|Organisation:||Austin Yellow Jackets Women's Football, USA|
To be honest; I was going to save this interview for later on in the year. However, in light of my Facebook and Twitter feeds; being inundated with reports of sexual abuse/harassment involving athletes, and the ongoing debate about what being a feminist really is – here is my submission.
My friend (lets be honest; we all have internet friends that we have never met in person); Toni Fuller defines feminist. She is a successful career woman, as well as an advocate for all athletes. She is a female athlete in a male dominated sport and is an example of being mindful, compassionate and is always growing. Toni is a member of the Austin Yellow Jackets Women’s Football ( IWFL – The Women’s Football League). With a long, rich history in the game, including an IWFL championship ring in 2006 with the Atlanta Xplosion, Toni is inspired to continue to play because of the life lessons the sport teaches her. Her life as a student athlete through high school and into college (earning Bachelor of Science and Master of Education degrees) at Vanderbilt University. This lead her to a career as an at-risk counselor for high school students and a mentor/tutor for student-athletes at the The University of Texas at Austin. She hopes that she can make a difference directing those students to take ownership of their futures and direct them toward excellence in their choice field of study. While at Vanderbilt, Toni herself was a student athlete, participating in Track and Field as well as intramural flag football as RB. This was the spark that ignited Toni’s illustrious twelve-year tackle football career thus far. She has played for both Austin teams over the last 6 years, most recently with the Yellow Jackets, filling the roster in the roles of S and DB on defense and RB, or if needed- QB, on offense. I “met” Toni on social media via 2 amazing female coaches; Dr Jen Welter and Lo Locust. Toni and I quickly started sharing ideas, questions and stories. Through these exchanges, I quickly came to realize that this lady is a force. I felt that she would have a story that would resonate with coaches and athletes alike.
I asked Toni to answer my questions as a female athlete who has had various coaches, and an advocate for female coaches. Her answers were candid and hold a message of resiliency and paying life forward that we all need to embrace. I had to read them three times; every time I learned something new about myself. The first time I openly cried, the second I became angry and the third I was filled with a gratitude that there is this wonderful person who can move forward and enrich the lives of others.
In our coaching careers, we often unknowingly have athletes come in and out of our lives who have experienced trauma. It is our duty to give these athletes a safe place to grow and to heal via sport. Here is Toni’s story.
Interviewer Bio: Tina Prescott is a Level 2 Certified NCCP and Rugby Canada Coach from Carstairs, Alberta Canada. She is the Head Coach to the Calgary Mavericks U – 18 Ladies Rugby and Assistant Coach to Calgary Knights Rugby Football Club Sr. Mens Team
In high school and college, Tina took part in lots of sports including swimming and track&field (sprinter) with her most success in rugby having played senior women’s rugby for 13 years and being forced to retire due to injury.
As a young girl, I grew up running summer track and playing basketball. As a teenager, I continued with track and field and added on cross country in the fall seasons. Coaches were the cornerstone of my prowess on and off the track. My story is a bit different from most. Every day that I walked into my high school, I was haunted with the idea that I would be sexually abused before the day was over. See, around the age of 14, mom and I made an escape to Atlanta, GA from Dallas, TX to flee my dad’s domestic abuse. My mom’s family resided in Atlanta so this would be where my “new life” would emerge and when the world of sports and academia would save me!
Mom was not doing too well, losing weight by the pound, and falling into a bit of noticeable depression. Eventually guardianship over me was given to my aunt for varying reasons including my education. While in high school, I found myself in a rather tainted situation with, what seemed like, no way out. The Athletic Director/Head Football and Track and Field Coach began to sexually abuse me over the summer going into my 10th grade year. I never spoke about this with anyone for fear of being castigated by those around me. I held this secret until I was 22 years old (8 total years), and for the most part, still hold this secret close to me – unshared.
If it weren’t for sports and becoming an “ultra nerd” while in high school, I probably wouldn’t be living to share this story. High school was tough – one big secret and one really long blink. Books, learning, and running became my “saving graces”. When I walked in the metal doors of the school, I put on my imaginary “thinking cap” and wore it until I left the school building and presumed my safety. Every book that I read, every topic I explored – became the “great escape” I needed. Before long, I was considered a well-versed and scholarly athlete. I focused intensely on the words I read in books; became a master of “staying in the present” – eliminating racing and fearful thoughts from my psyche. I learned the importance of “healthy outlets” and how having them could save your life. Running track kept me busy – from others, as well as, myself during my high school years.
Coaches played a pivotal role in my existence. Rather bad or good, I learned something from all of them. With the AD in high school, although not back then, latter reflections taught me to “end the silence” on this topic – to speak up and speak out about sexual abuse. My aim now, working as a school counselor, is to help youth in similar situations experience freedom and autonomy; to break the shackles of domestic and sexual abuse against them.
Sometime after sophomore year at Vanderbilt University, I made a choice to walk away from running collegiate track to focus more on my academics. From there, I began playing flag football for a club team called the WNFL and we were really good! This is where I would learn the game of football and grow a strong passion for it. With the WNFL, I utilized my speed at the running back position and learned to use the concepts from football that I was learning and began applying them to my personal mental health. Juking on the field became juking off the field. I learned how to maneuver the world around me as if I was a running back and the world was the defense I was up against. My mental health became a game of sorts. In order to feel better about the plight dealt to me, I made light of it. Football became my self-help, figuratively and literally – I tackled life.
Four years would become five and eventually I would complete Vanderbilt with both my Bachelor of Science and Master of Education degrees, respectively. Making my academics my primary focus behooved me greatly! Still bound to silence about the sexual abuse I’d lived through, something special occurred at 22 years old. I found out my father was having a baby out of wedlock and life, as I knew it, began to pour out at the seams. I would finally begin to tell pieces of my story (at least to my immediate family) – I was full and it flowed like the river.
I “journeyed” for 6 years, working odd end jobs; not utilizing my Master’s degree much with the jobs I opted to take during that period. From throwing luggage on airplanes to setting people up with cable service, I journeyed. During this time, I stumbled upon the Atlanta Xplosion women’s football team where I’d transition from the world of flag football to the world of full contact tackle football. This gave me life! From running back in flag football to weak side linebacker for the Xplosion, I’d learn the game in and out and it would change my life forever. I met a group of people who genuinely cared about my well-being; no manipulation – just a good feeling of “family”. Coach Phil Beniamino, the head coach of the Atlanta Xplosion, was the first coach to hold me accountable, push me to be better, and take care of me unconditionally (on and off the field). With the Xplosion, I’d go on to experience two championship seasons and successfully earn a championship title in 2006.
Still applying concepts, I learned on the field to the world around me (off the field) – life and my past would still rear their heads. I remained silent, nonetheless, and fought my battles privately. Using football as a physical and emotional outlet from the torment I was experiencing inside of me. It wasn’t until 2008 that I packed up two suitcases and headed west to the Nevada horizons to take up a school counseling job. There I would “get serious” about life, learn myself, and the Universe. Nestled 2 hours South of Reno and 5 hours north of Las Vegas, lies Hawthorne, NV hidden away in the mountain valley of Nevada. Back then, there wasn’t a female football team nearby so for a year I went without the playing. The second year there, I would rejoin my Atlanta Xplosion family and meet them to compete in away games – my outlet was back.
In 2010, I moved to Austin, Texas and began playing for the Austin Outlaws women’s football team. Football took off for me around this time. I had emerged from a one-dimensional football player to a multi-dimensional football player playing several positions every season. Head coach, Narlen Baker, saw something in me and believed that I had what it took to play running back and defensive back for him. More priceless lessons would emerge because of this and the idea that he would push me to higher heights. Just as my life on the field was becoming layered, so was my life off the field. From school counselor to mentoring and tutoring at the University of Texas – my work life flourished and my football life paralleled. This has always been the case; they’ve worked hand in hand perfectly.
In 2013, I had the opportunity to tryout in the Team USA Women’s National Team trials where I’d meet a coach that would impact me forever – Coach Chenell “Soho” Tillman-Brooks. As she looked on in the distance, I’d notice her, but not formally meet her during that weekend of events. Eventually, I found myself with a video of my time at the Trials with helpful feedback included in a private facebook message. My love for Coach started at that very moment. I knew she didn’t know me, but she had a heart for the game and somehow a heart for me. This relationship would probably prove to be the most important of them all. I’m not sure if Coach Soho really understands her “magic” – in her own little way she has a knack for showing how special her leadership can be. I can still remember the day she told me “life will change the minute you get out of your own way kiddo.” She didn’t know my story then, she didn’t know that I had really been in my own way, she didn’t know those very words would propel me to a place of true freedom within myself. That’s something that good coaches do well, they save lives effortlessly. She did that – she told me “no more ghosting – it’s time to live” and I have swallowed those words athletically and personally. She started a fire in me that day; a fire that would “end the silence”.
I believe sports benefit girls in many ways. Commitment, respect for others, shows them how to relax, concentrate under stress, set and achieve goals, accept responsibility and failure, and how to be gracious winners. All of this important! I’m not sure how I would have handled “my story” without these life skills. Sports being my outlet saved me in so many ways.
Sports in many ways were like my parent. It stood in their place for me when they couldn’t stand in their place as parents. It was structure, guidance, discipline, a healthy outlet, and my babysitter at times. It literally saved me! See above!
Teenage years are full of ambiguity. Things are changing constantly so to coach a teenager my biggest bit of advice is to be clear – eliminate contradictory messages, social pressures, and harmful portrayals of women. Like Soho has been for me, be a sounding board and offer to “stand in the gap” with them. It feels good to know you have that support!