With minutes remaining on the clock, the football gently floated into the receiver’s outstretched arms. Catching the defense off guard, quick footwork across the goal line pretty much clinched victory. That play could have been on just about any field, anywhere in the United States. What made it noteworthy was that it launched girls flag football as a school sport in Rockdale County and furthered the game in metro Atlanta.
With funding from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, support from the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons and several corporate sponsors, the gridiron is becoming an equal-opportunity athletic field for youngsters of both genders. After a well-received inaugural season last year in Gwinnett County, five other school systems came on board this fall — Cherokee, Forsyth, Henry, Muscogee and Rockdale. That comes to 52 high schools in the program.
The grant covers fees for referees, field costs, jerseys, equipment, athletic trainers, administrator fees and coaching stipends. The purpose of this initiative is to provide an opportunity for high school girls to participate in football activities and be part of an organized high school sports team.
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Rockdale kicked off on the season this week with the first game Thursday at Salem High School. Heritage High, the visitors, won, but which of the three high schools walks away with the Conyers Cup trophy (the championship prize) is still up in the air.
With a much smaller district than Gwinnett, Rockdale used its funding to get middle school girls involved as well.
“By the time this becomes statewide, our girls will be quite familiar with the ins and outs,” said Rockdale schools athletic director Kechia Seabrooks Rowles.
Impressed with how the first year played out, she gauged interest and found support was there.
Coaches for both the middle and high school teams are already coaching girls basketball, and they both agreed that the extra conditioning and team bonding won’t have any negative effects on hoops season.
“If anything, it will help them get ready physically and mentally,” said Heritage High coach Brianna Patton. “This being the first year, I didn’t know what to expect. I’m pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm from the community as well as the players.”
To further ensure the community gets a firsthand experience, all flag football games are played before the junior varsity boys football games.
“Energizing our fan base is great for the girls and great for the game,” said Rowles. “We worked it out so that every group gets a chance to practice on the actual fields — whether it’s band, varsity, flag — all programs are important.”
The excitement was obvious as Chris Roland cheered on his daughter Nikki Roland. He couldn’t keep his seat as he yelled encouragement from the stands.
“She’s always loved football,” he said. “Now that she gets to play, it’s amazing.”
That kind of rush was new for Cassidy Cook, a junior at Salem High.
“Yes, I want to do this again next year,” she said. “I can’t complain that we lost — they played better than us. But we learned and we’ll be better next time.”
Henry County’s first scrimmage was Sept. 9.
Forsyth County held a meeting for coaches this past week. Tryouts and practice will begin Oct. 7. Cherokee County is holding tryouts on Oct. 1 with the first scrimmage jamboree Saturday, Oct. 19 at Woodstock.
“We’re dedicated to providing extracurricular activity choices for all students. High school sports offer students not only the opportunity to improve their athletic abilities, but also to develop valuable life skills like teamwork and resiliency,” Cherokee Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said. “We’re excited about flag football’s potential for our talented female student athletes, and I look forward to cheering them on!”
The championship game among the six districts will be again at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in December.
“We didn’t want this to be one and done,” said Amanda Dinkel, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Falcons.
The ultimate goal remains organizing girls flag football at high schools across the state as a sanctioned Georgia High School Association recognized sport. Eventually, it may be rolled out to other NFL markets as well.