Mubo Ilelaboye leaves a lasting impact in sensational year of football

Embodying strong values such as friendship, a positive attitude and respect for the game and the athletes that play, Mubo Ilelaboye has become more than just a model teammate and a key piece to the Winnipeg Wolfpack’s postseason puzzle. With just one season under her belt, this graceful and assiduous competitor has seen her career grow by a quantum leap, highlighted by a nod on Canada’s entry at the 2017 IFAF Women’s World Championships.

Having graced the hardcourt with the University of Manitoba Bisons for five seasons, Ilelaboye adapted very quickly to the gridiron, establishing herself as a two-sport star. Certainly, foot speed is an essential aspect to success in both sports. Of note, the first practice in this newest chapter of Ilelaboye’s athletic odyssey occurred merely two weeks before her debut in Western Women’s Canadian Football League play as a member of the Winnipeg Wolfpack.

In action with the Winnipeg Wolfpack (Image obtained from gofundme)

While the exceptional team culture was a key element in a successful adjustment, the values learned in basketball were another essential factor. From continuously willing to learn, subsequently expanding her value to the team, it is part of Ilelaboye’s “raison d’etre” as an athlete, committed to giving her team a chance to win.

Possessing a tremendous repertoire of athletic gifts, Ilelaboye caught the notice of Team Canada, gaining the opportunity to attend tryouts in December of 2016. Taking into account that Manitoba did not field a team at the 2016 edition of the Canadian National Women’s Championships, it was a peculiar situation as Ilelaboye was not familiar with all the participants there. Compounding this was the fact that the inability to compete at Nationals meant that the evaluators on-hand were not fully aware how Manitoba’s star players would mesh with the others aspiring for a roster spot.

There was also an added element of emotion for Ilelaboye. Among the fellow members of the Wolfpack at tryouts, there was a strong feeling of empathy for the likes of Alyssa Buckland and Breanne Ward. Having participated at the 2012 Nationals (which saw Manitoba field a team), their gridiron dreams were shattered when neither gained a spot with the Canadian contingent that competed at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds.

With such disappointment ruminating over four years, not only did Ilelaboye hope these determined women she proudly calls teammates on the Wolfpack would experience a better outcome, she tried to have realistic expectations about her own probabilities. Employing a great maturity, while remaining strong in faith, the result was one mixed with surprise, joy and relief. Not only would Ilelaboye, with only one year of competitive football experience, gain a spot on Team Canada, establishing herself as one of the game’s rising stars, she would be joined by Buckland and Ward. Undoubtedly, the feeling of achievement was one which saw Ilelaboye reflect on the honor with humility, respectful of the path taken by so many others at this level,

“I could not believe it! Unlike many of the women who I played with on Team Canada (TC), at the point of heading into tryouts, I had only played tackle football for one season. Granted, I think I did well for a beginner, but I did not have the 4-year journey of working towards this goal of making Team Canada that I heard several of my TC and Wolfpack teammates talk about.

Going into tryouts last December, I remember thinking “there is no way they will choose me” because I was certain that the coaches would see I was new to the sport. I have always been quite athletic and relied on the natural sport intuition that I have to get me through learning a new sport.

Plus, I had done a lot of training leading up to tryouts. So, by the time December 2016 rolled around, I just told myself that I’d go to the tryouts, be as much of an athletic freak as I could be in the fitness testing, and call on every football-related piece of knowledge I had accrued from the previous Wolfpack season when it was time for scrimmaging against each other in tryout.

As an athlete, I tend to be pretty critical of my performance, and I could not think past the mistakes I had made. As I drove back home from Moose Jaw with my sister, I thought to myself, “well…there is nothing else I can do about it now” and decided that it was up to God and whatever the coaches saw of me in watching film from the sessions.

The wait between tryouts and getting the confirmation email was excruciating. So much anticipation of something…the build up was like nothing I had experienced in a very long time. My faith is important to me, so I prayed about it a lot — something along the lines “Lord, even though I don’t think I’ll make this team, I low key want it so bad”, (laughs).

So when I got the congratulatory email saying I’d made the team I read it, was too excited to fully process it, and asked my sister to read it for me, I guess for confirmation. Then it started to sink in that this was real. I felt so blessed and thankful that I was given this chance.”

Ilelaboye donning the Team Canada jersey (Image supplied by Mubo Ilelaboye)

Akin to fellow Team Canada competitor Alicia Wilson, who was also making her debut for Canada in 2017, both had strong backgrounds competing in women’s basketball for the Canada West Conference. As a side note, Jaime Lammerding, who was making her second appearance for Canada at the IFAF Women’s Worlds, was an able-bodied performer in wheelchair basketball at the Canada Winter Games.

In her last season (2010-11) of Bisons basketball, Ilelaboye made 23 starts, racking up 693 minutes played. Averaging 11.3 minutes per game, she also had a respectable 79.5 free throw percentage, plus a 32.5% three point percentage; she was the heartbeat of the offense for head coach Pam Danis. Statistically, her best game was a 90-47 rout of Brandon on November 27, 2010. Posting a season high 23 points, she was also perfect from the free throw line. As a side note, it marked her third straight game scoring in double digits.

Fittingly, the last game of Ilelaboye’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport basketball career also involved a terrific double-digit performance. Challenging the Regina Cougars in the Canada West playoffs, she amassed 21 points, complemented by a pair of three-pointers in a 71-60 loss. In spite of the final score, Illelaboye established herself as an offensive sparkplug, recording double digits in four of her last six contests, while providing solid consistency at the free throw line.

During those formative years of Bison basketball, Ilelaboye, who majored in human ecology, had called Wilson a rival. Having first competed with the Mount Royal Cougars, Wilson would transfer to the University of Saskatchewan, opposing Illelaboye with more than one program. While Wilson also plays in the WWCFL, she is a speedy wide receiver for the Western Conference champion Calgary Rage; neither have played against each other on the gridiron. With no inter-conference play in the regular season, the Team Canada experience marked a reunion of sorts, simultaneously celebrating their evolution as athletes.

“More than anything, playing with women, like fellow former CIS basketball player Alicia Wilson, who understand athletics on the same level as I knew it, was helpful in me finding my place on the team. I think it really highlighted for me the quality of players on the team and the mentality that was excepted of us.

That is to say, when you have played at a high level, you hold yourself, your teammates, and your coaches to a certain standard that is essential to finding success in your sport. It was great to know that this team meant business, and that who we are, as female tackle football athletes competing on the international stage, would be taken seriously.

The biggest value that I brought to football was being coachable and playing the role that was needed of me. I remember in my third year of being a Bison, my coach moved me from being a centre to a power forward. It was by far one of the scariest things I had done in my athletic career as a Bison because I was so comfortable having my back to the basket or being no more than 10 feet away from making a bucket. But, I knew that I was needed there, so with time I got over it and started working towards filling the gap.

Likewise, on the Winnipeg Wolfpack, I play defensive end, which I absolutely love, especially being Rush. But with Team Canada, I started out at Rush End but halfway through our training camp in Vancouver, I was asked to play the Tex and a little bit of the Nose. (This was) because of the personnel that we had on our d-line (i.e. I’m a lot more solid in body so the coaches thought it made sense for me to move in). I was not crazy about the switch at first but I believe in being adaptable in sport and being utilized in whatever way that is needed. So I studied 3 different positions and made it a goal to perform wherever they put me.”

Donning Team Canada’s jersey involved much more than adding the thrill of international competition to Ilelaboye’s sporting resume. There was also a strong sense of local pride, gaining the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of four other Manitobans who gained a spot on this revered roster, highlighted by the historic feat of being the first Canadian national team to compete on home soil.

Three other members of the Wolfpack enjoyed the privilege of representing Canada. In addition to the aforementioned Buckland and Ward, they were joined by Christine O’Donnell. As a side note, Alexa Matwyczuk of the archrival Manitoba Fearless was the fifth player from the province named to the Canadian roster. Undoubtedly, O’Donnell was a role model for this trio of Wolfpack talent making their international debuts. Along with Alex Black and Trina Graves, two luminaries from the Maritime Women’s Football League, O’Donnell was one of only three women competing with Team Canada at three IFAF Women’s Worlds (having also appeared in 2010 and 2013).

Ilelaboye (far right) with her Wolfpack teammates in Vancouver (Image supplied by Mubo Ilelaboye)

Discussing what it meant to share in the Team Canada experience with three fellow Wolfpack teammates, their careers intersecting in an event filled with numerous milestones, Ilelaboye showers them with effusive praise, in awe of their character and resolve. Having shared so many gridiron battles together during the 2017 WWCFL regular season, Illelaboye took great pride sharing in this new experience together, strengthening the bonds of camaraderie between them. With a Wolfpack roster that also consists of strong women such as Adrienne Chubala, Rebecka Clark and Laura Dacey, the future definitely shines brightly for the franchise. With its lore enhanced by four fantastic women that wore Canada’s colors in Vancouver.

“Nothing short of incredible. Bre is exactly the kind of crazy intense athlete that you want to have on your side, (laughs)! Her and I play d-line together on Wolfpack so knowing that we were in this together was especially exciting.

Allyssa works so hard on the field and understands the game so well. In my first year on the Wolfpack, she was my on-field dictionary and playbook and made transitioning into this sport so much more fluid for me.

Plus, OD (Christine), what can I say about OD — she is a Wolfpack vet who I admire both for her leadership on the field and her sense of humour.

Knowing that I had these three women to share this experience with made being a part of Team Canada feel like home. Like this was where we were meant to be, together.”

With a podium finish commemorating Ilelaboye’s international football debut, this accomplished denouement, encompassing national pride and a sense of achievement filled with strong emotion, enhanced by attaining a new level of understanding and gratitude concerning the game.

The learning experience would prove to be just as important as the medal acquired. Gaining even more profound respect for the women who break barriers by competing, she also gained an appreciation for the distinguished competitors who waited with the passing of years, filled with anticipation at another treasured opportunity to compete with Team Canada, finding retribution and the satisfying feeling of fulfillment.

“Being surrounded by bad ass women (…can I say that?…ha-ha) who compete at a level that is worthy of respect and admiration and media coverage similar to our male counterparts but don’t play for the coverage, or the accolades, or any instant gratification, or other external stimulator.

Women who compete, and train, and grind, every day for four years for the intrinsic love of the sport and for the opportunity to be part of a legacy in advancing women in sport, and specifically, in female tackle football.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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