The Alabama High School Athletic Association is offering girls flag football for the first time this fall. The season has been under way for a couple weeks, and the first participants were ecstatic.
The Birmingham and Tuscaloosa areas are home of most schools offering the sport, which is now in seven states. Alabama joined Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York in offering the sport.
“‘Coach, we want to play football too,'” Greensboro coach Willie Ray said girls in his school had expressed to him.
“I had some very enthusiastic, highly-motivated girls. As you can see, their first game was 23-7, all of them are athletes. I’m just happy to be a part of it. Historic for us because it’s our first year having it around these parts.”
Girls have played boys varsity football before in Alabama, like Northridge starting kicker, Aileen Charles. Greensboro quarterback Tamia Lewis said a few of her teammates have tried playing on the boys team, but girls flag football is a chance to have their own sport.
“My brothers always played football and I grew up with them, so I always liked the sport of football,” Chadyn Gatewood of Central said.
Nearly eight months of planning by the AHSAA, and three years of work by NFL Flag and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, led to anticipation throughout Alabama. Jeff Segars wanted to see it himself.
Segars, who joined the AHSAA as an assistant director in July, took over managing flag football’s first season. He scheduled visits to a few of the 44 schools fielding teams. One of those was Spain Park, but athletics director Patrick Kellogg called Segars to temper expectations. It didn’t matter, Segars said.
“Look, anything is great,” Segars told Kellogg. “I want to see it grow.”
For the AHSAA, the 2021 flag football season is considered a pilot year. The sport isn’t officially sanctioned and teams aren’t separated by classification. But in testing out its viability, the AHSAA has provided free rulebooks and helped teams secure funding for uniforms.
“Right now we’ve developed a plan that we think is good for this year,” Segars said. “If this sport becomes sanctioned, then we’ll have a sit down and look at how we want to develop that.”
A trophy is still expected to be presented hours before the Class 7A championship game at the Super 7 football championship game at Protective Life Stadium in Birmingham. Any school that wants to participate can be considered for the year-end tournament. The AHSAA plans on having the eight-team bracket final in early December.
More schools across Alabama had planned to participate, but a lack of interest in the southern part of the state led to some programs having too many travel issues to have a season.
Segars cited travel as the biggest issue in organizing schedules. He wants schools that considered offering the sport to take notice of how this first year goes in a hope that more soon join.
Once the AHSAA officially recognizes flag football, more regulations will be applied. That includes scheduling restrictions, academic eligibility and championship qualifications.
“We’re getting there,” Segars said. “… If we sit down and learn from this season as we move towards next year, I think that would be success.”
The Gadsden City High School powder-puff game during homecoming is one of the school’s more popular girls sporting events, but athletics director Todd Lamberth cited travel as a main the Titans did not participate in flag football this season.
Lamberth said he did not hear of any other Gadsden-area teams being interested.
“We had a schedule if we wanted to play a season,” he said. “Every time we’d play, we would have to travel 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, just playing in the Birmingham region.
“If Southside, Westbrook Christian, Hokes Bluff, Glencoe or even Albertville played, it’s something we would have done.”
Lamberth said no athletes reached out to him directly about interest in flag football, but he was approached by the volleyball, girls basketball and soccer coaches about the sport.
While the coaches had some concerns about injuries and scheduling for volleyball, which is in season, and girls basketball, which could potentially impact practice schedules, they did show support.
“They were willing to work with the schedules and allow girls to participate if they chose to,” Lamberth said. “Softball and soccer, they are out of season. It would have been awesome for them to do during the offseason.”
Central, Greensboro and Tuscaloosa-area schools have proved working through the schedules can be done, although the fall girls athletes do have a lot on their plates. Most Tuscaloosa-area teams plan to play about 10 regular-season games.
“It was high (interest), but the young ladies in the school are already spread thin,” Central coach Dennis Conner said. “A lot of them are already doing a lot of different things, but we were able to get 10 or 12 good ones and we’re going to run with that.”
Lamberth said most schools in Gadsden City’s football league, 7A Region 3, are fielding girls teams this season, so he’ll collect their thoughts as Segars hopes non-participating schools will do.
“It’s something that will be a mainstay, once we get it going,” Lamberth said.
Central and Greensboro played their Sept. 21 opening game through steady rain as fans deployed umbrellas during the second half. Lewis showed off arm strength that can rival many boys quarterbacks.
“What more can you ask for?” Ray said.
Nick Alvarez and Ehsan Kassim contributed to this report.