It’s rare for a junior football recruit to receive national attention but when the recruit in question is the first female player in Canadian Junior Football League history, people take notice.
Emmarae Dale is the newest member of the Saskatoon Hilltops and says she’s been overwhelmed by the support she’s received since her recruitment was announced.
“It’s been pretty surreal. I don’t really feel like I’m living my own life right now,” Dale said.
The 21-year-old has received hundreds of congratulatory messages on social media but it wasn’t until the Canadian Football League chimed in that she realized how far the news of her historic accomplishment had spread.
“I think when the CFL posted about it, I was just like, ‘wow, this is really kind of getting real and hitting the big time.’ I was just sort of shocked that it would even make that wave,” Dale said.
Considering that she never actively pursued the possibility of playing football with men before, her shock is somewhat understandable.
In fact, it was a chance encounter with a former coach that set the wheels in motion.
Dale spent the last few years with the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, helping them win a pair of league championships in 2016 and 2019.
Former Valkyries head coach Jeff Yausie is now the Hilltops’ defensive coordinator and when the Hilltops held an off-season training session last February at a gym where Dale happened to be working, he presented her with the idea.
The opportunity to join the most decorated junior team in Canada was simply too good for Dale to pass up.
“I was like ‘yeah, why not.’ There’s no reason I can’t play with the guys and that was sort of the humbling thing was that they sought me out I guess, ’cause you just don’t think that could be there,” she recalled.
Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant was a fan of Dale’s long before she joined the team.
“I’ve gone to a few (Valkyries) games. She’s always stood out with her play. She’s got a great movement pattern, got a good nose for the ball,” he said.
Sargeant says Dale will begin her Hilltops tenure as a linebacker — the same position she played with the Valkyries — but left the door open for a position change down the road.
“We’re putting her where she’s most comfortable, like we would with any new player coming in, and then ultimately we’ll decide where she best fits for her to play well and for us to have success on the field,” he said.
Dale appreciates that the Hilltops recruited her for her talent regardless of her gender.
“I’m not a guinea pig in some publicity stunt. This was just, ‘hey, we recognize the athleticism in you and we think that you can contribute to our success,” she said.
However, she’s fully aware of the spotlight she’s stepping into and what the attention could do for other female athletes.
“Maybe there will be girls out there who will get the confidence to play football or just any sport that maybe they didn’t have the confidence to play before and if they see, ‘oh, if this girl can do it, if she can run with the boys, there’s no reason why I couldn’t do any sport that I wanna do,’ and hopefully it will just grow girls in sport,” she said.
In the meantime, Dale is focused on adjusting to life as a Hilltop and says that her new teammates have welcomed her with open arms.
“I don’t want any sort of special treatment, I don’t want anything handed to me but they’ve been awesome and we’re all just here to get down to business, honestly. Nobody’s making a big deal of it. We’re just here to practice and to get better for 2021.”