Rocky player a national gridiron champion... at 46
GRIDIRON: Toni Connolly has been crowned a national gridiron champion - at the age of 46.
The Rockhampton product was a member of the Queensland Sun Devils who enjoyed an unbeaten run at the Australian championships in Perth.
The Devils defeated Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales convincingly in the rounds to set up a grand final showdown with Victoria.
They put their final stamp of authority on the competition with a 52-8 win in the decider.
Connolly, who was on the starting team for every game, was thrilled with the victory.
"It feels pretty good, let me tell you,” she said from her Brisbane home.
"It was a pretty amazing experience to represent Queensland at 46 in such a full-on, full-contact sport.
"This is the peak, the apex of my sporting career.
"I was just so proud to represent Queensland, full stop. That was such an honour and privilege but to come home with the title is just so exciting.”
Connolly - who sports 72, her birth year, as her jersey number - was not the only Queenslander challenging the idea that gridiron is a young person's game.
Teammate Christine Schultz is 50 years old, and played with her daughter, Sera Schultz, on the offensive line.
Connolly started playing gridiron three years ago, realising a long-held dream to play a full-contact sport.
"It's something I had always wanted to do and for women there's not that many out there,” she said.
"I thought if I'm going to play a full-contact sport then I want as much padding as I possibly can.
"There was a poster up in the staff dining room at work saying come and try gridiron.
"I went along and tried it and then started playing and fell in love with it.”
Connolly said some people were at a loss to understand why she decided to take on such a physically demanding sport in her 40s.
"They ask me what I'm trying to prove and it's really just about proving to myself that I can actually do it.
"I didn't want to be on my death bed wishing I'd played a full-contact sport. Now I can cross that one off the list.”
Connolly said gridiron was very strategic, "like a game of chess for human beings”.
She had always played on the offensive line but ended up playing defence for Queensland.
The first person she called when she learned of her selection was her mum, Vicki Cowan, who lives in Rockhampton.
Cowan was equally excited when she heard the news, and equally delighted when Queensland won the championships.
"They did such a wonderful job, winning all four games,” Cowan said.
"Toni was always very sports-minded and loved a challenge as every sports person does but she'd never taken on that big a challenge before.
"I'm just so proud of her, so proud.”
Connolly gives herself another one or two years playing at club level in Brisbane. From there, she wants to move into coaching.
"I love the game and the camaraderie, knowing that I've got someone's back and someone's got mine,” she said.
"Out on the field everyone is integral to success, and you're only as strong as your weakest link.
"It doesn't matter who you are or where you play, you're vital to the function of the team.
"That's what I love about it, the mateship but also being part of a bigger thing.”