Jacob Groshek wanted a safe alternative to tackle football for his son, but couldn’t find a league that he liked near his home in Newton. So, he created his own.
“It just started on kind of a whim,” Groshek said.
In the fall of 2017, Groshek reached out to the Newton Parks, Recreation & Culture Department to inquire about putting on a “Turkey Bowl” flag football tournament. After he got the OK, more than 70 kids showed up to play.
The following spring, he got a permit and created the Newton Area Flag Football League.
“The very first day of the very first season I was on pins and needles,” Groshek said. “Is anybody going to show up? Are the refs going to be here? Are the players going to come?”
Nearly 125 boys and girls signed up to play 5-on-5 flag football every Sunday at Newton’s Daly Field.
Ed Harrison, of West Newton, registered his sons Jacob and Colin, now 17 and 13, respectively. He and his wife liked that the league seemed less risky than tackle football.
“It’s given them the chance to play something that’s not quite the football they watch on TV every week, but feels a lot safer,” Harrison said.
The league wasn’t something that Groshek imagined would take off like it has. In three years since it started, it’s rebranded as the MetroWest Flag Football League and grown into a non-profit official NFL Flag Football organization.
Kids ages 5 to 17 from across Greater Boston play at least eight games, including playoffs and a super bowl, at either Highlands Field or Daly Field in Newton. The spring season runs from mid-April to mid-June and this year there’s a new girl’s only league.
Players are broken into divisions: Kindergarten through 1st grade, 2nd to 3rd, 4th to 5th, 6th to 7th, and 8th to 11th. Each team holds one practice per week, usually before a Sunday game. Some coaches hold extra practices after games or in the evenings to teach skills and mechanic work, but they’re not required.
The spring of 2020 was looking to be the league’s biggest season yet with 450 kids signed up. But Groshek had to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There was a moment there where I was really concerned that if everybody were to ask for a refund at once, that it would essentially bankrupt us.”
Groshek told parents and caregivers that he hoped the league wouldn’t fumble, but said everything was up in the air. He told them they could ask for a full refund, donate their registration fee to help keep the league alive for the future, or take a credit for an upcoming season. About one-third of all families chose one of the three options.
After a few long months, the league was up and running under COVID-19 protocols, holding clinics in July and August and a fall season with roughly 350 kids. Players had their temperatures checked with a contactless thermometer and wore a wristband to show they passed. Players, coaches, officials and spectators wore masks even in the baking sun. And fewer spectators were allowed on the sidelines, among other rules.
“Telling [the kids] to keep on a mask is like telling them to go to their room so to speak,” said Steve Pollard, head of officiating and safety, who has been with the league since the beginning.
“Every day we’re out there, we’re trying to make sure we keep everybody safe and they’re having a good time,” Pollard said.
“Jacob and the group there took a very thoughtful approach to putting modifications in place,” Harrison said. “They wanted the kids to have a chance to play. I think given where the world was at in the fall, they did an excellent job.”
For Groshek, he enjoys not only seeing the kids play, but also have fun, develop skills and make friends.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that kids are out and being active and doing things with others,” Groshek said. “Everything carries some potential risk, but we’re about as safe as you can potentially be.”
Since rosters continue to grow, the league is looking to expand. It was recently approved for a Cape Cod location and has proposed locations in Arlington, Dedham, Concord and Framingham.
“It’s an exciting time right now because flag football is growing so rapidly,” Groshek said. “It’s just been really special for me and that’s why I’m trying to keep it going and grow and build it out to other communities.”
“We’ll welcome anybody to come on down and have a good time with us,” Pollard said. “Welcome to the family.”