Chantal Ridlon Thacker fell in love with football in middle school while playing with the boys during recess. But in high school, without a girls program to get involved in, she did the next best thing and became a competitive cheerleader, standing on the sideline and rooting for the team each game.
Her opportunities to play the sport she loved simply weren’t there. But one night during her senior year of college at Western Connecticut State University, Thacker was with a friend at Buffalo Wild Wings when she saw a jersey on the wall she didn’t recognize. They found out the jersey was from the Connecticut Crush, a women’s tackle football team. So, a year later, the 34-year-old joined the team that became the CT Wreckers in the Independent Women’s Football League.
That marked the beginning of a football journey that would culminate with Thacker making history. After eight seasons of coaching, including the last three at Wilde Lake, she’ll take the sideline this fall in a new role: JV head coach. She is the first woman to be a head football coach in Howard County, according to the county’s athletics office.
“I’m excited. I think that a lot of my players are excited that I’m going to take over JV and the staff is excited,” Thacker said. “I work really well with all the staff at Wilde Lake and for me, I feel like this is progressively where I want to be. I want to continue taking on more and more responsibility.
Wilde Lake assistant principal and former Athletics and Activities Manager Matt Sillers and current AAM Earin Saunders were both impressed by Thacker’s knowledge of the game and her ability to relate with players. Sillers, who spent years as the varsity baseball coach at Oakland Mills, called her a role model.
“In [football] in particular for a female to rise like she has and build the relationships with the kids, she’s just an inspiration,” he said. “She’s an inspiration for gender equality and sports. When I first met her I was blown away not only that she was a female coaching football, but how good she was and how knowledgeable she was of the game and how personable she was. Those traits go a long way and for our community. We’re so happy to have her.”
Thacker was offered the position shortly after spring break. After feeling “kind of stalemated” at her previous school in Connecticut, where she served as a volunteer assistant working with defensive backs and wide receivers on the freshman team, she’s been “met with open ears” during her time at Wilde Lake. It’s allowed her to rise the coaching ranks at the Columbia school in each of the last three years.
“I’ve progressed a lot faster at Wilde Lake than I ever did in Connecticut,” Thacker said. “ ... Here I’ve experienced a lot more growth, a lot more just willingness to be more involved. Anytime I want to do something, it’s met with open ears with every coach I work with, which is a great feeling.”
Saunders, a former defensive coordinator for Hammond’s varsity football team, said he “didn’t have my AD hat on” during their interview this spring. He said her football acumen was evident and that she was a “really good fit for our kids.”
“During our initial conversations it was just like two coaches talking,” Saunders said. “We were just talking scheme and things like that and the intricacies of football. When you’re talking to someone you can really gauge their knowledge of the game, how in-depth they go with schemes and things like that. She was right along with everything and as we continued to talk about it, she really is just knowledgeable about the game. It just kind of clicked.”
After graduating college in 2013 with a degree in biology and secondary education, Thacker got a job as a scientist at a pharmaceutical company. During her time in college, she didn’t play any sports while working 40 hours a week. However, Thacker decided it was time for change, so she left her job to become a teacher. She was a volunteer coach her first year as a teacher and spent five years there before moving to Columbia in fall 2019.
After moving to Maryland, Thacker continued her playing career, too. She joined the DC Divas of the Women’s Football Alliance, which formed in 2009 and is the largest 11-on-11 women’s tackle football league in the world, as a middle linebacker in the Pro Division. The WFA has 64 teams across 35 states split up into four divisions: Developmental, D3, D2 and Pro.
She feels playing the sport leaves an impact on the players she coaches.
“It gives me a different respect level from them,” Thacker said. “It was definitely a concern going into coaching a primarily male sport as a female. It was a concern for several people that I’ve worked for, that it would result in the lack of respect [from] players. I have not one time experienced that from a player. They’ve always given me that same respect they give any other coach, if not more in some circumstances. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I still play.”
Since joining Wilde Lake, Thacker’s role has elevated each season. Her first year in 2019, she coached the offensive and defensive lines on JV. Last season, she was promoted to defensive coordinator, and now Thacker will have the most responsibility yet leading the Wildecats’ JV program.
She said her coaching style will be based on respect.
“My biggest thing in my coaching philosophy is to make sure that every one of my athletes knows that I respect them as an athlete and I respect them as an athlete that knows something about the sport,” Thacker said. “If they come off the field and they tell me something, I’m going to respect the fact that they can see things and they know things that we may not necessarily see.”
Thacker has also racked up honors on the field. She was named a 2021 first team All-American in the WFA and was one of 45 players selected among 200 who tried out to play for the United States National Football Team. The WFA season began in early April and the championship is scheduled for July 10.
She’ll compete at the World Championships in Finland in late July and early August against seven other countries. The national team is coached by Callie Brownson, the chief of staff and assistant wide receivers coach for the Cleveland Browns.
Thacker hopes more women will get involved in the traditionally male-dominated sport while at the same time increasing exposure for the WFA.
“I know a lot of women with a lot of football knowledge to share,” she said. “Whether it’s not feeling comfortable coming out to apply for a job or it’s just availability, I would love to see more women involved. I know that I would love to see more female coaches in football in Howard County. I would love to just see a constant progression.
“I think there’s a long way for us to go as far as female representation in the sport, but I think we’ve also come a long way from where we started.”