From her high school roots to donning the gold jersey of Team Atlantic at the 2012 National Challenge Cup, Robyn Neill’s football career has evolved into one that proves women are becoming just as important and relevant as their male counterparts on the gridiron. In her role of protecting the quarterback on the offensive line, Neill is prepared to give her team the opportunity to succeed.
Articulate, intelligent and mature, Neill always provides her team with a strong presence. A member of the Capital Area Lady Gladiators in the Maritime Women’s Football League, Neill is a three-time MWFL All-Star. Having competed in the league since her teens (like fellow Lady Gladiators teammate Alex Black), she has developed into one of the cornerstones of her franchise.
Like many women that compete in tackle football, Neill participated in other sports first. A prolific athlete since her youth, Neill’s athletic pursuits covered a wide breadth of sports.
“I started playing team sports a kid - basketball, volleyball and track. I got into field sports in high school with soccer & rugby. This is where I started to learn what I was good at and what I enjoyed.”
Upon discovery that a girl was playing with the boys at tackle football, Neill’s interested was piqued. Having participated in rugby at the high school level, Neill gained a better understanding of the game. Of note, rugby would also serve as an initial introduction for many other women currently playing football (such as Jessie Buydens and Lisa Gomes in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League).
“I never thought football could be a sport a girl could participate in I had never seen an opportunity where girls could play. Until we had a girl play (Ashley Myers) with the guy’s team at our high school, that is what peeked my interest.”
“Then, the year before I started playing football a few of the coaches came to my high school to recruit players, and I was completely on board. Yet, I could not commit to the time while still in school and in my graduating year. So, the next summer I joined with better understanding of what football was and full commitment to this new sport.”
“While playing rugby in high school I learned what I was good at and I knew the skills my rugby coaches had taught me would transfer over to football. I still needed to learn A LOT – and I am lucky to have had very capable coaches to teach everything I needed to know.”
While the opportunity to compete for Canada at the global scale is the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice, there was one more hurdle to overcome.
Neill worked equally hard off the field to ensure that she could raise the necessary funds to finance the trip to Finland (host country of the Women’s Worlds). The outpouring of support from individuals in her community is a tremendous sign of confidence.
“I am beyond happy and humbly thankful for every individual that has helped finance this trip. Whether it was money from my family or sponsors from past and current workplaces. The spare change that my co-workers chipped in, or the pocket change that strangers gave us while tagging. I am truly thankful from the bottom of my heart – I would not be going without that support.”
“To those that have helped me along the way, I am so thankful. If it was not for my local community behind me, I would not be able to put my best foot forward in this tournament. It’s more than financial support as well that has gotten me this far.”
Gracious and humble, Neill also acknowledges that there was a tremendous amount of emotional support that went into making her dream come true. From her experiences with the Lady Gladiators and Team Atlantic, to the love and support of her family, Neill is an admirable athlete whose dedication makes her stand out as the ultimate team player.
“It is the coaches and teammates that have helped me build my skills. My family and friends that help me manage my day-to-day craziness. Physio treatments that helped me recover from injuries, along with trainers that push me to train harder. Of course, my boyfriend who is my biggest fan and supporter. I pursue farther into this sport knowing he is behind me the entire way.”
Complemented by the opportunity to take part in the Women’s Worlds, Neill is also participating in another historic event. With this year marking the MWFL’s Tenth Anniversary season, Neill’s hard work is one of many reasons that the budding league is enjoying such a remarkable milestone.
“I am extremely proud to be part of MWFL. This is the league that kicked it off in Canada – that pretty much says it all.”
“So much work is done behind the scenes, so many people lending a hand to make this league successful – am grateful for those champions who work endlessly to make this league a successful one.”
Despite her success, Neill has also endured her share of adversity. Having suffered from concussions, she understands the limitations that can be imposed on one due to injury. While she has persevered, and managed to contribute to her team in numerous capacities, Neill takes the topics of concussions very seriously.
“The last two seasons I have suffered concussions at the beginning of the season, resulting in me not being able to play the entire season. While recovering from these injuries, I started helping out with the team; being an assistant coach to our positional coach.”
“I take injuries very seriously especially head injuries – I am walking testament to how horrible concussions can be. I try to make it very clear to anyone who might have suffered a concussion to be careful – on the field as a player and as a coach.”
Playing alongside the likes of seven-time MWFL All-Star Alex Black, and the charismatic Kristen (Shot) Chatterton (who are both joining Neill on the Canadian contingent), this titanic trio has helped the Lady Gladiators compete in the last two MWFL championship games. Although both contests resulted in the Lady Gladiators finishing as runner-up, there is a strong confidence that the team can make it happen this season.
“The Lady Gladiators have a lot of fight in them and strong desire to win. If the Lady Gladiators keep their head up & the eye on the prize and put the work in there is no doubt in my mind that we will get a championship this year. We have so many rookies with unreal potential and we have a solid base of returning players – it’s a perfect mix!”
In addition to her success on the gridiron, Neill has also volunteered her time to coach junior girls football. For Neill, it is more than a labour of love, it is an opportunity to give back to her community. Neill serves as a message of inspiration to these young athletes that they can compete in the traditional male dominated sport.
“I have been coaching the girls tackle program since its inaugural year. My local community gave me so much to make it this far – I believe it is my duty as an athlete is to give back to that community that has helped me out so much.”
“Being a coach of the junior girls program is a highly fulfilling role. I could not imagine an autumn without working with these girls. I can only hope that the work I put in now, will help one of these young women one day make the senior national team.”
As the Women’s Worlds quickly approaches, Neill is proud to don the Canadian maple leaf on her helmet with fellow competitors from Fredericton, New Brunswick (such as Black and Chatterton). With Cheryl O’Leary (a teammate and part-time assistant coach with the Lady Gladiators) serving as a mentor coach, there is a strong local sense of pride.
“I am extremely proud of the other Fredericton athletes that have made the National Team. It has been a long process from the first try-out for the Atlantic Team to the final roster announcements. We have spent countless hours together prepping for this; I consider these girls family and I could not imagine doing it without them.”
Although the gold medal loss from the inaugural Women’s Worlds in 2010 serves as motivation, Neill understands that it will also require a physical and mental toughness to emerge as the world’s finest. In asking what it will take for Canada to win a gold medal at the Worlds, Neill replied,
“For Canada to win gold we need to work harder then we have every worked before in our local leagues. We need to bring our A game. Not only do we need to work hard but we need to work together. This tournament is going to be tough physically and mentally.”
“We need to be able to reach out to our fellow teammates for the support to get us through this training camp & tournament. We need to keep positive and to not sweat the small stuff.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”