By Chandra Sparks Splond

Photos by Blair Ramsey

The members of the Vestavia Hills High School Girls flag football team had a big decision to make when they played Homewood and it started raining: should they play or should they go? They decided the game must go on, and it led to one of the best memories of the newly minted team’s inaugural season.

They are ready to make even more memories when they start their second season of flag football this fall.

“[The Alabama High School Athletic Association] decided to start the sport in Alabama,” says Doug Rogers, the Vestavia Hills Parks and Recreation Adult Sports Program Coordinator who was asked to coordinate the school’s program because of his background in flag football. “I accepted because I love the game.”

Flag football is said to have been created by Porter Wilson in the early 1940s. It is a variation of the more common contact sport of touch football, where rather than tackling players, the defensive team must remove a flag or flag belt from the person carrying the ball. This maneuver is known as deflagging and is used to end a down.

Once the program was announced, there was lots of interest.

“Twenty to 50 high school girls participat[ed] with a JV and varsity team,” Doug says of the team’s first year. “[The] season starts in August and runs through November. We play at the high school on the football field and practice at the [high school]. Last year we were 6–6.”

Many of the players were new to the sport, but they didn’t let that stop them from giving it their all, often figuring things out on the field.

“I remember our first game. No one had any idea what to do, and we were losing by a sufficient number of points,” says 16-year-old River Riley, who is a junior at Vestavia Hills High School and the rusher for the varsity team. “My coach pulled me aside and said, ‘River, I need you to go out there and stop them.’ With those words, my whole world changed. I went from some girl on the sidelines of soccer to being a crucial, trusted piece to winning the game. The next play, we were on defense. I got my stance set up and was ready to rush, looked the quarterback in the eyes and dared her to try and get by me. The whistle blew, and within the next two seconds, I had ripped the girl’s flag off and thrown it to the ground, letting out a full-blown war cry. At that moment, it all changed. I began to realize what I was capable of and how important my role was for the team. Throughout the rest of the season, it was pretty typical for me to get two or three sacks in a row. Once I sacked a team for a loss on all four downs, backing them up each time until I finally sacked them in the end zone for a safety!”

The team has also had its share of laughs—and tears—as they’ve learned the game.

“When my friend caught the most amazing catch and managed to run 40 yards for a touchdown without anyone pulling her flags, we were all so amazed,” says Riley of the one of the funniest moments of the season. “This was her first catch. We were all cheering and celebrating for her, but my coach just kept yelling at her. At first we were all so confused—shouldn’t he be happy for her? Then we saw it. She stopped at the end zone line, and she wasn’t even in the zone. We all started to yell ‘run, run!’ but it was too late. She threw the ball down and jumped up and down all excited. It was fourth down, so we couldn’t do anything but sit there and laugh—[and] cry a little—at her while she tried to figure out what she did wrong.”

“The funniest thing that has happened to me while practicing would have to be when I thought it was a good idea to eat raw cookie dough before practice. During practice I threw up, and then decided to keep playing,” says 17-year-old Merritt Kelley, who is the team’s center and linebacker.

Each of the players had different reasons for joining the team, but along with their coach, they have one common goal: to be the best they can be.

“To go out and execute the game plan so it will translate into wins,” Doug says of what’s next for the team. “Hopefully ending with a state playoff run and the girls being able to succeed by extending their playing days in college either through intramural sports or varsity athletics if that is their desire.”

“I decided to play for the team because I love the game of football and being able to do it competitively with my friends is a great opportunity,” says quarterback Ella Gallaspy, 17. “Flag football is a sport to where you can have fun with your friends. I never thought girls would have the opportunity to play football and to be able to makes me happy.”

“I decided to play for the team because a bunch of my friends were playing. As the season continued, I fell in love with the sport,” Merritt says. “My advice for people who want to play is to just show up, give all your effort and have a good attitude about learning everything.”

“Underestimation is my biggest advantage. This is something I tell myself when people tell me I’m just a girl or that my sport isn’t good enough and shouldn’t be a thing. If you don’t love life, or this sport, or new opportunities then that’s on you. Keep underestimating me!” River says. “For anyone considering this amazing game, I would just say, go for it! There is absolutely nothing to lose. The game is new, and there are no expectations right now. Create your own! Be the first to score a pick-six or be able to punt the farthest for your school. It’s all up to you. This game can be whatever you want it to be. Blank slate, baby.”