“Nobody outworks her”: The rise of SFU football star Kristie Elliott
SFU's Kristie Elliot is the first Canadian woman to play in—and score in—an NCAA football game.
Written for Burnaby Beacon by Erin Gee, a former SFU student-athlete and the co-host of the Bad + Bitchy Podcast.
Kristie Elliott was too nervous to write and send the email to Simon Fraser University’s then football coach, Thomas Ford, to express her interest in trying out for the team in the spring of 2019, so she had her best friend and roommate, women’s basketball player Sophie Klassen, do it for her.
That email was the culmination of Elliott’s hemming and hawing about whether or not she should reach out to Ford after hearing that he was interested in speaking to her about possibly trying out for the team, a move that would make her the first woman to try out. “I don’t think he wanted to pressure Kristie, so the ball was in her court, and she wasn’t sure. I said to her, ‘Dude, you should do this. This is a crazy opportunity. What’s the worst that can happen?’” Klassen told the Beacon.
The small act of one best friend changed the course of another best friend’s athletic and academic careers.
From track and field to the football field
Elliott was originally recruited to SFU as a track athlete in 2018 after running competitively for both the NorWesters (in North Vancouver) and the New West Spartans. During her freshman year in the fall of 2018, Elliott made a bet with a football team member that she could kick a 40-yard field goal for $40. It wasn’t until months later that she finally got around to doing it after track practice and she put it through the uprights on her first attempt. When she sent the video to the football player he told her she had a “big leg” (football jargon for being a strong kicker) and that she should join their team.
Naturally, Elliott took the comment as a joke, asked for her $40 and moved on. But in a world of viral content, the video made its way around the team and Elliott kept receiving messages from football players. Eventually, Ford saw the video.
“When I went to [Coach Ford’s] office he said, ‘You have a big leg on you, if you practiced, you could have a really good shot at playing football.’ I was kind of like, ‘Coach, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t know if that’s a good idea.’ I legit knew nothing, except for ‘touchdown’, not my realm of expertise,” Elliott said.
As a fall sport, football training camp starts in the summer before classes return and because the previous football season had already been completed by the time Elliott sat down with Ford, she had months to wait and practice the fundamentals of her future craft.
A rough start
Elliott recalls things starting off rough. Even though she had played soccer in her hometown of North Vancouver for 12 years, she quickly realized it was completely different. Training camp in 2019, “ended up going really well. I had a lot of potential, more than I even thought going into it because I had no idea what to expect. So I just went in there with an open mind and it went really well. And now we’re here,” she said.
“Here” being the first Canadian woman to play in—and score in—an NCAA football game on September 11, 2021, against Linfield University. The first woman to ever play and score in a college football game was Liz Heaston in 1997 and the first woman to score in an NCAA football game was Ashley Martin in 2001 for Jacksonville State University.
However, due to COVID-19 Elliott wasn’t able to make her NCAA debut until the 2021 season–two years after her first training camp–which, while disappointing for all SFU athletes, worked in Elliott’s favour as it gave her extra time to hone her skills. Jerome Erdman, the team’s current defensive coordinator, worked closely with Elliott during that time as the special teams coordinator. “When you get an extended time of individual coaching, it’s going to be beneficial. With Kristie, it gave her a great opportunity,” he said. “She’s got a strong leg, she’s consistent, but before she was mostly kicking off of a tee, but with this time, she got to work with the center and the holder and gain more confidence with that.”
She’s the main event
As with anything, it takes some time to gain confidence when trying your hand at something new, especially something so foreign and where the attention is directed solely at you, as has been the case with Elliott and football. As a track athlete, Elliott ran the 100 and 200-meter hurdles where she would be one of eight athletes racing at once. Now, as the kicker, Elliott enters games where she’s the main event.
“Kicking is such a mental game. It’s completely different kicking at practice by yourself than kicking in a game situation, especially when the other day, guys on the other team were screaming at me, ‘You suck, you’re going to miss.’ It kind of motivates me to do better though, to show them up,” she said.
“When you miss a kick, it’s like it really takes a toll on your mind. My first kick a couple of weekends ago wasn’t a good kick and I broke down. But I know I can’t do that, I just have to take it out of my memory and focus on what’s up next. I’m pretty sure I was still crying when I was kicked the next time because it was just such a stressful situation.”
In addition to the heckling by opposing teams, Elliott has also had to adapt to other off-field situations due to her gender. Of these irregularities, “She’s had to put up with so much other stuff that the male athletes haven’t had to put up with. They might seem like little things, but in reality, they’re pretty big,” explained Erdman. “Just for an example, the locker room situation. She isn’t in there with the team, obviously, getting dressed and stuff. You miss a lot; it’s important in football. So, she’s had to get changed separately and then rejoin.”
Winning off the field
The fourth-year psychology major pegs the transition to football as what helped her identify that she wanted to become a sports psychologist. “Going through different mental health issues myself, I realized that mental health is more important than your physical health. So, I want to help others, especially athletes, in the same way, I’ve figured out how to cope in challenging times.”
In addition to their sports and academics, SFU student-athletes have been trying to stay connected, particularly during COVID, and raise awareness about social justice issues, including changing the school’s team nickname from the “Clan.” The Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), a student-athlete-run group that seeks to enhance the university experience for athletes through social events and academic opportunities, while also looking to have a positive impact on the broader SFU and local communities, is leading or closely linked with much of this work. One initiative the SAAC has taken on is celebrating the diversity of its athletes through a Black History Month social media campaign that Elliott participated in.
‘She’s part of our family’
It’s no secret that football has a reputation for having a misogynistic culture. Elliott, Erdman, and Klassen all say that the transition to including a woman into the mix of over 75 men has been relatively smooth. Klassen was initially worried that the team wouldn’t respect her or take her seriously, thinking the whole situation was a joke. She’s happy to have been proven wrong.
As for Elliott and Erdman, both speak about the situation as though they had just watched the Fast and Furious movies: it’s a family. Erdman, who has both coached and played at the professional level, agrees that football does have a negative stigma attached to it, but says that this particular group of individuals has adapted well to a unique and sometimes challenging situation.
“Kristie probably has 70-some-odd big brothers that are watching for her. So, it’s the exact opposite of what a lot of people might think it is, ‘Oh, Kristie, a female. What she’s doing here?’ No. She’s part of our family,” he said. “She’s producing on the field. She’s part of the team. She does everything that everybody else does. So, she’s family. And what does family do? They take care of each other. And so, I’ve been very impressed with how her teammates have handled that situation.”
Erdman went on to say that he “didn’t know what to expect coming in having never worked with a female before in football.”
“The great thing about Kristie is, nobody outworks her,” he added. “She attends all the workouts. She works her butt off to the best of her abilities and she’s committed. Once players see that, and coaches see that she’s committed and it’s not just a joke, then they buy in. And that has happened with Kristie. The whole team and the coaching staff accepted her for who she is, which right now is a pretty darn good kicker. That’s why she starts.”
As her roommate, Klassen also gets to see Elliott’s personal growth. “I could never imagine doing what she’s doing. I would not be able to just show up [to practice] with 80 guys. I don’t know how she just showed up. So, it’s been cool seeing her growth in terms of her own confidence, being able to call guys on the team out for stuff, or being able to voice her opinion or stand up for herself.”
Even though she has two years of athletic eligibility left, Elliott’s thinking about the future. “Three years ago, never in a million years did I think I’d be playing college football. So, I don’t cancel anything out. But I’m just focusing on what’s happening right now and my football.”
But maybe also a partnership with Barbara’s Cheese Puffs.