BONNYVILLE – Having five older brothers who all grew up to be multi-sport athletes with a passion for football, it was unlikely that 15-year-old Sara Fagnan would aspire to do anything else.
When Fagnan was 10 years old, she started playing pee-wee football with the Bonnyville Renegades.
“I always wanted to play football growing up because my brothers did. Just being around it so much and the atmosphere was always what I was used to,” said Fagnan.
Eventually, the young athlete got tired of simply watching and wanted to join in the action too. Her fascination with the sport grew even deeper when she stepped on the field with her own helmet and gear.
Although getting into the sport had its challenges.
Even though Fagnan’s father had watched his sons grow up to play football and coached nearly all of his kids in whichever sport they chose, in the beginning he was still hesitant to watch his only daughter get knocked around on the turf at a higher level.
“My brothers didn't really want me to play higher either because I was their little sister and they were like, ‘Football, nah, it's not really something girls do,’ but then once I started playing, it was like they couldn't stop me,” she recalled.
When Fagnan made the decision to continue into bantam football, she received a lot of support from her teammates and their parents, “but especially football moms,” she laughed.
“Serena Critch, she was probably one of the reasons I played, honestly. I don't know if I would have played football without her because she was persistent and told my dad to let me play.”
While an anomaly on some teams, the team that Fagnan played for, the Bonnyville Bandits, had half a dozen other female players on its roster.
“My team in Bonnyville still has a lot of girls going and it's awesome to see that,” she said.
However, playing sports on a mixed team does come with its own unique hurdles.
“The boys don't always want the girls on the team, but I just tried harder. If they thought I wasn't good, I tried to push myself to be better. If you're not at the level they are, it's super hard to keep up. But if you do get to that level, and you show that you can do it, it's awesome because it's like almost 10 times the recognition,” she said.
“Immediately, they’re like ‘Wow, that's crazy. That girl just beat this, or a girl just did that’.”
Fagnan says after five years of playing co-ed football and a handful of other sports, her mom remains her top supporter.
“My mom is definitely the number one cheerleader out of every single person I know at any sport, no matter what,” she laughed.
First string quarterback
Fagnan is the first to admit that in the beginning of her football career and slotted into the Renegade’s defensive line, she spent a lot of time waiting for her turn on the field.
It wasn’t until a mid-game injury occurred that Fagnan was thrown into a new position – one she excelled at.
"Our QB (quarterback) got hurt and I had to fill in, and from that game on I played starting QB. I found it was my niche, I clicked with the running back and had the arm for it,” she said.
For as long as she can remember, Fagnan has been tossing a football around with her brothers. Three of which, Jeremy, Isaac and Silas, have gone on to play football at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., with two of them going on to play in a CFL Combine game.
“It's crazy to see what they have done and trying to live up to that, but it's awesome. I love being their little sister and watching them do awesome stuff.”
Growing up with strong athletes as role models, Fagnan had no fear when it came to running headfirst into a full contact sport. But she hopes other girls won’t let their fears or worries deter them from playing sports, mixed or otherwise, if it is something they want to try.
“I was so excited. I didn't even think about it,” she said.
Earlier this year, before Fagnan had turned 15, she travelled to Edmonton with nine of her Bonnyville teammates to try her hand at making the Alberta Football’s U16 team.
While only two of the 10 local athletes were selected to play in the provincial U16 team showcase, there was another tryout that many were hoping Fagnan would consider – the Alberta Girls U18 team.
After playing on mixed football teams her whole life, initially Fangan wasn’t interested in trying out for a girls-only football team.
“I wasn't going to go, but then someone convinced me too and it was a lot of fun to try out and just see how much different it was,” she said.
In traditional football, 12 positions are filled on the field by each team. In girls' football there are only six players on the field representing each side.
“In girls (football), I think everyone needs to have different skills. Whereas boys, it's your specific skill that they look at,” said Fagnan, reflecting on the difference between the two tryouts.
“It was honestly awesome to try because the U18 tryout with girls was amazing to see how aggressive they were for sure. But the boys (U16 tryout), it was a lot different, a little bit more scary, but I think I pretty much held my own when I tried out.”
After the tryout, Fagnan was selected as the Alberta Girls U18 team's top quarterback.
However, following her successful tryout, the Bonnyville athlete was informed by email that she was ineligible to play in the 2022 season because she had not been vaccinated against COVID.
Despite the disappointing news, she says she will likely take part in the girls’ team again next year because of the fun and positive experience, but probably won’t try out for the U16 team.
“I would say just always go, and I guess if you want to do it, then do it. Don't let anyone else stop you,” said Fagnan.