May 11, 2010

Girls flag football catching on in Florida

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BOCA RATON, Fla. - When he got his first look at girls flag football as a varsity high school sport, Damon Cogdell immediately saw the potential.

Plenty of people have since joined him.

With an estimated 19,000 girls taking part nationwide on organized teams, and with the NFL introducing some 12,000 to the sport in the last year, flag football seems to be catching on among girls more quickly than perhaps ever before. At the center of it all is Florida, where an estimated 5,000 girls competed this spring at the varsity level, and where the state has recognized a high school champion since 2003.

"I think it's a very antiquated statement to say that football is a boys sport anymore," said Samantha Rapoport, who manages the NFL's Girls Flag Football Leadership Program and a former quarterback herself in her native Canada. "The fact that girls are playing it at such a high level, that's what is changing people's minds. If girls couldn't play this sport, I don't think people would be that interested. But girls are thriving at it."

In South Florida, high school football - the 11 on 11, tackle version for boys - is still king.

But it's telling that when the girls practiced this spring at Miramar High, most of the boys team - the one that won the state championship last fall - would watch from the sideline, interested and intrigued spectators. And at the state championships last weekend, when Seminole Ridge High took the title, there were no shortage of boys players in the stands, cheering.

At least in Florida, flag seems to be here to stay.

"We gain respect as we continue winning," said Miramar quarterback Chelsey Walsh, whose team lost in the state semifinals and finished 15-1. "There's no contact and there is a difference, but the bar is still set pretty high for us. And there will always be a select few that think girls can't play, that they're not good enough, there's no contact. But more girls want to play because of the reputation we have for being a great sport."

Cogdell didn't need long to be convinced on that front.

He was a high school star player, played collegiately at West Virginia, was part of a Grey Cup championship in Canada and got a chance to be in camp with NFL teams before his playing days ended. He's seen the traditional, block-and-tackle football at its highest level. But when Miramar, his alma mater, wanted him to coach the girls team, he barely had to think twice.

"Let me say this: My daughter, she won't be playing any tackle football," Cogdell said. "But she'll play flag football. I guarantee you that."

The field is 80 yards long, 20 shorter than the traditional field. Some of the rules are mildly different, but it's still football, and getting more competitive than ever. And it's not just girls playing football now either: This summer, for the first time, six nations - including the United States - will take part in a women's tackle world championship tournament.

"Everybody takes notice of all the other sports," said Miramar linebacker Wendy Tranquille. "We know we have to make a name for ourselves and I think we're doing that. It's pressure, but the way I see it, that's inspiration."

Through the NFL's program, more girls get exposed to the sport every year. And there's a sense that one day, colleges will consider putting the flag game on their radar for something beyond the intramural level.

"I didn't even know they had a girls flag football league," Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said at a clinic where dozens of flag-playing girls got to run drills alongside last year's NFL rookies. "Good for them. The more the merrier. If they want to be out here competing and having some fun, they're welcome to it. That's great."

The Miami Dolphins have been particularly active in promoting girls flag, even having 400 players to their indoor practice facility earlier this year for a clinic. Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline was playing catch with some of the girls players last summer, coming away duly impressed.

"It blew my mind," Hartline said. "We had a powder puff game at our high school but nothing near a league. They're telling me about soccer players that are kicking punts 45 yards, one girl I was throwing the ball around with was gunning it ... I'd never seen this. These women are here for real."

According to the NFL's data, flag teams have been started over the past couple years in places like Peabody, Mass.; Charlotte, N.C. (where 7,000 girls are part of a program); Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Reseda, Calif. and Levittown, Pa. There's teams in all five boroughs of New York City, and other big cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago are seeing programs now as well.

"We're pleased if it introduces new fans to our game," said NFL spokeswoman Clare Graff. "But it's most important to us that these girls are finding an outlet that appeals to them and that they're building self-esteem and learning the values of the game along the way."

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