Heba Saleh speeds through opposing defensive backs and muscles into the end zone with a football tucked securely under her arm, a hijab tied securely around her head.
On any given spring afternoon, on their high-school field in southwest Scarborough, the girls suiting up for the Porter Blue Eagles are busy pursuing a championship and dismantling stereotypes.
They attend SATEC @ W.A. Porter Collegiate Institute, a rigorous academic high school in the culturally diverse eastern Toronto borough that offers specialized programming in technology, computer and environmental studies. The girls on this 36-player flag football team are mostly new to Canada or their parents arrived here within the past few decades. Collectively, they represent more than 20 countries, mostly from Southern Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, Latin and South America. Several wear hijabs when they play.
This team of Porter girls doesn’t just play flag football – they dominate their competition. With a 13-1 record on the season, including two playoff victories, the Eagles are headed for the Tier 2 championship game on Monday against Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute.
The number of female athletes at Porter had been low – either because of shyness or fear, a lack of interest, or because females in their cultures simply weren’t supposed to play sports. Many at the school are focused singularly on getting top grades.
Porter began its girls’ flag football program six years ago, but its team has never won a title. In 2011, the Toronto Argonauts helped with funds to bring a tackle football team back to Porter, as it has done for a handful of area schools. The Argos staged their 2012 Grey Cup media Mud Bowl on Porter’s field, and then provided a refurbished field and bleachers, and their players have done Football 101 information sessions at Porter to teach the sport to kids and their parents.
The Argos are trying to boost the interest in football and grow new fan bases in schools that represent Toronto’s changing demographics. The new attention on football at Porter has helped propel the flag football team too.
“This place didn’t have school spirit for many years,” said Porter’s principal, George Mavraganis, during the semi-final game. “But football has been a real enhancement to school spirit here. I would like to organize a bus full of students to go support these girls in the championship game. This is special.”
The girls celebrate after their convincing 20-0 semi-final win over Earl Haig Secondary School, circled up, arm in arm, cheering, jumping, roaring like pros in an NFL huddle. “Eagles – Eagles – We are the Eagles.”
They play a four-down game with all the same positions as traditional football, but with no equipment, and instead of tackling players to end the down, defenders must remove a flag from the carrier’s flag belt. The team draws girls of all sizes and athletic abilities.
A handful of football-loving teachers at the school have combined with a volunteer coach from the community to lead them. The girls lunched together in chalk-talk sessions with the coaches to learn the rules, plays and formations.
“When I see football on TV now, I stop and take a look, and I recognize plays they run – it’s not something I ever watched before,” said Saleh, whose family came from Lebanon before she was born. “My family likes it and is learning it too. They come to my games and support me all the way.”
Quarterback Sweet Cunanan is the team’s leader, a speedy multisport athlete at Porter who emigrated from the Philippines as a baby.
“Canada is a multicultural place, and learning this sport with all these girls for four years has been a blast,” said Cunanan. “There are some people here that say ‘What’s flag football? That’s not a real sport.’ But we show that it is a real sport, and we’re really good at it.”
Defensive back Fareen Hasnat says when her family calls from Bangladesh, they are surprised but fascinated to learn that a young girl is playing competitive sports. Her mother at first wanted her to focus on her studies, but now she’s in the bleachers at every home game, cheering wildly for the girls.
“It’s physical exercise for my daughter, it’s fresh for her mind and she has lost weight,” said Hasnat’s mother, Khaleda Begum. “She’s always so happy after her games. I like it very much now, too.”
Another player, Nooria Alam, whose parents were Afghan refugees, says during a recent visit to Afghanistan she taught her relatives how to play flag football.
“At the end of the day, my family is happy if I’m happy,” said Alam. “We all really love what we do, and I think that reflects on how our parents now perceive football.”
Many of the girls on the team are also responsible for helping raise their younger siblings. So the team lets the little ones tag along to practices, go along on runs. Still, that hasn’t been the story for all players at Porter.
“We try to be as flexible as possible with these players because we want them to have their youth rather than give up their activities in order to help their families with the child-rearing,” said Stephanie Repar, team general manager and a physical education teacher at Porter. “But I’ve seen kids make the team, get one parent to sign off on it, then later the other parent finds out, and is told ‘No, sports aren’t for girls.’ I want them to see female role models say, ‘Sure you can play, sports are for everyone.’”
Many of Porter’s best players will graduate this year. A local women’s flag football league has already been asking for the graduates to come join them next year.
“The banners around the school are really dated, and I think we have the team to win the school a new championship,” said Repar. “We’re already seeing more girls wanting to try it in gym class. A championship could draw more girls to be part of this next year.”