A full moon illuminated the sky as stadium lights beamed down on the field. With the crowd cheering, a championship was on the line.
Only, this was no ordinary football game under Friday night lights. There were no big, beefy lineman, no hard knocks, no gutsy tackles.
Everything, from the field to the players to the size of the footballs, was a bit smaller than normal.
It was eight-versus-eight co-ed flag football on the athletic field next to Colonel Paige Middle School in La Quinta, and all of the athletes were in the fifth grade or younger.
Some of the kids wore cleats. Others wore tennis shoes. Some wore shorts, others wore sweatpants. One student appeared to be wearing plaid pajama bottoms.
But all the kids wore jerseys provided by the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.
Desert Sands Unified School District, with support from the Los Angeles Rams, revamped a flag football league this fall that featured teams from 15 elementary schools.
Students from Amelia Earhart Elementary in Indio ultimately hoisted the championship trophy Friday night after defeating Roosevelt Elementary 39-20.
Don’t let the ragtag bunches fool you. This was an organized league, and the title was legit. Teams played four regular season games before the playoffs started in December. Every game was officiated by two paid referees.
Teams held preseason practices. Some schools hosted tryouts to make the 20-person roster. Another, Hoover Elementary, started the season with 20 players and ended with 11, but still battled to claim a consolation trophy by winning multiple playoff games.
School staff were paid to coach the squads, and parents and community members volunteered as assistants, on occasion.
The LA Rams organization donated the footballs, flags and jerseys to outfit more than 300 student athletes in the program. The school district used a special extracurricular fund to pay for the rest, including the officials.
For the Rams, this is part of their investment in NFL FLAG, the largest youth flag football league in the United States. For the school district, it’s an investment in kids who might not otherwise have the chance to play organized sports. Unlike most youth sports leagues, this one requires no paid entry fees.
Paula Reynolds, a physical education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, estimated this fall season marked the first time that about 15 kids on her team played organized sports.
“For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever put on a jersey,” she said. “This is huge for our kids. I’m proud of them.”
Jory Kirchhevel, a PE teacher at Dr. Carreon Academy in Indio, runs the league and has big ambitions for what it could become. Kirchhevel was recently one of five teacher-coaches across the United States recognized by the GENYOUth’s NFL FLAG-In-School program, a national organization that works with the NFL to encourage physical activity in youngsters.
As students from Amelia Earhart hoisted the trophy, Kirchhevel was already thinking about growing the league next year.
He has contacted Palm Springs Unified about expanding to their district. He envisions a valleywide flag football league with elementary schools from Coachella Valley Unified, too.
NFL FLAG hosts invite-only regional tournaments where the winners advance to play at the national NFL FLAG Championships at the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s annual all-star game.
Kirchhevel believes that, with a couple more formal rule changes, and if he can grow the Desert Sands league to incorporate more schools from the Inland Empire, then one day the Coachella Valley could possibly host one of those tournaments with a pipeline to the Pro Bowl.
Regardless of the size and stature of the league now, the stakes could not have felt any higher Friday night for the kids playing on the field. School pride was on the line, and that — and having a good time — really is what mattered.
Just ask Joanna Bowles-Whitlow, the mother of Amelia Earhart fifth-grader Louie Whitlow.
“He talks about this league all the time,” she said.
Louie, 11, has been playing flag football with most of his teammates since kindergarten. Now, they’re champions.
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Writes_Jonathan.