Growing the Game of Football One “No” at a Time

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When it comes to girls’ flag football, there are a few “No’s” to understand:

  • No helmets.
  • No pads.
  • No tackling.
  • No problem.

The 2021-22 school year marked the inaugural season of girls’ varsity flag football in the state of Alabama. 44 schools from across the state fielded teams to compete in a pilot program ending with Hewitt-Trussville defeating Smiths Station in the championship game last December.

Emily Hughes followed the Hoover High School team in their first season of competition on Instagram. As an eighth grader at Simmons Middle School, she didn’t know anything about the sport.

Football or Dance?

Photo provided by Casey Hughes.

Emily’s focus has always been on dance. For 12 years, Emily has been involved with competitive dance including ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap, and contemporary styles. Dance is a talent that involves heavy training, with a lot of strength and stamina. But, she wasn’t sure if those skills could translate to a team sport like flag football.

When she heard about the flag football team a second time, it was when she began her freshman year at Hoover High School this fall. The team was holding tryouts for the 2022-23 fall competition season. With no previous football experience, she jumped at the chance to be a part of the team.

According to the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA), there are 57 high school girls’ flag programs competing this fall. And Alabama, along with Nevada, is one of the few states to provide opportunities at the high school level for female athletes.

Participation in football is on the rise and leagues are popping up all over the country to encourage girls to get more involved with the sport. From co-ed teams for younger girls to varsity level flag football for high school girls and beyond, this type of growth is something the Birmingham Mom Collective can get behind!

Try Something New 

Girls’ flag football at the high school level is a seven-on-seven game. There are no helmets, no pads, and no tackling, but that doesn’t make the game any less exciting.

When asked what led her to try out for the team, Emily responded, “I was really inspired to try out because it felt like stepping outside of the box. Not just my personal boundaries, but also societal boundaries. It felt like if I made the team I would get to be part of a movement for girls in sports.”

This time of year has been busy for Emily, managing her full class load as a freshman in high school as well as balancing her regular dance schedule along with the competition seasons for both dance and flag football. She has learned how to navigate all her commitments with the same energy and excitement.

The Joy

Photo provided by Casey Hughes.

“I guess going into it I really didn’t know what to expect, at all. Practices are a lot of fun though, and games are just off the charts. The energy on the sidelines is almost tangible. You can just feel everyone supporting each other, and the desire to go far through our season.”

One of Emily’s favorite aspects of being on the varsity flag football team is the team-within-a-team she experiences. As a defensive player, she is one of three rushers on the team. While the larger team has to work together to execute, she also has a small group of rushers who support and cheer each other on every step of the way.

“Usually when I tell people I am on Hoover’s flag football team, I get a sort of ‘Wow, That’s great,’ response back. It’s sort of like they can’t choose whether it’s a weird thing, or a cool thing to be a part of. I get a lot of questions back after I tell people I play football, usually about games and how ‘real’ it is. People underestimate how much work we put in and how seriously we take it.”

A Family Commitment

Emily’s family has enjoyed being a part of this new challenge, as well. Her mother, Casey, had her concerns and even some fears about having Emily participate in the try-outs. She was worried that her daughter could get hurt and that it would somehow negatively impact her dance. She was also a little nervous about trying something for the first time and not knowing what to expect.

However, that attitude changed quickly. “When she got in the car and told me how much she loved it even if she wasn’t very good, I started praying she would make the team. She was invested from day one. I had to put my fears aside and let her try something new. I couldn’t say no,” said Casey Hughes.

Having a football player in the family is new to the Hughes but they are enjoying their experience.

“When I saw her on the field at the first game and saw how she was interacting with her teammates, I knew this was going to be a fun season!”

Emily and her teammates at the high school level are role models for young girls wanting to give football a try. And in Emily’s case, she shares that girls don’t have to say no to one activity in favor of the other. She is both a dancer and a flag football player.

For more information or to find a league near you, visit Future for Football.


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