When Toni Cann tells people she’s a football coach, the first reaction she gets is usually a surprised, “Oh, really?”
“I don’t think they expect me to be a football coach, let alone a head coach,” Cann said. “But then I get a, ‘Good for you.’”
Cann is the only female head coach in the Hockomock Pop Warner League and the second female youth football coach in Massachusetts. Now in her third year as the Stoughton Lancers Mighty Mites head coach, she’s led the team to consecutive league championships.
“It’s very unique because every time I go to a football training clinic or a coaches meeting, there’s 100 guys and I’m the only woman in the audience,” Cann said. “I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed, but I like to stick out in the crowd.
“I’m honored to be unique and break the glass ceiling.”
Heidi Stone’s son began his first year of football with the Lancers under Cann.
“Toni was extremely knowledgeable about football and the logistics of coaching it. Her absolute passion for the sport and her desire to watch the kids on her team do well was a perfect combination,” Stone said.
“The kids did succeed, most grew in their skills, became cohesive as a team and we all grew to love Toni in a different way then you grow to love your average male coach.”
Cann began playing football during her youth and spent three seasons with the New England Intensity women’s professional tackle team. She learned about football as a child from her older brother.
“I learned to love the game from him. People that don’t know the game think it’s easy, you run, you throw, you catch,” Cann said. “But once I started playing the game as an adult, l learned how difficult it is. I coach a sport that I love and to mold and teach (the players), it’s an amazing feeling.”
She feels she coaches with a different approach than men might, and uses games to teach fundamentals. For example, during practice, a game of dodgeball taught the offensive lineman instincts on protecting the quarterback.
Cann admitted that when she began coaching, not everyone took her seriously. But the Stoughton community was always behind her. Both of Christine Russo’s son played for the Lancers.
“Toni is the perfect combination of a tough as nails disciplinarian and a nurturing, caring mom figure. These boys are not just her players, they truly become members of her family,” Russo said. “But on the other side, she teaches them not only how to play the game but how to play with passion.”
Cann also coaches two of Kim Culhane’s sons.
“On the field, Toni is tough and competitive but always concerned for the safety of her players. She expects the most from her players but is quick to make sure they do not feel bad for a play gone wrong,” Culhane said. “On and off the field she is one of the sweetest people I have met. She has an enormous and generous heart.”
As Cann started out, when some of her players went to school, they were teased for having a female football coach. But the Lancers started winning, and it subsided.
“I tell them if you give me 100 percent, I’ll give you 100 percent and there’s nothing they can’t do,” she said. “It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done, and I just want to teach them to love the game the way I do.”
Photo: Toni Cann with the Stoughton Lancers’ Anthony Pizzano (left) and Conor Culhane (right).