Late last year, a high school football championship game was played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, but it wasn’t the kind of football title game that typically takes all the attention.
It wasn’t for a state title – it was a game between teams from Gwinnett County schools Peachtree Ridge and North Gwinnett. On the turf field, there were no helmets, no pads and no boys. It was a girls-only game of flag football, with the first-ever Gwinnett County championship on the line.
None of those differences dampened the excitement on the faces of the players, which Atlanta Falcons community relations manager Amanda Dinkel had seen all season.
“I had no idea that it's so competitive,” she said. “All these girls were having so much fun but they were really, really competitive. You could just tell that they were such a team and forming bonds with each other. It was really, really cool to be out there and to watch.”
Now, that kind of opportunity is about to spread outside of just Gwinnett, with Forsyth County being one of six school systems that has partnered with the Falcons to bring girls flag football to high schools. With all signs pointing to the GHSA officially sanctioning the sport for the 2020-21 athletic year, it’s a chance for the school system to increase its athletic offerings.
“Our schools are growing (and) we want to be able to increase opportunities for students,” Forsyth County regional athletic director Nathan Turner said. “This is a great way for our girls to get involved. It may be a great way for some of the girls that play lacrosse or some of the spring sports that are not involved in softball or basketball to come out, get in shape and get ready for their spring season, and have a lot of fun along the way.”
Inspired by the girls flag football model in Florida, the Falcons decided to do the same thing in Georgia to help promote their sport. They first went to Gwinnett with the opportunity due to its size and large number of high schools, and helped start an inter-county league there for 2018.
But it wasn’t a GHSA-sanctioned sport, and despite the school district’s willingness to sign on, there was initially some uncertainty about how much interest there would be from students. When sign-ups opened, though, those doubts vanished.
“They quickly realized that every single one of the schools had to hold tryouts because so many girls were interested,” Dinkel said. “So the interest is definitely there. The season was incredible ... I think it went better than anyone could have ever expected.”
Spurred by their success in metro Atlanta’s biggest county, the Falcons reached out to others, including Forsyth, to gauge interest for their second season. The timing couldn’t have been better: Turner was already hearing inquiries from parents and others about the opportunity across the county line.
“Speaking with our athletic directors and principals at our high schools, it's a no-brainer to us,” Turner said. “We wanted to start this and see how it will work and be a part of this pilot program that's been (started) across metro Atlanta with girls flag football.”
Along with Muscogee, Cherokee, Henry and Rockdale counties, the Falcons and the Arthur Blank Foundation gave Forsyth County Schools a grant of $49,000 to take care of all expenses for the first year, which includes uniforms, transportation, coaching supplements and operations costs. All six high schools in the Forsyth County school system will have teams that will play against each other in a league format, beginning with scrimmages at West Forsyth on Oct. 19.
The regular season will begin on Oct. 24 at North Forsyth, and will conclude with semifinals and the league championship on Nov. 14, hosted by the team with the highest seed. All teams will play on the same field each week, with hosts rotating. Games will be played with a one-hour running clock and will take up half of a field, allowing two contests to be played at once.
While the schedule and overall plan are in place, the undertaking will likely be a learning experience. Turner is confident that the interest will be just as it was in Gwinnett, but the style and quality of play in the games may take some time to perfect.
“When (Gwinnett teams) really started learning the game, understanding laterals and understanding trick plays and understanding ideas, it really took off,” Turner said. “And even for the coaches, the first couple of games were a learning curve in Gwinnett, because (they) were just trying to do regular base stuff. They had to say, ‘OK, we played intramural flag football in college. What did we do that works?’ It's really getting down to game planning and making it fun for the girls.”
There are still some things to be worked out with the GHSA for next year, namely how flag football will fit into the athletic calendar for girls sports. For right now, though, Forsyth County is excited to be one of the trailblazers for an opportunity with so much potential.
“The GHSA's been talking a long time about girls participation numbers increasing and rising,” Turner said. “I believe they finally found the right sport to show that increase of involvement in girls sports. I just think it's another opportunity we can give to our female athletes to have a lot of fun and build a new sport. I think it's going to be really popular.”