‘The job is the job and I’m here to coach’: Tanya Walter, the CFL’s first female assistant, is worth the wait

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

It’s been more than 160 years since someone first picked up an inflated pigskin in this country, almost 120 since the Burnside rules laid the foundation for modern Canadian football, and 64 since the CFL was formed to complete the sport’s journey towards professionalization.

It is almost incredible that after all that time, there are still firsts left to achieve, but progress is nothing if not painfully slow. Even a league with a well-earned reputation for being on the cutting edge of diversity can only be a reflection of our flawed society. And so on Tuesday, newly-hired B.C. Lions’ defensive assistant Tanya Walter became the first full-time female coach ever employed by a CFL club.

History waits for no man, but you sure wish it would quicken the pace for women.

It was a hiring that came not a day too soon and arguably several years too late. Slowly but surely, the NFL has made female coaches a point of emphasis with a record 12 on the field last season. The CFL, usually proud to proclaim itself first on these types of issues, had clearly fallen behind. Now, finally, women and girls across this country can look to the field and see themselves represented at the very highest level.

For those within the football community who have seen female participation in this sport rise to record levels, the impact of Walter’s hiring cannot be overstated. But within the Lions’ building, it would appear that very little heed was paid to making history. As he has with so many historic decisions as of late, head coach Rick Campbell sat in front of the media Tuesday and stressed that talent, not biology, was at the heart of this hiring.

“I think it’s neat that she’s female and all that stuff, but it honestly wasn’t the priority. At the end of the day, part of my responsibilities is to make sure whoever we add to this team is going be a help to the team,” he stressed.

Despite the squeeze of the CFL’s football operations cap, the Lions have made it a habit to reserve space on their staff for young coaches to develop and grow. Last season, they did it with offensive assistant Trysten Dyce. This year it will be Walter, who came highly recommended by all throughout the process and fit exactly what Campbell was looking for.

“I think you have to have experience. I think you have to have the right demeanour. I think you have to have the right work ethic, the right attitude, a love for the game,” he explained. “It’s a great profession, but it also is a unique profession in that there’s a lot of weird hours, a lot of big emotions, a lot of different things that go on and so you kind of have to have the right frame of mind. I think she has all those things.”

For Walter, the ascent up the coaching ranks has been incredibly quick. She grew up an overly-physical basketball player in rural Alberta, first trying tackle football in 2013 with the Edmonton Storm of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League. While working full-time as a personal trainer, she earned her way onto Team Alberta and eventually Team Canada, taking home a silver medal at the Women’s World Championships in 2017.

Since then Walter has coached at the high school and youth level with both genders, grown the game as the technical director of the Capital District Minor Football Association in Edmonton, and served as the female athlete rep on Football Canada’s Board of Directors. For her, this is not about breaking some metaphorical glass ceiling. It is an opportunity to take the next step in her chosen career.

“Obviously yes, being the first female, that is a huge win. But myself, I look at it as the job is the job and I’m here to coach,” Walter said.

To do that with elite-level athletes, grown men at the top of the most macho of professions, is a tall order for anyone, but neither she nor Campbell have any concerns. The reality of pro football is such that production and impact will always be accepted and rewarded regardless of what a coach might look like.

“I think what it really comes down to is if you can help someone be a better player. Help someone, support them, win a game, that’s ultimately what it comes down to,” Walter said plainly.

“I am close with a couple women that have coached in the NFL now, and I think that’s really the thing that’s always echoed is, yes, in the beginning, you’re gonna have to show that you’re there and you know what you’re doing. And when it comes down to it, it’s just allowing people to judge you on your abilities and the gender part doesn’t matter.”

“The thing I really like about football is you can’t hide,” Campbell echoed. “You’re either contributing to the team or you’re not and so I fully anticipate her contributing in a big way.”

That’s not to say there will not be challenges. This will not be the first time Walter has pushed her way into a male-dominated space as she has quietly chipped away at her goal of working in the sport she loves. It certainly won’t be the last. Each new hurdle has presented moments of isolation and disconnect, where the unique perspective she was bringing to the table wasn’t fully appreciated.

“I know there’s a lot of times where I’ve felt like I was in spaces where I was the only female and it was hard to find someone who really understood where I was coming from because they just hadn’t experienced what I was experiencing,” she acknowledged.

When Walter was younger, she didn’t have the types of female role models she wanted to look up to in those situations. Even in sport, the type of ambition and aggression so often glorified in men was demonized for women. Now, she has female mentors in football she can lean on.

Former Buffalo Bills intern and Great Britain captain Phoebe Schecter, Kansas City Chiefs’ assistant running backs coach Katie Sowers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust have all provided her with valuable advice, as have countless others grinding behind the scenes in organizations across the world. Now it’s her turn to take the torch.

While both Walter and the Lions will ultimately judge the success of her hiring by what she contributes to the organization, the reality is that hundreds of girls across this country were told Tuesday that their dreams weren’t ridiculous, that the CFL might really be for them.

“If football interests you even the smallest amount, if you’ve even looked at it and considered it to be something that you want to try, just do it,” Walter said, addressing those who might be watching.

“I know a big barrier for females in sports is often a confidence thing, a comfortability thing, and just feeling like they belong there. Don’t listen to any of that because there’s always going to be people telling you, ‘No, that’s not a space for you.’ If you have an interest, just do it and take the opportunities wherever you can go.”

Walter is now the role model for the next generation of female players and coaches in this country and maybe, just maybe, that will make this first worth the long wait.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.