BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Connor Lewis has always loved football. She played with a group of boys during recess all of elementary school. The first few years were spent trying to gain the confidence of the rest of the boys so they would throw Lewis the football when she was on offense.
Those years on the playground in Barnesville, Minn., taught Lewis, now 28, a lot.
“I often attribute those years of playing football at recess and gaining their respect to my confidence throughout the world,” Lewis said. “I’m in a profession that's very male-dominated, and I’ve come across some similar issues that I saw on the playground; today. Which maybe sounds a bit ridiculous, but it's 100% true.”
Now, Lewis has found a league of her own.
Lewis, a 2011 Barnesville High School graduate, is a data scientist at C.H. Robinson in Eden Prairie, Minn. She reconnected with the game of football after she graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris in 2015. Lewis was a multi-sport standout at Barnesville and went on to play basketball and pole vault in college. She was having a difficult time adjusting to life after college sports — finding ways to stay active.
Lewis originally joined a triathlon club at the University of Minnesota, where she was pursuing her master’s degree in biostatistics. She soon found out she was more of a team-sport athlete, but didn’t know how to fill that void now that she wasn’t a college athlete anymore. Lewis struggled with her mental health during graduate school without having some type of athletic outlet. Then, she found the Minnesota Vixen.
The Vixen compete in the Women’s Football Alliance, the largest and longest-running women’s tackle football league in the world. They play full-contact tackle football using NCAA rules.
Lewis tried out in the fall of 2016 and made the team. She played in five games before she tore her ACL in her first season with the Vixen in 2017. She was primarily a linebacker and wide receiver, but played all over the field for the Vixen, including at quarterback. The WFA season runs from April to June with playoffs in July.
“Not many women grow up knowing football, so coming in with that expertise and knowledge was really, really advantageous and allowed me to be ready to go in at any position,” Lewis said.
Lewis played organized football throughout junior high, and did stats for the Trojans in high school.
“We have players from all different types of backgrounds,” Lewis said. “I would say maybe 10 to 15% have played tackle football in some capacity before joining the team. The rest of the group is athletes from other sports — basketball, soccer, softball, track — something else that is more typical of a girl.”
In three seasons with the Vixen, Lewis recorded 44.5 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and nine interceptions in 19 games from 2017 to 2019. She also had six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries, and was a two-time WFA All-American before re-injuring her ACL. Having gone through that rehab three times, Lewis decided to hang up her cleats indefinitely and switch over to the coaching side.
Lewis is currently the wide receivers coach and also leads conditioning for the Vixen, who had a historic season this year. Minnesota finished 8-1 and made it to the WFA Division I National Championship, held last month in Canton, Ohio, for the first time.
The Vixen eventually lost 42-26 to the Boston Renegades, who picked up the team’s third-straight WFA title, but Lewis is excited about the team’s — and sport’s — future.
“Women’s football is on the rise. If you look around the NFL, a lot of the female coaches in the NFL come from our football league, the WFA,” Lewis said. “A lot of flag football leagues are popping up for girls, and the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) started a developmental league last year for women's flag in college. Those types of improvements are huge.”
Lewis retired from playing American football due to injury, but she didn’t give up all physical-contact sports. She plays Australian rules football, or footy, for the Minnesota Freeze, which play in the United States Australian Football League.
Lewis doesn’t like to sit idle. Born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease, structure has always been an important part of her life.
Lewis’ weekdays start at 6 a.m. and include over an hour of cystic fibrosis-related treatments, specifically vest therapy, an airway clearance technique where she wears a vest attached to a machine. She does yoga or trains in the morning before work and has practice or conditioning for the Vixen or Freeze in the evening.
Lewis joined the Freeze in 2018 after she saw a Facebook event for a “footy 101 session,” and it didn’t take her long to become a standout in the sport. She’s a member of the U.S. national women’s Australian rules football team, the USA Freedom, and would’ve competed in the 2020 International Cup, held every three years in Australia, had it not been postponed by the pandemic.
Staying active helps Lewis manage the disease that affects the lungs, pancreas and other organs. It also boosts her mental well-being.
“I often feel that women, after they graduate high school or college where perhaps they played a sport, often switch to thinking that the only options to stay active are to run marathons, do triathlons or bodybuild,” she said. “And that’s not true.
“In my experience, there's so many athletic opportunities for women in amateur sports or leagues of some sports where you can continue to train as an athlete.”