It looks like another banner year for flag football.
Participation is soaring – in America, Spokane and at Glover Middle School, where the season can’t get here soon enough.
“I can’t wait,” eighth-grader Jacob Curtis said as he stood with teammates Josiah Dunn and Ethan Badgett on the vast expanse of grass east of the school.
In two weeks, the Falcons will roam free on that field while defending their unofficial Greater Spokane League championship.
They’ll also be free from angst over injuries. And they’re young, which means fewer of the pulled hamstrings that are a Thanksgiving tradition in American backyards.
“The easy part is you don’t have to worry that you’re going to get knocked out,” said Curtis, who’s also played tackle football. “You just get the ball and go.”
And when you’re “tackled,” you just pick up your yellow flag, slap it back on your belt and run another play.
No wonder it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation. Last year, more kids ages 6 to 12 were playing flag football, as opposed to the game where ball carriers are wrestled to the ground.
The reasons are many, but for many parents there is only one: Life already doles out enough hard knocks without the additional risk of long-term brain injury.
According to an NBC survey from last year, 53% of American mothers said they would encourage their child to play a sport other than full-contact football.
That’s up from 40% only four years earlier, a dramatic change of direction in public opinion as Americans have digested the news about the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The news has hit close to home in northwest Spokane. Just over the hill is Shadle Park High School, where quarterback Mark Rypien embarked on a career that took him to the Super Bowl but also to the depths of pain caused by CTE.
Parents have noticed.
Nationally, participation in high school football is at its lowest level since 1999. Turnout at the five public high schools in Spokane has remained stagnant in recent years, but the district tapped a well of enthusiasm two years ago when it started a flag football program for middle-school boys and girls.
Turnout was 166 in 2017. It jumped to 244 last year.
If flag football is a kinder, gentler version of the sport, that’s just fine.
At Glover, coach Toraj Farzana has channeled the flag football program into another path toward reaching children at their level.
“The kid whisperer,” Principal Mark Lund calls Farzana. An immigrant from Afghanistan, he serves as an intervention specialist and works with students who “struggle to make the best choices in class” and supports their social and emotional needs.
Flag football checked all of those boxes.
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“For a lot of kids, this is their first introduction to any kind of organized sports,” said Farzana, who coached high school soccer at Saint George’s and Ferris.
“You can see it in their faces when they put on the uniform,” Farzana said. “They’re making friends and they’re having a connection with other students.”
And the price is right. Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a helmet and gear, they’ll pay a $10 registration fee and $1 for a mouthguard.
No doubt that boosted turnout last year, when Farzana fashioned three teams out of 40 players.
Everyone gets to play, typically three 20-minute games in an afternoon.
On the field, it’s 8-on-8. Rules allow just one running play for each set of downs, while the defense can rush the passer just once.
That means a wide-open game.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said eighth-grader Josiah Dunn, who plays wide receiver and running back and appreciates that “they trash-talk a lot less” in flag football than in the tackle game.
“And they’re way less aggressive and not as rude,” Dunn said.
Farzana makes sure his players hold up their end.
“The extracurricular is part of the classroom,” Farzana said. “We stress sportsmanship and teamwork, and when we travel we want schools to remember us as a team that does things right.”
Of course, flag football isn’t for everyone. In Spokane, many middle-schoolers play Pop Warner and keep the pads on until high school.
Glover eighth-grader Ethan Badgett considered that option, “but I decided to wait until high school,” he said.
Curtis, the quarterback, will do the same despite suffering half a career’s worth of injuries in Pee Wee football.
They included a growth-plate break in the third grade, “a couple of broken fingers” the following year and finally a greenstick fracture in his wrist as a sixth-grader that served as a game-changer to flag.
“My mom liked that,” Curtis said. “Last year she came to a couple of games, and my dad came to one.”
However, Curtis feels pulled back to the tackle game and getting hit. Then again, he’s also training “on my own” to be a boxer and expects to be in shoulder pads and a helmet by this time next year.
He would be in good company. Many great players – including quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees, as well as Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice – didn’t play tackle football until high school.
“For now, though, this is a lot of fun,” Curtis said.