Many of the brightest young talents in girls’ flag football took the field in Beaverton, Ore. last week for the Nike Football Kickoff Classic in partnership with the NFL. When the high school players weren’t showing off their skills in the round-robin showcase, they caught up with Just Women’s Sports on their favorite parts about playing flag football, their professional football aspirations and more.

One thing all the players have in common is their fandom of women’s sports. When asked who their favorite athlete or team is in women’s sports, the responses varied between their flag football inspirations and other sports they play or watch.

Aaya McLyn, quarterback for Long Beach Poly (California), said flag football is secondary to soccer for her.

“My main sport is soccer so I do watch a lot of professional soccer. My favorite athlete is Abby Wambach just because of her aggression and want to be good,” she said, referencing the World Cup champion and U.S. women’s national soccer team’s all-time leading goal scorer.

Quarterback Janasia Wilson, who shined for Irvington (New Jersey) at the Nike Kickoff Classic, cited the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks as her favorite team when she’s not watching the U.S. women’s national flag football team.

Another player from Long Beach Poly said college softball is her other favorite sport, and she likes watching Tennessee’s Kiki Milloy and Oklahoma’s Tiare Jennings in particular.

Two players from Willowbrook (Illinois) were quick to shout out Diana Flores, the quarterback and captain of the Mexican national flag football team. Flores has played for Mexico since she was 16 and has been an advocate for making flag football an Olympic sport in 2028.

@justwomenssports So clean 😮‍💨 @Nike #flagfootball #girlsflagfootball #football ♬ original sound - Just Women’s Sports

Finally, Leiana Juarez of Vegas showed her appreciation for one of the greatest athletes of all time, retired tennis legend Serena Williams.

“I’d say Serena Williams,” Juarez said, “just because she’s super hardworking and dedicated and she always is humble about everything and just continues to show out towards the world.”

It didn’t take long for Janasia Wilson to steal the spotlight at the Nike Football Kickoff Classic on Thursday, after she predicted that her team would “win all these games” in a mic’d-up segment during warm-ups.

The quarterback from Irvington High School (New Jersey) led her team down the field in the first quarter of their 14-0 win over Willowbrook High School (Illinois). From the 2-yard line, Wilson snapped the ball, avoided an incoming pass rusher and scampered out to the right and into the endzone for her team’s first touchdown.

Wilson helped Irvington build their lead on another run in the first half. Rolling out to the right again, she cut inside past two diving defenders and crossed the endline to give her team a commanding two-touchdown lead.

The Blue Knights would not relinquish the lead from there. With their defense holding Willowbrook scoreless, Willowbrook’s two touchdowns were more than enough to seal the victory.

Just Women’s Sports mic’d Wilson up during warm-ups, and the jokes she made with her teammates reflected the moves she displayed later on the field.

“I would’ve juked you,” she said. “You would have got crossed. You would’ve been eating turf.”

@justwomenssports Janasia Wilson mic’d up at warm ups 🤣 @Nike #flagfootball #micdup ♬ original sound - Just Women’s Sports

The game was part of the second-annual Nike Football Kickoff Classic in partnership with the NFL, a round-robin showcase for some of the top girls’ and boys’ high school flag football programs in the country.

The Robinson Knights and Alonso Ravens reside just 15 miles apart from each other in the same county in Florida, but last week, the two teams traveled to the Pacific Northwest to compete in front of a national audience, showcasing a sport that continues to grow throughout the country.

With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country, and the reason so many girls are now playing this fast-paced version of America’s most popular sport is simple — a 37-word piece of legislation known as Title IX.

Behind an impressive outing from sophomore quarterback Haidyn Spano, the Knights beat the Ravens 12-6 in the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic, which took place at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and was broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube. The sport has been gaining popularity in recent years, particularly since Nike and the NFL partnered in 2021 to donate $5 million in product to grow the sport in high schools across the U.S.

In the late 1990s, schools from Broward and Orange Counties in Florida were looking for girls sports to add to achieve Title IX compliance, according to Jeremy Hernandez, the Director of Flag Football for the Florida High School Athletic Association.

“When the interest started coming to the FHSAA of counties wanting to add girls flag football, it was solely for Title IX compliance, to help out with those numbers,” Hernandez said.

With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country. (Northwest Florida Daily News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Flag football was an attractive option at these schools for a variety of reasons.

For starters, it’s relatively inexpensive to add in terms of equipment and facilities, especially for schools that already sponsor tackle football. Additionally, flag football’s substantial roster size gives schools a larger drop in the bucket of equitable participation opportunities, and football is huge in Florida.

While the traditional tackle version of the sport has long been deemed a male domain — though the gender barriers are breaking down more each day in that respect — Hernandez posits the popularity of girls flag football in the state is a reflection of a previously stifled desire to play the sport they know so well.

“With Florida being a football state as it is, this is a version for them to be able to go out there and showcase their skills that they can throw and catch and run just as good as the boys,” Hernandez said.

While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. In 2002-03, the very first academic year the sport was sanctioned by the state, 103 schools participated, which was more than twice as many that were required for a first-year offering. The fact that so many schools were able to successfully field teams right away likely speaks to the success of the sport at the club level in the years leading up to its varsity launch.

While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. (Clayton Freeman/Florida Times-Union via USA TODAY NETWORK)

A big contributor to the sport’s general popularity in the state, and now all around the world, has been the International Women’s Flag Football Association. Founded in 1995 by Diane Beruldsen, the IWFFA hosts its annual tournament in Key West, with as many as 49 teams from around the world, including a girls and juniors division. Beruldsen, who first began playing flag football in New York in the ‘70s, spent many of the IWFFA’s early years traveling throughout Florida and eventually beyond, starting new teams and launching leagues.

“In the early years with flag football, we had to create our own,” Beruldsen said. “I hit the road across the United States. In those days, I was teaching women how to play flag football. And today I teach women how to officiate, start leagues, develop leagues and how to coach.”

In 2020, the sport experienced another significant step forward. With financial and operational backing from the NFL, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics announced it was adding women’s flag football as a varsity sport at the college level. Of the 15 member schools currently fielding teams, five of them are Florida institutions. The only other state with multiple NAIA teams is Kansas with three.

Even though Nike and the NFL have given the sport an incredible boost in the last couple of years, Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level, which explains why programs like Alonso and Robinson have reached such an elite level.

Alonso has been to the state championship game four times, claiming two titles in Class 2A, while Robinson has won seven out of the last eight state championships in 1A. Between the two teams on the field last Friday, six players were first or second team all-state selections, and with head coaches who have been running their programs for 15-plus seasons, these powerhouse schools show no signs of slowing down.

Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level. (Pensacola News Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK)

That doesn’t mean, however, their competition won’t be catching up to them.

The Newsome Wolves, for one, have been causing fits for Alonso for the past couple of years, knocking the Ravens out of the state championship tournament in both 2021 and 2022.

But it was clear at Friday’s marquee event that everyone from Alonso and Robinson believes that a rising tide lifts all boats when it comes to pushing their sport forward.

The more competition, the better.

In his postgame response to how he felt about Friday’s game, Robinson coach Josh Saunders expressed this one-for-all mindset.

“I hope it showed everybody everywhere that you can play flag football like this in every state and get the excitement level that these kids have for it,” he said.

A replay of the Nike Kickoff Classic will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network at 7 a.m. ET on Saturday.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Two high school flag football teams, both from the same county in Florida, flew across the country to go head-to-head at the first-of-its-kind Nike Kickoff Classic on Friday, celebrating the return of football season across the country.

Playing at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., in the biggest spotlight of their young careers, the Robinson Knights defeated the Alonso Ravens 12-6 in a tightly contested game between the longtime rivals.

Co-hosted by the NFL alongside Nike, the game built upon last year’s groundbreaking commitment from the two powerhouse companies of $5 million in product to grow girls flag football in high school athletics across the country.

After two days of special events and programming, the teams found themselves on familiar territory, facing each other within the lines of the football field. Opting to defer after winning the coin toss, Alonso found itself on its heels against a surprisingly jitter-less drive led by Robinson quarterback Haidyn Spano. The first sophomore to earn the starting quarterback role for the Knights since 2007, Spano’s youth had both her and head coach Josh Saunders on edge coming into the game.

But on just her seventh pass for her sixth completion of the game, Spano connected with two-time first team all-state wide receiver Katejion Robinson, as she cut across the center of the field and watched her turn on the jets to cover the remaining 20 yards and find the end zone, giving the Knights a 6-0 lead.

After Alonso head coach Matt Hernandez watched his squad’s first drive come up short, despite several solid gains on short passes to senior running back Sadie Bodie, Spano proved further why she’s the one taking the snaps for Robinson. Perfectly placed passes to Bella Rodriguez and again to Robinson for big gains positioned the Knights with first-and-goal, but they turned the ball over on downs after a touchdown-saving deflection from Alonso junior linebacker Sophie Duong.

The last big play of the half came from Alonso QB Mieke Rowe with 26 seconds left. The reigning state leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns and total TDs, Rowe took the snap from midfield on first-and-15, rolled to her left and cut back center to avoid a tenacious rush from Alonso’s Julia Guillermo. She released a pinpoint pass in stride away from her body that sped through a defender’s arms for a completion to junior WR Carina Annunziata.

Unfortunately for Alonso, Spano played as big on defense as she did on offense and knocked down a pass to the end zone to end the half, protecting Robinson’s 6-0 lead.

Alonso started the second half with its best drive of the game, finally getting the ball into the hands of senior WR Eryn Klaus, the 2022 team MVP. After a long run up the center to put her team in the red zone, Klaus expertly sealed off her defender to notch Rowe’s first passing touchdown of the season, putting the Ravens on the board and tying the game at 6-all.

In the end, the consistent connection between Spano and Robinson proved to be the difference. With her length and speed, Robinson was unstoppable, cutting under when being backed and going deep when fronted.

But it was her senior teammate, Adriana Williams, who scored the decisive touchdown. On third-and-goal at the 1, Williams took a surprise short snap and laid out into the air, diving across the goal line and crossing the plane just before her flag was pulled.

After an impressive full-extension interception by Makenna Sturgis gave Alonso one final possession with about two and half minutes left in the game, a series of incompletions led to Rowe throwing an interception of her own.

As Spano took a knee and watched the final seconds tick off, the team erupted into celebration, and the sophomore QB and her coach shared a moment of mutual elation — the kind that only comes from having brilliantly risen to the occasion.

“We had a conversation in the hotel lobby, and I just told her the next three years are going to be awesome for us. And there’s going to be some struggle,” Robinson coach Josh Saunders said about Spano. “We saw the awesome, which was the fourth down play for the touchdown, and then we saw the youth on the interception at the end of the game where you’ve got to take care of the ball.

“We’re going to work through all that, but man, we’re very, very excited.”

Regardless of the final score, both teams successfully showcased what the game of girls flag football is all about and why it continues to catch on throughout the country.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Highlights of girls and women making stunning plays in flag football have been going viral in increasing numbers in recent years, and that’s because the sport is spreading like wildfire across the country, partly due to the recent initiative between Nike and the NFL that committed $5 million in product to grow girls flag football in high school athletics. State athletic associations can now apply for a one-time donation of up to $100,000 in product to go toward launching or supporting girls flag football.

In the latest augmentation of the initiative, Nike and the NFL have invited two of the top high school girls flag football teams in the country to square off this Friday as part of the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic celebrating the return of football season across the country. In the grandest spotlight the sport has yet been given, the Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. (PT) in a game that will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube from Ronaldo Field at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Beyond the flashy dollar signs and viral game clips, the participation numbers of girls in the sport reveal that real growth is happening where it matters. When the NFL and Nike first announced their initiative to grow girls flag football, six states sponsored the sport (Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York).

Since that announcement, one academic year has passed, and two more states have officially added the sport — Arkansas and Alabama — with California set to launch its program in 2023. In 2010, there were 6,235 girls playing high school flag football. By 2018, the latest data set available, that number had grown to 11,209 and that was three years before the boost from Nike and the NFL.

One person who has noticed the recent flame of popularity for the sport is Diane Beruldsen, founder of the International Women’s Flag Football Association (IWFFA), who has been playing and growing the sport of women’s flag football since the 1970s.

“I have to say, with the NFL’s advertisements, their excitement, they really have increased the number of flag football players for girls and women,” Berulsden said. “The last three years, I’d say, flag football has really bloomed.”

Just like all other sports, women have been playing football since its inception. They may have been off in the margins, away from mainstream attention and approval, but they were there. Women’s tackle football leagues have existed in the U.S. since the 1960s, as recently documented in “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League,” and continue today with not one but two elite leagues (the Women’s Football Alliance and the Women’s National Football Conference) pushing the game forward.

According to Diane Beruldson, the first organized women’s flag football league was started in 1971 by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and still continues today, now with 28 teams. (Treasure Coast News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

It’s no different with flag football, which women have been playing since soon after its inception in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“In the early years, we had to fight for field space,” Berdulsen said. “It would be the men first, then the boys, then the girls, then the women last.”

According to Beruldson, the first organized women’s flag football league was started in 1971 by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and still continues today, now with 28 teams. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, more leagues formed across the U.S. Beruldson herself spearheaded leagues in Brooklyn (1985), New York (1990) and Key West (1991). By 2001, the annual tournament she hosted in Key West included 49 teams and had added divisions for girls and juniors between the ages of 8 and 15.

It’s no surprise that when Florida became the first state to sanction girls flag football as a varsity sport in 2002, there were 103 schools and 3,855 participants across the state. Today, 320 schools in the state have teams.

Nevada had similar success when one of the state’s school districts launched a girls flag football program in 2014 after a student survey aimed at increasing girls participation in athletics revealed flag football received the highest interest amongst prospective new sports. Thirty-seven schools in the state now sponsor the sport for girls.

In Georgia and Alabama, financial support from the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons has been instrumental in launching their programs through grant money that schools can apply for and use for a variety of needs such as game officials and coach stipends. Georgia had 191 teams participate in just its second year of sanctioning the sport last season, and Alabama has 44 schools registered for its pilot program this year.

Beyond the financial commitment from the NFL and Nike, flag football has other appealing attributes that are contributing to its growing popularity.

For one, it’s a relatively low-cost sport in terms of equipment and facilities for athletic departments to add, especially for those that already sponsor tackle football. It also taps into the massive popularity of American tackle football. Its familiarity makes it attractive to new players, parents, and athletics supporters.

Lastly, its roster sizes are large enough to significantly increase the numbers of girls participating in sports for a given school, district and state.

“According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are one million fewer female high school athletes participating in sports than their male counterparts. This discrepancy is largely due to football,” Nike said via email. “As one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., flag football provides girls with another opportunity to play and compete in sport and has the power to make a difference during a crucial period in their athletic development.”

Beyond the financial commitment from the NFL and Nike, flag football has other appealing attributes that are contributing to its growing popularity. (Treasure Coast News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Given that the noted disparity in high school athletics participation numbers is hardly a recent finding, it’s logical to wonder why now? Or more accurately, why not until now?

The obvious answer is that gendered social norms have always deemed tackle football a strictly male sphere. The women who played the game in the early decades went boldly against the grain, and many girls and women playing tackle football today still face significant backlash.

If individual families and communities haven’t been encouraging girls and women to pursue football in grand numbers, it’s no surprise that large organizations haven’t done so either, which reveals a fourth attribute that makes flag football so appealing — it’s not tackle football.

With increasing awareness and concern over concussions in athletics, especially in football, and persistent reluctance to see traditional tackle football as a girls game, flag is a very alluring version to promote.

Within flag football, there are many different variations. The main demarcation is how many players are on the field at a time. Beruldson believes the 8-on-8 variation played and taught by the IWFFA has the most to offer athletes. Whereas in 5-on-5 and 7-on-7, there is no blocking allowed, the 8-on-8 version includes blocking and most closely resembles the 11-on-11 tackle version of the game, making it a sport that requires and values a wide variety of body shapes and athleticism.

The existing national tackle football leagues for women — the WFA and WNFC — are thrilled with the explosion of flag football at the youth and high school levels. From their perspective, flag football is a direct gateway to the tackle version of the game.

“As flag develops, girls want to put on helmets. It’s just some girls are tackle football players,” said Odessa Jenkins, founder and CEO of the WNFC. “I don’t care what you do, how many flags you let her pull, she wants to tackle. She wants to get physical.”

Women’s football leaders across the board are also thrilled by the fact that flag football is now a sponsored varsity sport at 15 colleges in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Once again, the NFL was integral to this development, partnering with the NAIA to create the infrastructure and operations required to add the sport and serving as the presenting sponsor of the NAIA Football National Championships.

The recent rise of girls flag football across the country may give the impression that the sport was pulled out of thin air, but women have been playing and growing the game on their own for decades. What we’re seeing now is the incredible growth that’s possible when power players like Nike and the NFL come together to promote the natural athleticism and desire to play.

“What drives us is the possibility of inspiring more girls and women to see themselves in sport,” Nike said via email. “This grant demonstrates Nike’s continued commitment to inspire girls to continue to keep playing.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

When organizations like the NFL and Nike throw their weight behind girls’ sports, some amazing things come to fruition.

One such example is taking place this Friday when two high school girls’ flag football teams will face off as part of the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic to celebrate the return of football season around the country. Highlighting one of the fastest-growing sports for girls on the grandest stage yet proffered, the Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. local time in a game that will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube from Ronaldo Field at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Interestingly, the schools are both located in Hillsborough County, Fla., and have regularly met face-to-face on the gridiron since the sport first took off in the area in the mid-2000s. So, why bring two teams from the very same county across the U.S. for this marquee matchup? Well, although they are only 15 miles apart, the girls’ flag football teams at Alonso and Robinson are two of the top five teams in the state of Florida, which has been the epicenter of the sport since it was first sanctioned in 2002, long before it caught on in other states.

In 2016, the Florida High School Athletic Association even expanded the sport into two classifications because so many schools had added teams. Alonso is a 2A school, while Robinson is 1A, meaning the schools no longer go head-to-head for the state championship. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still view each other as rivals.

For the Ravens, head coach Matt Hernandez has led the team to the state championship game four times since taking over the program 15 years ago, winning the title in both 2018 and 2019. Josh Saunders, his counterpart at Robinson who’s been with the Knights for 16 seasons, has taken his team to the state championship eight years in a row, winning seven titles and the last six in a row in 1A.

Merely based on rankings and state titles, Alonso enters the game as the presumptive underdog, and perhaps that’s the mindset the Ravens’ three senior captains are instilling in their teammates as they prepare for the biggest game of their teenage lives.

One of those captains, Alonso quarterback Mieke Rowe, led the state in passing yards (5,091), passing touchdowns (91) and total TDs (98) as a junior last season. Eryn Klaus, a co-captain and one of Rowe’s top targets, has been a starting wide receiver on the varsity team for four years, earning first team all-state honors as both a sophomore and junior.

But perhaps the most exciting Ravens player to watch is sophomore wide receiver Makenna Sturgis, who led the state in yards per catch (18.8) a year ago as a freshman and was second in the state in total receiving yards (1,333), receiving touchdowns (25) and total touchdowns (29).

Whereas Alonso has a seasoned and accomplished quarterback in Rowe, Robinson sophomore Haidyn Spano will be the one taking snaps and running the offense for the Knights. It’s the first time since 2015 that the Knights’ starting quarterback has not been a senior and the first time since 2007 that a sophomore has earned that key role for the squad.

Luckily, Spano will have wide receiver Katejion Robinson, a two-time first team all-state wide receiver who led the state in total scoring last year. Leading the defensive efforts for the Knights is senior captain Julia Guillermo, a first team all-state rusher who notched an impressive 98 tackles and 39 sacks last season.

For those new to flag football, the sport resembles the traditional version of America’s most popular sport in most aspects, except, of course, that no tackles are allowed. Instead, a player is considered down where her feet are when one of the two flags from her belt has been pulled free by a defender.

At the high-school level, teams play 7-on-7, with a center, quarterback and five eligible receivers on offense. The field is 40 yards wide and 80 yards long between end zones, with yard lines marked at the 40-yard midfield line and at each 20-yard line. The quarterback can run, hand off or pass the ball, and the team has four downs to progress to the next 20-yard marker.

Touchdowns are worth six points, and the scoring team then chooses whether to attempt a one-point, two-point or three-point conversion. As there are no linemen or blocking, a defensive line of scrimmage is separated from the offensive line by a 5- or 7-yard neutral zone that cannot be entered until the ball is snapped. There are no helmets or pads, but mouthpieces are required.

When you extract traditional tackling from American football, the game is distilled down to one of extreme speed, agility and accuracy, which girls have been displaying on football fields across the country in ever-increasing numbers as flag football spreads like wildfire.

For the Ravens and Knights, Friday’s game is two things at once: the next of many games against a longtime rival and an unprecedented opportunity to showcase an empowering arena for girls in football to the entire country.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

The first-ever women’s division of the American Flag Football League crowned its inaugural champion over the weekend, with The Academy defeating She Blitz 26-0 at AVEVA Stadium in Houston.

In addition to the championship trophy, The Academy earned the biggest payday in the history of women’s professional football. The winning team took home the $200,000 grand prize, which is the same amount the AFFL awarded the men’s championship team.

The AFFL, the premier flag football organization in the world, introduced the women’s division this year in its fourth season of play. The league has attracted women’s football stars such as Vanita Krouch and Michelle Roque.