From battleground to gridiron: Valkyries linebacker breaks down doors
By Kevin Mitchell, The StarPhoenix, March 4, 2016
Saskatoon’s Phelycia Black is a 5-foot-1 football linebacker who relishes the act of hitting.
She’s even more adept at dodging — like that time in Afghanistan, when she was driving a Mercedes-Benz armoured truck on a gravel road outside Kandahar Airfield, and for a few seconds her world blew up.
“We did a lot of stuff (with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan). And … we got ambushed,” Black — now a Saskatoon Valkyries football player — said Friday from the New Orleans Saints training facility, where she’s attending the Women’s World Football Games.
Black — described as “a tiny little thing, but fearless” by Valkyries football coach Jeff Yausie — spent four months as a soldier in Afghanistan during the toasting-hot summer of 2008. The Regina native was on her first mission outside the wire, when a suicide bomber set off a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device several metres from the front of her truck. American helicopter pilots flying above her convoy alerted the Canadians to the bomber’s presence, giving them — as an Edmonton Journal story put it at the time — “a split second to veer away as the bomber blew himself up.”
Three civilians were injured by shrapnel. The Canadians were unharmed.
“I don’t know if (the experience) ever leaves you,” Black said. “But the Canadian Forces prepare troops so well prior to going over that we don’t let anything like that falter us. We don’t stumble. We get back on it, and we drive through. It’s just like the game of football, right? We march on.”
Black enjoys doing things you wouldn’t expect — like serving in the military at 5-foot-1, including a brief infantry stint in Afghanistan, doing sweeps, seeking IEDs, after wrapping up her stint as a driver. And there’s this whole tackle football thing: First with the Regina Riot of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, then last year with the Valkyries.
Football, we assume, seems so much easier after you’ve tangled with a suicide bomber and kept your head on a swivel in a far-away country.
“You don’t see it coming, right?” she said. “On the football field, you can see the play, you can see what’s going on. Out there (in Afghanistan), it’s like you’re fighting a snake — you’re not fighting a bear, like you are on the football field.”
Black wasn’t a football fan growing up and didn’t see herself ever playing the game, but the steady growth of women’s tackle football in western Canada prompted her to give it a try.
Now, when she talks football, she can’t restrain her enthusiasm.
“All my life, I’ve been told I wouldn’t ever be athletic or competitive, or have the opportunities we’re getting down here (in New Orleans),” Black said. “The more people say you can’t do that, the more we want to break down the doors and say we’re here, and we’re not quitting.
“We coach young women (with the Valkyries), and give back. We want to create an environment where these young girls are the future of our game, and we want to see them on the field, maybe across from us, maybe playing right next to us on Team Canada. We just want to build, build, build.”
Five Valkyries players are at the Games in New Orleans. The event, which began Tuesday and wraps up Sunday, includes four days of drills and technique training at the Saints training facility, plus competitive games.
Approximately 220 women from 17 different countries are there.
Black, who wrapped up a 13-year career in the Forces this past November, speaks like a true soldier when she summarizes why she loves the game as much as she does.
“I like hitting hard, or getting hit hard,” she said. “I like stopping the play, and being able to put the offence back on the field. That is my favourite thing. You sacrifice the body so the offence can score.”