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Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2018
Flag football fever in the Nickel City
by Randy Pascal

There is no denying that fall high school football has caught on in a big way in Sudbury. A quick drive by the James Jerome Sports Complex, pretty much any Friday night in September or October, will feature grandstands filled with parents, friends and foes.

One could argue, however, that’s it’s on the girls side, in the world of flag football, where gridiron passion has truly hit a fever pitch. Where the boys’ league has hovered around the eight team mark for some time now, the fairer sex can lay claim to consistently fielding twelve or thirteen teams, dating back for more than a decade.

And schools that struggle to attract 30 boys to their roster seem to have no problem at all bumping that figure up by ten or twenty bodies when it comes to stocking the sidelines of a typical flag football game – and we’re not just talking about Marymount Academy here.

The reasons for the incredible popularity of a sport that features no feeder system are many, though some common thoughts tend to be heard, more often than not. “There are a lot of positions, which helps,” noted Confederation Chargers head coach Brad Smith, now in his sixth year with the team.

“We have 24 positions, plus special teams, so it allows teams to carry a bigger roster and give a lot of people a role, not just a select few. Also, it’s a new sport for a lot of the people who participate, there’s no real elementary flag football. Basically, a lot of people are starting from the same point of learning, of knowledge.”

This applies not only to the players. A varsity soccer player dating back to his days at Laurentian University, Smith tackled his coaching assignment from essentially the same starting point as his players, back in 2012.

“I had never played high school football, never played organized football, just a little touch football with my friends at the playground – and video game football,” noted Smith with a laugh. “That’s about all the experience that I had. The video game football helped me a lot, at least to learn the positions and the terms.”

“But really, flag is a lot different sport than boys or men’s football, so it was a steep learning curve.” True enough. More often than not, the grade nine girls who venture out to team tryouts in their first week or two of secondary education carry even less knowledge of the game than Smith. And still they come, in droves.

“Everybody plays football at Lively,” noted 16 year old grade 12 quarterback Tiia Nurmikivi. “Our whole school is football players. It’s just kind of the thing to do. Not a lot of girls know how to play football, but we get them in, get them in the groove and we get there.”

Anyone who believes that the football culture that permeates the home of the Lively Hawks is limited to just the boys’ team is in for a shocking surprise. Clearly, the two feed off one another. Nurmikivi and her mates are not at all shy about tapping into the knowledge of the lads across the hall, preparing for their next big game in a much smellier dressing room.

“I like to try their plays, I like to watch and see what they do,” she said. “We try and kind of incorporate things.” That might be a challenge, especially for Nurmikivi, given the fact that the Lively offense is being lead by one Nicholas Rideout, arguably the best high school pivot in the city at the moment.

“We had practice with him yesterday and he was just nailing us,” said Nurmikivi. “I could never throw like Nick Rideout – he’s got quite an arm. He’s so good.” Yet, as coach Smith noted, the crossover between genders does not always favour the boys, given that the games are somewhat different.

“When the football guys are practicing with us, they always want to try and grab the flags,” noted Nurmikivi. “So we just run by them, and they can’t grab it. You have to picture it (the flag) in your hand, make sure it’s in there and snatch it as fast as you can.”

At least one newcomer to the league would prefer another option. “I thought there was still going to be a little bit of tackling,” said Lockerby Composite grade 9 offensive lineman/lineperson Felicia Bell. “Not hard core tackling like the boys - that would be too rough.”

Given that flag football players are not equipped with the protective gear of their male counterparts, life in the trenches, along both lines, can become quite interesting. “We have to make sure no one gets past us and to the quarterback,” explained Bell. “We make sure our feet are touching the person next to you, and when she (the quarterback) yells, we just block with our arms out.”

Like so many first year female high schoolers, it was almost a given that Bell was going to at the very least give flag football a shot. “I’ve always liked football, used to play it with my dad, just in the yard, just throwing the ball,” she said. “I’m not that fast and I don’t like to run, so that’s probably one of the reasons they put me on the line.”

That broad appeal of flag football is apparent, even if the players are not entirely sure how to express what exactly makes the sport so much fun. It’s a joy that is often shared by those who coach them. “I think I love coaching it as much as they like playing it,” said Smith.

“During the game, I get to design plays and call plays, so as a coach, I’m much more involved during the game compared to soccer,” he added. “I have a lot of fun coaching flag.” He is hardly alone in expressing that sentiment. With players of all shapes and sizes, ranging from fresh-eyed rookies to the more learned vets, the sport has clearly caught on.

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