s something I aspire to be. I don’t think I’m mentally there yet, but I’m working hard to become that.”
Iizuka will be part of the CFL contingent participating in the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum this week in Indianapolis. Joining her will be Christina Litz, the CFL’s chief marketing officer, Ryan Janzen, the league’s senior director of football operations, Erin Craig (strength and conditioning director for the Saint Mary’s University football program), Andrea Eccleston (equipment/team administrator, University of Saskatchewan) and Kristine Walker (associate head strength and conditioning coach, University Western Ontario).
“Honestly, it’s really humbling because I feel like I’m the baby in the room,” Iizuka said with a chuckle. “There are just so many qualified professional women … and to be in the same place as them, hopefully I can learn a lot.”
Bisons head coach Brian Dobie made it clear Iizuka had earned her spot in his program. That’s quite a statement from the winningest football coach in school history (92-90-1), who is entering his 24th season at Manitoba.
“I didn’t do this to make a political statement that I’m going to be the coach or we’re going to be the program that’s going to give this young woman a chance and be a breakthrough,” Dobie said.
“I brought her here because of her drive, passion and determination and she had the skill level and experience to back it up.
“Winning in my job is really important, but more important is the student-athlete experience. We’ve certainly done our share of winning at Manitoba, but I’m proud of the student-athlete experience.”
Dobie, 66, fondly remembers watching Iizuka for the first time while serving as a guest coach at a summer football camp in the Toronto area. Her rapport with the coach was a key reason she chose Manitoba.
“I was at a tackling drill and there was a player who made two or three impressive tackles in a row,” Dobie said. “I literally turned to one of the coaches I was standing beside and said, ‘Wow, he’s a really good tackler.’
“And he replied, ‘Yeah coach, that guy is a girl.’ So she went to the back of the line and I went over and gave her a coaching tip and we had a brief chat. We talked again at lunch and I was immediately struck by her passion and drive for being the best player she could and taking it as far as she could. She was really impressive.”
Iizuka immediately reminded Dobie of another passionate athlete – his daughter, Caleigh, who was a member of the Manitoba women’s volleyball team that won a Canadian university championship in 2014.
“I’m a coach but also the proud father of a daughter who did everything she could to be the best she could be in her chosen sport,” Dobie said. “I see Reina as a young person who’s trying to do the best she can to be the best she can in her chosen sport.
“The difference? She faces a huge uphill battle because her sport is literally loaded from top to bottom with men.”
The biggest challenges Iizuka faces are physical, given many of her male counterparts are bigger, stronger and faster. But Dobie said Iizuka easily matches her teammates’ work ethic, football intellect and heart.
“She works really hard and does all the right things,” he said. “She sits at the very front of our classroom every meeting, she’s literally in the front row and taking notes.
“I wish all of our guys would be in the front row taking notes, honestly.”
Dobie said the majority of Bisons players are good with having Iizuka aboard. And he has a simple message for the few who might not be.
“She has earned her position to this point as much as anything because of her attitude,” said Dobie, whose program has produced NFLers Israel Idonije and David Onyemata. “Not everyone in our program is a first-team all-Canadian and going to the NFL or CFL.