Football is for boys.
Girls can’t play football.
You’re a girl, you can’t do that.
Twelve-year-old best friends Makena Cook and Capri Cueno have heard it all.
“In their head it’s like a girl playing football doesn’t add up,” Capri said. “Me and Makena, we play football and sometimes when I tell people they don’t understand. I love to show guys how I can play.”
The duo may have met playing club soccer, but this year they added wide receiver and quarterback tandem to their resumes.
Capri and Makena are two of the only girls on their community’s flag football team. But being outnumbered has never stopped them; instead, it’s made playing that much more enjoyable.
“Every time we would score, after the game all the dads would walk up to us, like ‘Oh my gosh, you did so good, I didn’t know you could throw that [well,]'” Makena explained. “And it’s just kinda funny to see, like how do you not understand that a girl can do anything a boy can do?”
The two are part of a growing number of young girls throughout the country who are playing flag football. Not only has female viewership for the NFL risen tremendously over the last few years, but that interest has trickled down to college, high school and even youth football levels.
For Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart, who runs his own flag football league throughout Orange County, there has also been a growing demand for new pathways for young girls learning the game.
“There’s just not a lot of females that have ever played flag football, so these girls didn’t really have anyone to look up to,” Leinart said. “So we saw the growing trend of girls that wanted to participate, the parents were into it and this has really grown.”
While his league currently features almost 300 girls participating on coed and all-girls teams, Leinart said many of the girls involved stopped at 8th grade.
From there, they either quit playing sports all together or went on to another sport.
“One of our owners, his daughter was super bummed it was over,” he said. “She was really competitive and loved flag football and was like, ‘I wish I could play in high school,’ and we got a lot of that.”
“We really thought there is a need for this at the high school level,” Leinart continued. “An outlet and opportunity for them to not finish in 8th grade, but continue because these girls just love it, they love playing flag football.”
So this Fall, Matt Leinart Flag Football will become the first organization in Southern California to launch an official high school division. Ten schools throughout Orange County have signed up and Under Armour is already onboard to design home and away uniforms.
For Leinart, this year was the perfect timing for launch.
“It’s important for the boys to see this is as a sport these girls can play,” he said. “I’ll be honest, we’ve had girls beat our boys teams legitimately. It’s incredible for even myself to see them.”
The league will kick off this fall and comes at a time where the emphasis on female sports and play equity has never been greater.
Capri and Makena were recently able to film several demo videos and promotions for the youth sports application, MOJO. The platform makes coaching a variety of sports more accessible for families across the country.
MOJO co-founder Reed Shaffner said for the platform’s new flag football materials, it was extremely important that young girls be showcased and highlighted.
“For MOJO, not just in flag football but in all sports, one of the things we care about is getting little girls out to play and keeping them playing,” Shaffner explained. “We want there to be female coaches players can look up, we want people to see little girls playing with little boys, and we want to keep these girls on the field.”
And all of this attention on the girls game has been extremely exciting for both Capri and Makena, who can’t wait for their opportunity to continue playing.
“I play flag, 7-on-7 and tackle and I love the shock on everyone’s face,” Makena said. “It makes my day and the fact that girls could play in high school would honestly make my day.”
“I love playing and I know Capri does too,” Makena said. “And if we have an opportunity to play then why wouldn’t we?”
These girls just two examples of a growing market that is ready and set to get on the field.