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A proud Irvington celebrates its equal-opportunity football All-Americans - FlagSpin

A proud Irvington celebrates its equal-opportunity football All-Americans

As a youth football coaching legend in Irvington and longtime announcer for that high school’s boys and girls basketball game, The late Ralph Steele had developed an acute eye for budding athletic talent.

He spotted N.F.L.-worthy skills before the youngster was even old enough for middle school and could see Division 1 basketball potential while the student was still dribbling around for the JV team.

His son, Kyle Steele, found out three years ago that his dad could also spot talent that could be readily applied to a sport a particular athlete had never even played.

That was the case of Janasia Wilson three years ago, when Irvington was launching its first girls flag football program and she was an athlete fully dedicated to the sport of basketball. Kyle Steele, also the head wrestling coach, was tabbed as the first head coach for that nascent enterprise.

“He came to me because he was watching girls basketball games. He said, ‘If you want to coach football, there’s a girl on the girls basketball team and she’s kinda good. You might want to ask her to come out,’ ” Kyle Steele recalled.

“I was smart enough to listen to him. I’d never seen her play,” he said.

Wilson was good right from the start, determined to learn and improve along the way and now considered to be one of the nation’s top flag football players from the class of 2023.

Wilson and fellow boys football star Vaboue Toure were both recognized as such Monday afternoon as both were officially announced as U.S. Army Bowl All-Americans for 2023 at a festive ceremony attended by the student body Monday afternoon at the school’s auditorium.

Toure, a Penn State commit, will represent Irvington in the 24th U.S. Army Bowl Dec. 18 in Frisco, Texas, and Wilson will do the same for that event’s inaugural Girls Flag Football Tournament in Frisco.

According to Rich McGuinnes, chairman of the U.S. Army Bowl, Irvington is the only school in the country with both a boys and girls representative.

“I’m excited about this, and excited for Janasia, too,” Toure said. “It’s a great thing not just for the football teams, but the whole high school and for any other girls who might want to play football. They see now this isn’t just a sport for boys.”

That was certified three years ago when Irvington athletic director Dr. John Taylor approached Schools Superintendent Dr. April Vauss about the prospects of starting a program. This was ground-floor stuff for a sport that has since exploded in New Jersey, with 80 teams participating last spring and much more expected over the next two years.

“When Doc came to me three years ago with the idea of female flag football, I said, ‘Of course! Of course! If boys can do it, we can do it, too, right girls?” she said to an outburst of applause.

Wilson went from thinking of herself as a future college basketball player (the point guard has scored 1,243 points in her first three seasons) to knowing now how that question from Kyle Steele about trying something new completely changed her course.

She did, after all, both pass and throw for over 1,000 yards and account for 47 touchdowns in just 10 games last spring. She was invited to the first flag game of the Phil Simms NJ North/South All-Star Football Game as a junior last June, and she guided Irvington to the Nike Kickoff Classic national championship this past August in Oregon.

“It’s still very new, but football kind of took over basketball. Football is taking me bigger places than I ever expected,” she said. “I’m still going to finish out my basketball career here, but football is where it’s at.”

Flag football currently is “at” only 15 colleges nationwide as a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics varsity sport, but that is also gaining momentum. It was recently approved as a medal sport for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Wilson is being pursued by several of those NAIA programs, but seems to be favoring Ottawa University in Kansas, which has captured the first three national titles in that sport.

The scenario for Toure at Irvington was nothing at all like Wilson’s meteoric rise in an emergent game. The now 6-0, 195-pound five-star safety, arrived four years ago with some weighty expectations just because of his name.

Oldest brother Mohamed was a star at Pleasantville High and now a fifth-year linebacker at Rutgers. Next brother, Famah, was an First-Team All-State defensive back last year for Irvington and now with brother Mohamed at Rutgers. Their first cousin is former Rutgers star Kemoko Turay, an N.F.L. free agent who has played with Indianapolis and San Francisco.

Vaboue was offered by the Scarlet Knights, though decided fairly early in the process that he would be blazing his own path. He committed to Penn State last June.

“I have a good relationship with Coach (James) Franklin and it’s always felt like the right fit for me,” Toure said. “I was sad to see that Penn State and Rutgers wouldn’t be playing next year, but I’m still happy with my decision.”

Toure was even more disappointed about how Irvington’s season ended, with a 15-12 loss to 16th-ranked Roxbury Friday in the North 2, Group 4 playoff semifinals.

As the marching band and the cheerleaders did their things and fellow students cheered wildly for their local heroes Monday, Toure and Wilson each sounded more like kids who were at the event to support an All-American classmate, not to be celebrated as that for their achievements.

“People with half her talent don’t walk around with half the character she has. You would never know that she is that good. She’s the first one to practice, the hardest worker and she helps out any teammate at any time,” Steele said of Wilson.

“His humility is the best part about him,” assistant football coach Nehmie Theodore said of Toure. “Vaboue has a millionaire’s talent. What’s more important is he will never let the athleticism, the fame outshadow the man that he is. That’s what I’m most proud of about Vaboue.”

Mike Kinney can be reached at

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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