Images courtesy of Will Hammock, Gwinnett Daily Post
Spectators, family, and friends are encouraged to come to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to cheer the girls on Thursday. Fans should enter Gate 2 after 4 p.m. The first game begins at 5 p.m., with the championship expected to begin around 6:30 p.m. There is no admission charged to attend the festivities, but parking fees are charged at nearby lots and garages. Spectators will be allowed on the field for photographs during the post-game Ceremony of Champions.
It’s the kind of opportunity that gridiron dreams are made of… playoffs under the dome and on the same turf where the Atlanta Falcons play football and the Atlanta United soccer team recently won the MLS championship.
What’s different? The players on the field.
When four teams take the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 20, they’ll be deciding the champion in Gwinnett County Public Schools’ inaugural season of Girls Flag Football. Family, friends, and fans will be on hand to cheer teams from Collins Hill HS, Grayson HS, North Gwinnett HS, and Peachtree Ridge HS as they face off in semifinals to determine which two teams will meet for the championship.
One of the players on the field will be Adagia, a Peachtree Ridge sophomore who says that her Flag Football teammates have become her family. Adagia says she looks up to the upperclassmen on the team who have helped her grow as an athlete. “They have taught me how to act on a team, how to keep my head up during difficult times, and how to better my game.”
Gwinnett’s Girls Flag Football program is designed to give young women like Adagia more opportunities for physical activity. Nearly 500 girls were involved this first season. GCPS fielded 19 teams from the district’s cluster high schools, with teams made up of 25 players. Interest in the program was so high that schools had as many as 60 to 100 girls show up for tryouts in October.
“This has been an incredible season for GCPS Girls Flag Football,” says Jon Weyher, GCPS’ director of Athletics Activities and Community Schools. “With support from the Atlanta Falcons, USA Football, ESPN, and now Nike, the student athletes have been able to learn the basic fundamentals of football while having fun.”
Because the Arthur M. Blank Foundation and the other sponsors covered the full cost of equipment and customized uniforms, the players were able to participate at no cost. Peachtree Ridge Coach Patrice Allen says this support created an “experience of a lifetime” for participants. Of her own team, she says, “I think flag football has given our athletes more confidence in their athletic abilities and the importance of fighting through adversity.”
Gwinnett is the first Georgia school district to embrace the all-girls sport, with a season running from October into December. During the regular season, each team played up to 14 games. Twice-weekly practices ensured the team members were learning their Xs and Os and getting the needed conditioning for their games. Organizers were pleased to have an average of 100 fans in attendance at each game. On any given Tuesday or Wednesday during the season, 10 teams played a game at one of five sites around the county.
“Each week I enjoyed watching the teams compete, not for a scholarship, but for the love of the game,” says Mr. Weyher, adding that the coaches did an outstanding job teaching participants the rules of the game and working with them to develop plays, as evidenced the improvements made by each team, from Week 1 through the playoffs.
Flag Football is one of the nation’s fastest growing community sports, with minimal equipment and a relatively low budget. Gwinnett’s experience may be replicated as a model school-based program for other NFL cities. With interest spreading to other school districts in the state— Atlanta Public Schools will launch a program in 2019-20— organizers hope to lobby the Georgia High School Association to recognize Flag Football as a sport in Georgia.
Coach Allen’s coaching colleague Ashley Douglas says one of her best memories of the season was watching her athletes overcome a rival team in the playoffs. “They realized how capable they were when they worked together, and they were able to enjoy the win as a family,” she says. “We had goosebumps as we were able to check off a major team goal this season.”
And this season has been full of those goosebumps moments… from the first games to the last, including pre-game festivities for the Falcons-Giants game on Oct. 31 when players served as the Rise Up flag crew for Monday Night Football.
Another exciting opportunity is on tap for this week. Before the playoffs begin, all student-athletes and coaches from GCPS Girls Flag Football will be treated to a special dinner hosted by the Falcons and will participate in a female-focused leadership event— Together We Rise Girls Flag Football Championship Summit— on character, confidence, and women in the workforce. Speakers will include LaChina Robinson, basketball analyst for ESPN and Fox Sports 1; Allison Fillmore, executive director of the PGA Tour; and Morgan Shaw Parker, vice president of the Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment Group.
For female athletes who are thinking of going out for their school’s Flag Football team next fall, Adagia has some advice. “If you're going to try out, make sure the effort is there and that you are dedicated to the team!” she says. “You're going to break nails, you're going to get hit, but make sure you leave room in your heart for family and wanting to get better. You need to be in it to win it, have mental toughness, and have the desire to take the team as far as they can go.”
That desire to win will be on display come Thursday. Watch for news on our end-of-season Flag Football Champions!