MINNEAPOLIS – Caley Parnell and Pups Kaur have attended NFL games in London, but last week they made the 4,000-mile jump across the pond to take in the Vikings win in person.
They both are part of the Birmingham Lions, a women’s American football team in the United Kingdom – Parnell as an outside linebacker and Kaur serving as an athletic trainer.
The two stood together on the sideline of U.S. Bank Stadium, Parnell wearing a personalized Vikings jersey and Kaur repping their home team in a royal blue Lions track jacket. Each called the pregame energy a surreal and unbelievable experience.
“Even outside, all of the people, the different outfits, the band, the fact that the 1969 team is here, it’s just incredible,” Parnell said. “As soon as we stepped foot near the stadium, the atmosphere was building, and now we’re here, actually on the field.
“I’m just so excited about the game, and I think the Vikings are going to smash it,” she added, foreshadowing Minnesota’s forthcoming rout of Oakland.
Parnell and Kaur, each honored with the Lion of the Year award, were able to attend the game thanks to the graciousness and generosity of Vikings season ticket members Dave and Annie Johanson. Dave serves as the Executive Chairman of RICOR Global Limited, which this season started a three-year sponsorship of the Birmingham Lions.
“The fact that he’s come on board with full support of our program really highlights that he has the same values as us,” Kaur said. “It seems like he’s not just there as a sponsor; he’s there because he’s passionate about it, and we see him as part of the team now.”
Dave’s lifelong fandom of the Vikings proved an added bonus for Parnell, who whole-heartedly became a fan of the team in 2016 after learning and playing the game of American football.
The initial commitment was somewhat by chance – a Vikings game was playing on TV at the time – but Parnell now considers it good fortune to have somewhat stumbled into the fold.
A defensive player herself who started at cornerback and transitioned to linebacker, Parnell immediately was drawn to Minnesota’s stout defense under the guidance of Head Coach Mike Zimmer. She often finds herself zeroing in on specific players on that side of the ball, as well.
“From a defensive perspective, I really like Harrison Smith – he’s just a very good player, so he’s a good one to watch – but also [Eric] Kendricks and [Anthony] Barr in terms of linebackers,” Parnell said. “As a player, in order to get better, [studying them is] a good way to do it.”
From the pitch to the gridiron
Athletics have played a significant role in Parnell’s life and shaping who she is today. Having a background in rugby, she showed talent in the sport but fell out of love with it for various reasons and stepped away from the pitch. After only a couple of years, however, she found herself deeply missing the camaraderie and competitiveness that accompany being part of a team sport.
Women’s American football teams have steadily gained momentum over the past several of years, and a number of Parnell’s friends had shifted from rugby to football. So in early 2016, she decided to give it a go.
Although there are several distinctions between the two sports, Parnell explained that her experience with rugby allowed her to feel comfortable with football’s full-contact nature.
“I think it’s a pretty natural fit, that if you’ve got a rugby background, you’re more likely to play defense because you’ve got that comfort level with making tackles, and we see that with rookies and new players,” Parnell explained. “That’s the biggest element – the confidence to go into that.”
Parnell’s confidence didn’t quell her uncertainty about enjoying the American sport, though.
“If I’m honest, I was quite skeptical to start with because I wasn’t sure I would like the stop-start nature of it,” Parnell admitted. “But from the first session, I was hooked. It was a challenge, mentally as well as physically – the tactics that go into it and the fact that it changes all the time.
“From that moment, I’ve just loved it,” she added.
Kaur shared similar sentiments, although from a trainer’s perspective. After spending time working with soccer teams, Kaur was approached by the Lions and transitioned to a sport with which she was much less familiar.
“Coming on board with American football is so much different than [soccer],” said Kaur.
“I kind of really like the smashes. I really do enjoy the high impact that’s happening on the field,” she later added with a laugh. “I didn’t initially; I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to break. No, what are you doing? You’re choosing to do this as a sport?’ But I really do enjoy the tackles.”
Creating a Lions legacy
Parnell and Kaur are proud to be part of a club that emphasizes high character and family values in addition to being extremely competitive on the field.
The Lions are six-time British Champions, having won the BAFA (British American Football Association) Sapphire Series title every season from 2014-19. They finished 8-1 this past season, suffering their first domestic loss to an existing team.
Within the domestic league, all teams play 7-a-side (7-woman) tackle football. The Lions, however, have been pushing the boundaries to grow and align with American football teams, which field 11 players each on offense and defense, by traveling internationally.
“We’ve been to Finland a couple years, we went to Sweden last year, and then we invited over the New York Sharks and the Helsinki (Finland) Wolverines in August 2018 to play in the first version of what we called the Transatlantic Trophy Tournament,” Parnell explained.
In April of 2018, the Lions became the first UK women’s team to participate in an international 11-a-side tournament when they played in – and won – the Diamond Bowl.
During a game against the St. Petersburg (Russia) Valkyries, Parnell picked off the opposing quarterback and also helped contain a running back who posed a threat.
“That was kind of the moment, ‘OK, I’m getting this now. I feel a bit more confident,’ ” Parnell recalled. “And we won the tournament. We played three teams that play 11-a-side week-in and week-out, so it was a massive win for us as a team.”
Paving the way for growth
The Lions have no intent of slowing down in the future.
In September of 2020, the team will travel to the U.S. to compete in the Transatlantic Trophy II in New York. Individual Lions players also continue to shine and represent the Lions in various capacities.
Parnell has recently been given the opportunity to join the Great Britain team, which operates at the international level and competes against other countries’ clubs. Great Britain participated in the 2019 Women’s European Championships and in two years will compete in the World Championships, which will involve the U.S. and Canadian women’s teams.
Ruth Matta, a well-known running back for the Lions, is one of Europe’s most decorated players. The two-time Offensive Player of the Year, who stands at 4-foot-11, recently moved to the States to join the Boston Renegades.
A familiar name for many is Phoebe Schecter, a linebacker known for her on-field skills in the UK but also for being a pioneer in the NFL. Schecter participated in a coaching internship with the Buffalo Bills in 2017 and 2018 and is a champion for women in the sport. She teamed with former Great Britain player Kenny Bello to form The UK Dukes, a program that works to grow American football in the UK from a grassroots level.
“I think as a role model and an ambassador for the sport, you couldn’t think of anyone better,” Kaur said of Schecter. “Knowing Phoebe as a teammate and on a personal level, she’s just such an awesome person, but she also just does amazing things and gets herself out there [to promote] the game.
“She’s so respected across the board, and it’s great. And it’s not just because she’s female,” Kaur later added. “It’s happening because she’s so good at what she does, and it’s as simple as that. … She’s so passionate, that she really goes out of her way. It really is about the game, and it shows.”
Parnell and Kaur highlighted the coaches and trainers who serve the team as volunteers and emphasized the incredible efforts of Lions General Manager Jo Kilby, who “lives and breathes the values of the Lions” on an everyday basis.
“There is no doubt that the club would not be where it is today without the utter dedication of Jo; she really is the heartbeat of the club,” Parnell said. “Jo, with the support of the rest of the club, is keen to keep pushing the boundaries of women’s American football in the UK and providing opportunities for more girls to get involved and experience this amazing sport.”
Minnesota makes an impact
As Parnell and Kaur readied to travel back home to the UK, it’s clear that their trip to Minnesota made an impact on the female footballers.
The two made the most of their overseas excursion, taking in a Golden Gophers women’s volleyball game and a Minnesota Twins game before capping their visit with the Vikings win.
“Being our first NFL game over here, even though we’ve been to the games at Wembley, I think it’s going to be a whole different level,” Parnell anticipated prior to Sunday’s game.
“In America, you guys do sport really well,” Kaur said. “You get the whole package. It’s not just the performance from the players; it’s everything.
“I think that’s what you end up coming here for. We were like, ‘You could really move here, couldn’t you?’ [On Thursday], we were making plans to move,” she added with a laugh. “We were like, ‘Wait – what are we doing?’ ”