As metro Atlanta counts down to the Super Bowl in February, a different significant gridiron match took place Thursday in the same venue.
The inaugural girls flag football season for Gwinnett County schools wrapped up at Mercedes Benz Stadium with four teams vying for bragging rights to say they won the first championship. Undefeated North Gwinnett took on Collins Hill while Peachtree Ridge went against Grayson. After those games, the surviving winners went at it.
The night ended with Peachtree Ridge handing North Gwinnett its first loss. The Lions won 20 to 0.
The girls league is an experiment sponsored by the Atlanta Falcons and Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, in partnership with Gwinnett County Public Schools. They’d like to provide high school girls with both the opportunity to participate in an organized league — with the ultimate goal of spreading girls flag football around the state and establishing it as a Georgia High School Association sanctioned sport — and to give girls one more chance at establishing active lifestyles that have immediate and long-term benefits to academics and their health.
One of the standouts at Thursday’s game was Peachtree Ridge quarterback Monique Thame who scored two touchdowns in the championship game. She said she almost didn’t try out for the team.
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“I already play basketball and wasn’t sure I’d have time,” she said. “I was helping my friends train and they encouraged me to go for it.”
As the coach assessed the girls’ skills they realized Monique had a pretty good arm.
“I wish they would’ve started this sooner,” she said. “I’m a senior, so this is my only season.”
Gwinnett County Public Schools piloted the program, but interest has grown. Atlanta Public Schools, as well as Cobb, Fulton, Henry, Muscogee and Rockdale counties have inquired about starting programs for the 2019-2020 school year. Whether districts will compete against each other hasn’t been worked out yet, but organizers are excited.
“This year exceeded our expectations,” said Chris Millman, vice president of community relations for the Atlanta Falcons. “The enthusiasm from the players, the schools and the fans was overwhelming.”
If the energy from players, coaches, school officials and sponsors is any indication, this season passed the test. The turnout is probably the smallest the arena has seen with just a few hundred attendees who were mainly relatives and friends of the players. But the victory of those athletes may help level another playing field — by giving girls a chance at more school-based sports. Georgia is one of several states that offers more sports options to boys than girls.
Being active has immediate benefits for girls, in particular for mental health. Research shows that pre-teen and teenage girls who play on a sports team report greater life satisfaction, greater self-esteem and feel healthier than girls who did not. There is evidence that playing sports helps cognitive skills in youth and adolescents. Sports exercises the body and also “exercises” executive mental functions because they require sustained attention, memory and self-discipline.
Research also suggests girls who develop active lifestyles as adolescents continue that into adulthood, which has long-term benefits.
Ongoing research by the American Psychological Association shows that as early as 10 years of age girls begin to become more sedentary, their activity levels dropping by as much as 83 percent as they transition through adolescence. And inactive adolescents are likely to become inactive adults, which exacerbates substantial risk of serious health conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
But to the girls and the coaches, this is more than a weekly workout — it’s the start of something big.
Each of Gwinnett County’s 19 high school teams played 14 games after tryouts in September. While the majority of the hopefuls were already athletes who played softball, basketball, soccer and lacrosse, a significant number of non-athletes tried out.
Sarah Boigner a senior at Collins Hill plays softball, but has always been an avid football fan.
“I watch it all the time, and I wanted to get a chance to play,” she said. “Although the physicality is different than softball since we’re moving all the time, I think I was in pretty good shape to start, and I’m in better shape now.”
Collins Hill junior Natalie Alamri already had football experience. As the kicker for the boys football team she said she usually waited around until she was on the field and didn’t pay much attention to the game.
“It was more because I didn’t know as much about it,” she said. “Now I understand the plays more and I’m a lot more into football.”
The coaches and sponsors originally worried that they wouldn’t be able to find enough girls interested in the sport, but quickly realized they were filling a need. With a roster limited to 20 girls, every team ended up making cuts. Some schools had as few as 40 try out, but others had well over 200.
Collins Hill’s Frontia Fountain also coaches boys football and wrestling, but he’s glad for the chance to work with the girls. The former Savannah State standout and NFL player approached flag football almost the same as if the girls are suited up in pads.
“The girls caught on quickly and it shows on the field,” he said.
Although it is like regulation football, there is no physical contact. Instead of tackling, players pull a flag belt from the ball carrier. And there is no punting or kicking for points after touchdowns. The field is smaller, and the games usually last about an hour.
Almost all the flag football coaches had football experience and some had coached flag football.
“No matter what their background, all the coaches had some additional training,” said Scarlett Straughan, Collins Hill High School Athletic Director. “We’ll have even more next year since we have more time to prepare.”
Critics worry that focusing on a sport that college teams do not field may hurt a high school girl athlete’s chance for scholarships in other sports. If athletes are training for scholarships in softball, soccer, basketball or lacrosse, flag football may turn out to be a passing fad.
“I don’t think flag football will hinder girls who would get scholarships in other sports,” said Millman. “I’m a big believer in multi-sport athletes. The majority of the NFL first-round draft picks also played other sports. If anything, flag football will help them develop their skills for other sports and stay conditioned year round.”
When Michelle Townsend’s daughter Madison said she’d like to play flag football, the mother of two athletes didn’t bat an eye lash.
“She plays lacrosse and I thought this would be another way for her to stay active,” she said. “I support my children trying new things and encourage them in all their endeavors.”
Townsend has a son who’s on his school’s swim team, but she has managed to make almost every one of her daughter’s football games.
“It’s part of being a parent these days,” she said.
John Wolfe agreed.
His daughter Cydney was part of the winning team, and he couldn’t have been prouder.
“It’s a great opportunity and a great day for women’s sports,” he said. “I never would have dreamed I’d see her playing at Mercedes Benz.”
Additional sponsors such as Nike have come on board for the championship game by outfitting all four teams from head to toe.
Gwinnett County is committed to continuing with the program.
“In order for (Gwinnett County Public Schools) to stay a system of world class educators, we have to embrace innovative ideas,” said Aaron Lupuloff, executive director of the Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation. He added he’ll find sponsors to keep girls flag football going.
And for girls who are already thinking about next year’s season, Straughan has some advice.
“Work on your footwork and agility and watch a lot of football,” she said. “People are surprised at the physicality of the game, but once you get the hang of it, you have a lot of fun.”