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Moms love flag football but so does everyone else

October 6, 2009 12:04:11 PM PDT
As I watched my 12-year-old play his first-ever game of flag football, I started chatting with the father of another kid on the team.

I mentioned how happy I was that flag football was being offered in our neighborhood as an alternative to tackle.

"Yeah, this is football for moms," the dad said with a smile.

We both knew what he meant. My son wanted to play football, but I didn't want him to get squashed playing tackle. In this game, instead of tackling the kid who's carrying the ball, you simply pull one of the flags attached to the runner's belt to stop him.

But it turns out moms aren't the only ones who love flag football. The sport is growing for all kinds of reasons: Players don't need a lot of protective equipment, so it's cheaper and easier to field a team; and kids can play whether they are big or small.

"Tackle football is America's favorite sport, but we view flag as the No. 1 growth area of the sport," said Scott Hallenback, executive director of USA Football, which is the sport's national governing body on youth and amateur levels and the official youth football development partner of the NFL and NFL Players Association.

Interestingly, flag football for girls is seen as an especially ripe area for growth.

"Girls of all shapes and sizes can play," explained Samantha Rapoport, manager of the NFL Girls Flag Football Leadership Program. "And you don't have to be a phenomenal athlete to contribute. There is a position for every type of girl in the field."

A sport like baseball can be difficult for kids who don't start playing young. But flag football can be learned and enjoyed by just about anybody who can run and catch a ball. "A girl who might not have played any sport before can play flag football," said Rapoport.

Tracy Dansker, 22, a senior at Rice University in Houston, grew up in New York City and says she "never even watched an entire football game" before she came to Rice. Now she's captain of Rice's flag football team and plays tight end.

"Football is a really big cultural thing here," she said. "Everyone's into football."

Dansker was on her swim team in high school, and when she got to Rice, she was looking for "the camaraderie of a team." Flag football turned out to be the perfect option. At Rice, she said, "girls' flag is the most widely followed college sport. We call it 'powder puff football.' It's a lot of fun."

Just how many kids play flag is hard to pin down. Over 125,000 - girls and boys - play on teams affiliated with NFL youth sports, Rapoport said, but there are thousands more who play on neighborhood or school teams that are not officially part of the NFL system.

"The number is high and it's growing," Rapoport said.

Rapoport says flag football for girls really got off the ground about 10 years ago in Florida, which now leads the country in girls playing the sport in high school. It's also big in Alaska and Texas, among other states, and there are even international girls' flag competitions with teams from Central America and Canada.

Bill Massey, athletic director at Boca Raton High School in Florida, said Palm Beach County started with girls' flag teams at a half-dozen schools eight or nine years ago. Now, he says, all 26 high schools in Palm Beach County have girls' flag teams, with many more around the state.

Massey said that before Boca Raton offered flag for girls, football was a boys' sport.

"But there was a tremendous amount of interest and excitement among girls in playing the game," he said. "The flag model gives them a chance to play the game they see on TV and become football players as well as fans."

Flag football is a spring sport in Florida, beginning in February and finishing in May, while the boys play tackle in the fall. And that's given rise to another phenomenon at Boca Raton High:

"Some of our girls play flag football in the spring, and then are cheerleaders in the fall," Massey said. "They really enjoy that, because they get to show off their skills as well as their enthusiasm."

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