WINNIPEG, MB- Team breakfast, gameplan meetings and visualization time in her locker room.
The morning and afternoon of Aug. 25, 2022 was nothing out of the ordinary for Maya Turner. She knew where she needed to be and what she needed to do ahead of her pre-season game visiting the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. But the University of Manitoba Bisons kicker’s story is about what she didn’t know that day.
Just a few short hours later at Saskatoon’s Griffiths Stadium, Turner would unknowingly make fans witnesses to history.
Down 10 points with just over eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bisons head coach Brian Dobie sent out the field goal team with Turner on third down — a 25-yard attempt to score Manitoba’s first three points of the year. As Dobie watched Turner set up her kick, he recalled feeling “a lot of things … some of them were a little personal, too.”
Snap, hold, kick.
The ball sailed through the uprights, and Turner became the first woman to score points in a U SPORTS football game. The sideline erupted.
And she didn’t even know what had just happened. Turner said Manitoba’s sports information coordinator Mike Still was the first to make her aware of the gravity of her field goal after the game.
“[Still] told me ‘you know you’re the first woman to score points in a U SPORTS game?’ I was like, ‘oh my gosh, like really?’ … it was really exciting and an honour to be able to be in this position and be able to do that.”
The historical moment in Saskatchewan last year was not her first time kicking a ball at a high level.
Turner grew up in a sports family in Minnesota. Her dad played collegiate hockey at Michigan State, her sister played soccer at DePaul University in Chicago and professionally in Portugal, and her mom was a gymnast and diver in high school.
Taking after her sister, Turner began her college sports career playing soccer at Loyola University in Chicago. But heading into her second pre-season with the team in the windy city, she decided to step away from the sport.
“[Soccer] just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she realized. “I just knew I didn’t want to do it anymore, it just was not making me happy and I wanted to do other things in my life. I didn’t know I wanted to do football at that point, I just knew l needed to be done with soccer.”
In the fall of her sophomore year at Loyola, Turner was walking through the rec fair on the quad and found the school’s club football team promoting their tryouts. Speaking to the players at their booth reminded her of how much she loved watching football growing up and how she always wanted to kick field goals.
She was hooked.
“I always would say ‘if I was a boy, I would be playing football,’ but there just aren’t opportunities like that for girls,” she explained. “But then I thought, ‘what’s stopping me? If I want to play football, I should try to play football.’”
Turner practiced kicking field goals and kickoffs with her dad and her roommate’s brother, who was a kicker. She ended up being the only kicker on the team that year due to a small roster, but had a great first experience on the gridiron, and even kicked a 40-yard field goal — her longest in a game to date.
Turner decided to take her game to the next level by attending multiple kicking camps in the United States, including one in Dallas in January 2022. Following several kickoffs and field goals, she recalls being ranked between 15th and 20th among 200 athletes at the event.
Around this time, Turner had been emailing multiple coaches to see who would entertain the idea of adding a woman — with little experience — to their men’s football team.
Dobie said he and his staff didn’t initially react to the film Turner had sent because it wasn’t game film, it was from practice. But when he began to compare her to other prospective kickers, he saw something special.
“As we moved forward, we compared her to other films. ‘Better than his, better than his, better than his, better than his, better than his,’” Dobie recalls thinking during the 2022 recruiting cycle. “And then finally it got to the point where we went, ‘we need to learn more.’”
Dobie invited Turner and her family to come to Winnipeg in the spring of 2022 to evaluate her skills in-person. The coach remembers it being a cold day and said the facilities staff recommended not kicking on the field in the semi-freezing temperatures. But they did it anyway.
Turner went toe-to-toe with one of Manitoba’s graduating kickers at the time. Dobie said she outkicked him until they got to the 45-yard line when he slightly outkicked her. Gavin Cobb, an Edmonton Elks receiver and a former Bison, was there, too, and told the head coach “she’s the real deal.”
Dobie offered her a spot on the team that day. And for the Manitoba coach, this wasn’t his first time he had a woman on his squad.
Reina Iizuka, a former Bison’s defensive back, was on the roster from 2018 to 2020. Though she never dressed for a regular season game, she was the first female U SPORTS football player, blazing a trail that Turner would eventually follow.
When Iizuka first showed up at Manitoba, Dobie faced some backlash from alumni. But when Turner got there just over a year ago, no one was questioning her role on the team. The coach said both young women have exemplified the best of Bisons football.
“In terms of gender, they see [Turner] as a kicker,” he said.
Her spot on the Bisons is not just seen on the team’s roster, but also on a nameplate on the door of her own personal locker room. The team had converted an oversized washroom into Turner’s new place to prepare for games and practices.
“Even if it is separate, it just helps me still feel like part of the team,” Turner said.
On Saturday, Turner will be dressing for her first regular season game of her U SPORTS career when the Bisons face off against the University of Regina Rams in their annual Homecoming game — a moment she’s been waiting for for a long time.
She hopes she’s not the last young woman to experience this feeling. Turner’s message to young women who have similar aspirations to play in male-dominated sports is simple: “you really have nothing to lose.”
“Don’t let being a woman hold you back because if you can compete, then you can compete,” she said.
“Being a woman shouldn’t change that.”