Emily Armsworthy Has the Heart of a Giant for the Halifax Xplosion

Mark StaffieriContributor IIJune 5, 2013

Armsworthy looking to gain extra yardage against the Lady Gladiators (Image obtained from Facebook)
Armsworthy looking to gain extra yardage against the Lady Gladiators (Image obtained from Facebook)

One of the smaller players on the Halifax Xplosion of the Maritime Women’s Football League, Emily Armsworthy has the heart of a giant.

Playing with the courage of a lion, she graces the gridiron with determination and perseverance. Just like Erika Lawler in hockey and Danielle Matheson in soccer, Armsworthy excelled in her sport of choice despite sporting a smaller frame.

Compared to many of her peers, Armsworthy did not compete in organized sports as a child. Despite her size being a cause of concern for some, she still managed to remain active.

“Although I have virtually no background in organized sports, for some reason I always loved football. I grew up as a bit of a tomboy and loved to play games of touch football with other kids in the neighborhood. Aside from that, I never participated in organized sports as a child. My parents really did not encourage or support me developing an interest in sports. I think, mostly, because I have always been so small, and they thought a sports field really was not an appropriate place for me.”

Her interest in football truly germinated while she was a student at St. Francis Xavier University. With a strong athletic program, it did not take long for Armsworthy to become a part of the post-secondary institution’s sporting culture. Once involved, a chance encounter would transform her athletic aspirations.

“While attending university at St. Francis Xavier, I had the opportunity to work with the X-Men football team as a manager. My interest in football really grew from there. The previous manager of the team, Laurel MacInnis, a former Xplosion and Team Canada player, told me about the Halifax Xplosion women's football team.”

Although her first exposure to the Halifax Xplosion brought with it a degree of nervousness, it would not take long for Armsworthy to feel like she had found a home in the MWFL. Despite measuring only five feet, Armsworthy quickly discovered a unique aspect to women’s tackle football: There was a spot to accommodate athletes of every size.

“After graduation, I moved to Halifax to begin my career and decided to check out the team Laurel had told me about. I was nervous, as I had never been part of a sports team before, let alone a full tackle football team. Standing at 5'0" and about 110 pounds, it was pretty intimidating at first!

“I guess that's part of the best thing about the sport of football. There is a spot on the field for every size and type of athlete, from your lineman types, right down to the generally smaller and more agile defensive backs, running backs and receivers. In no other sport do you see such a diverse set of athletes.”

In similarity to the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, it is not uncommon that several of the MWFL’s rookie competitors enter the sport with little or no experience playing the game. Despite the greenness, Armsworthy is quick to acknowledge how the patience of the coaching staff and the welcoming nature of her new teammates transformed her raw talent and desire to compete into a successful career.

“Now, I look back at that decision to try out something new and join the team. Despite my lack of size and experience, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. The coaches really got me up to speed quickly. With help from teammates and veteran players, I was able to perform well in my first season and really gain the confidence I needed to succeed as a player and teammate.”

Said confidence would pay remarkable dividends for the Xplosion. Having joined the franchise in 2011, every season has resulted in an MWFL All-Star selection. Playing with great bravery, Armsworthy's valiant efforts on the gridiron resulted in being recognized as the Xplosion’s Most Valuable Player on defense, respectively.

“In my first two seasons with the Xplosion, I was honored and humbled to receive the league's recognition as a selection to the All Star team both years. Another incredible feeling was being named by my own team as Defensive MVP in the 2012 season. It was great to also be one of the few women to receive recognition from Football Nova Scotia in 2013.”

“It feels amazing, especially as a new player, to be recognized by the league and my team in these ways. It is hugely surprising to me as there are so many great players in our league! As I head into my third season in the MWFL, I hope to build on my successes thus far and do what I can to help my team achieve our first ever championship title.”

A great source of pride for Armsworthy is the ability to compete during the MWFL’s milestone 10th anniversary season. Her inspiring play and remarkable motivation embody the competitive spirit of the growing league. As the first women’s tackle football league in Canada, the anniversary season has resulted in sponsorships with Papa John’s Pizza (a sponsor of football in the United States) and Maritime brewery Moosehead.

“This is only my third season in the MWFL, but I know our league is the first of its kind in the country, which in itself is pretty amazing. Every year, the interest, awareness and skill has grown, and I think we all expect that momentum to continue in the future.

“It seems crazy that in 2013, there is still not much recognition for women's football and football is still a hugely male-dominated sport. I think the league has done a really great job promoting awareness and involvement for female football players and fans.

“We have come a long way and hopefully will continue to see more and more success in this regard. I think the National Challenge Cup in Montreal last summer was a huge step in the right direction and was very successful overall. This was the first ever tournament of its kind in Canada, and it was a huge honor to be a part of this major milestone in female Canadian football. The National Challenge Cup definitely brought more attention to the individual leagues within Canada, including the MWFL.”

The opportunity to compete in the National Challenge Cup is testament to the type of remarkable athlete that Armsworthy is. While it was the first Canadian national women’s football championship, the event also served as an opportunity for Football Canada to evaluate talent for the Canadian National Team that would compete at the 2013 Women’s Tackle Football Championships.

Contested in Laval, Quebec, the National Challenge Cup featured teams from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Team Atlantic (a selection of MWFL All-Stars from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). The opportunity to be part of the Team Atlantic roster was a cherished one for Armsworthy.

“I consider being selected to Team Atlantic for the National Challenge Cup as the greatest accomplishment in my short football career. It was an incredible honor to be part of a team made up of the best players in the MWFL. The opportunity to play with and against the best players in the country is indescribable. This is certainly an achievement I am extremely proud of and never thought could happen after only two seasons with the MWFL.

“It means so much that the coaches thought highly enough of me as a player to include me in their selection for this team. Team Atlantic was essentially an All Star MWFL team, and it was amazing for us to be able to compete nationally and demonstrate the talent we have here on the East Coast. I was humbled to be included among the outstanding athletes that made up the Team Atlantic roster.”

Competing on Team Atlantic provided Armsworthy with the opportunity to acquire an invaluable learning experience. In playing with other MWFL players and coaches, she had the opportunity to see how others in the league approach the game.

“The opportunity to be part of Team Atlantic was amazing in many ways; the whole experience was incomparable to anything I could have imagined. I think anyone who was part of the team would agree. Probably the best part of the whole experience was being able to play with and learn from the most talented athletes in our league.

“It was extremely motivating as a newer player to be able to practice and train with players who've been playing at a high level for years and are greatly respected within the league. Being able to see what other players are doing in terms of drills, training, skill development, etc. definitely educated me more on what I need to do to improve my overall skill as a football player and become a greater asset to my own team in future seasons.”

Athletes such as seven-time MWFL All-Star quarterback Alex Black, 2012 SupHer Bowl hero Tara Keohan and Emma Hicks (the first woman to play in the MWFL and WWCFL) were no longer rivals but teammates. Showing a willingness to learn, Armsworthy absorbed the experience as one that motivates her to continue to polish her already impressive game.

“To see the level of dedication and commitment some of these girls have for the sport is very inspirational to a new player like me. Even just having the opportunity to participate in more reps and drills matched up against high-level offensive players like TK (Tara Keohan) has greatly improved my coverage, tackling skills and overall skill development.

“Usually we are competitors playing against each other, so you would not necessary think players from other teams within the MWFL would want to share their tips and tricks. However, this was not the case at all.”

The openness and friendship that defined Team Atlantic’s culture was one that truly reinforced why women’s tackle football is such a unique sport. Its focus is on the greater good and the goal of creating a better product. While there is the spirit of competition on the field, the fostering culture of sportsmanship and esteem creates lifelong friendships that bring a stoic yet remarkable dignity to the sport.

“Many more talented and experienced players were eager to offer advice and coaching to me, which greatly improved my skills and overall development. Players like Emma Hicks, Marie-Noelle Beaulieu, Shot Chatterton (and) Katie Archibald, who are all amazing athletes, were quick to offer advice, just to name a few. The coaching staff we had was amazing to say the least, and they provided excellent coaching and support to all players on the Team Atlantic roster, regardless of their respective MWFL team affiliations.”

The brave and heroic valor in which she conducts herself on the field is a source of inspiration for any athlete who was ever told they were too small. While she has shattered barriers and emerged as one of the new generation of stars in the MWFL, Armsworthy has championship aspirations that cannot be extinguished.

“To win a championship, of course, is the ultimate goal for all MWFL teams. The Xplosion has yet to win a title, but we are out to change that this year. The pre-season rankings were an awesome vote of confidence for us. Yet we all know that preseason rankings will not help us win games. We plan to take that positive encouragement and combine that with some serious hard work, commitment and truly excellent coaching to secure a title this year and really show the MWFL what Halifax is made of."

While the Xplosion were humbled in their loss to the Lady Gladiators, Armsworthy and her teammates have maintained a very positive attitude. With great maturity, problem areas have been identified and the objective is to not repeat them.

Led by quarterback Ashley Howatt, the Xplosion have a highly competent and accomplished leader lining up behind center. Complemented by a linebacking corps that features several promising rookies, there is a newfound optimism on the Xplosion’s roster that promises better days are looming on the horizon.  

“Although we did not achieve the ideal outcome in our matchup against the Fredericton (also known as Capital Area) Lady Gladiators earlier in the season, we did manage to get some really positive momentum going. We have identified the areas in which we need to improve.

“We have some good numbers this year, along with some excellent recruits on both sides of the ball. As always, we can expect some great things from quarterback and punter Ashley Howatt this year. We have also picked up an amazing offensive playmaker in Michelle McLeod, who played the 2012 season with the Fredericton Lady Gladiators.

“Our lineup on both the offensive and defensive lines has never looked better, and we also managed to pick up some incredible recruits in the linebacker position with first year Xplosion players Diane Ikeda and Danyelle Kernen. They form our linebacking core with veteran All Star linebacker Terri Smith-Fraser. We hope to make 2013, the year of the first Championship win for the Halifax Xplosion.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”