The Saints flag football team lifts up Rashawn Munmon after his one-handed catch helped solidify the team’s win against the Ravens during the Coach Sarna League flag football championships on Saturday in Vallejo. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
The number of concussions in football has gone up in the United States recently, with play-related head blows often the cause of Chronic Traumatic encephalopathy — commonly known in and out of football as CTE.
Those three letters are raising a lot of red flags for parents already torn over the question of allowing their children to play a violent sport.
With that in mind, Ken and his son Ryan Sarna decided to focus on another kind of flag.
The NFL Youth Flag Football League in Vallejo — also called the Coach Sarna League — finished its second year of existence on Saturday with a championship tournament to coincide with Law Enforcement Appreciation Day. Local officials from the Vallejo Police Officers Association and the Vallejo Police Activities League showed up to throw out the “First Passes” of the day.
In the short existence of the Coach Sarna League, the organization has grown more than Pat Mahomes’ passing statistics.
“Ryan and Nina Sarna have done so much as volunteers to help this league grow,” Ken Sarna, said Ryan’s father between tears of joy. “Ryan approached me with this idea a few years ago about the necessity to have a quality youth league in Vallejo. He brought to my attention the growing sport of flag football.”
Just two years ago there were 120 athletes involved in the league sponsored by the NFL, with approximately 25 percent of the athletes being female. This past spring, over 540 registrants joined the league, making it the biggest youth league in Vallejo. The league has 54 teams and 90 volunteer coaches involved, and last year was named one of the Top 5 New Youth Flag Leagues in the United States by the NFL.
According to Ken Sarna, the nonprofit league has donated $17,000 in scholarships for people to play flag football. Not only are there more female players participating, there has also been a larger amount of special needs kids playing the sport.
Ryan Sarna has also been invited to speak at the 2023 NFL Youth Sports Conference to discuss the rapid success of the league. The NFL Flag Football Summit will be held July 19-22 in Atlanta. Coaches and league organizers from across the country attend the conference to get insight into the direction of youth flag football and discuss ideas of how to grow the sport across the country.
Ryan said he doesn’t take too much time to think about the league’s growth.
“Sometimes I stop to smell the roses,” Ryan said, with a laugh. “But I’ve been so busy. One hundred to 110 percent of my life has been me planning games. But I think about all the kids all the same. I’m always thinking of their smiling faces.”
Ryan Sarna said his favorite part of the league is seeing all the families come together each week to cheer on the kids while making new life-long friends and enjoying a good BBQ.
“I love watching all the emotions of the kids,” Ryan Sarna said. “I mean, the kids talk about these games all week long, not just today. They are having so much fun.
“We try to reach out to everyone. We try to reach out to the homeless. We have a few players that may live in a car during the week, but then they come out and get to play with all their friends during days like this. So it really is a blessing.”
Six games went on at the same time Saturday. Although scores were kept for every grade above fourth, it wasn’t what Saturday was about.
“Our message is more about sportsmanship and mentoring,” Ken Sarna said. “We keep an eye on the culture of this program on and off the field. Like Ryan often tells everyone, ‘We’re not just coaches, we’re shepherds.’ We want to send these kids on the right path.”
Flag football will begin in high schools this fall in some schools across California and the nation. More and more Ken Sarna says he has parents come up to him saying they won’t let their kids play tackle football, but they’re fine with flag football.
“Oh that happens all the time and I believe the NFL is very conscious of it,” Ken Sarna said. “They’ve done a great job promoting flag football.”
Ken Sarna said as high schools begin implementing flag football, he’s not too worried about the sport getting overly competitive. In the Coach Sarna League, coaches from both teams will often be on the field. Instead of chewing out a player for a mistake, the game will sometimes be stopped so coaches from both squads can have a teaching moment with the kid to correct the mistake they made. In the end, the league is about having fun and learning the game.
The biggest day of fun for the league may have come earlier in the year when coaches and the young athletes were invited to play at the Oakland Coliseum and Levi’s Stadium — home of the San Francisco 49ers. Athletes and coaches will often be on hand at those venues to help with vending concessions.
“See the kids on the field there with their arms stretched out as if they’re flying, that makes all the difference,” Ken Sarna said. “You watch their eyes grow as big as silver dollars. That makes all the hard work worth it. We’re trying to create good memories here that will last a lifetime.”