CLEVELAND — Football is perhaps one of the more popular sports in Northeast Ohio. From the loyalty fans show to the professional team in Cleveland to the passion felt on the sidelines of a high school game, it's clear how deeply rooted the sport is locally. But a version of the sport that serves as a more inclusive entry into football is gaining traction here in Northeast Ohio and on a global scale as flag football grows in popularity.
The surge of interest in flag football was showcased by the Cleveland Browns this month. The organization hosted its inaugural Girls High School Flag Football Championship Tournament at FirstEnergy Stadium, inviting girls' teams from across Northeast Ohio to compete against each other on the NFL field.
Berkshire High School, Cleveland Heights High School, Euclid High School, Hawken High School, Kirtland High School, Lake Catholic High School, Mentor High School, Perry High School and Strongsville High School all participated in the tournament.
Browns players like fullback Johnny Stanton, quarterback Jacoby Brissett and defensive end Isaac Rochell were at the tournament, meeting with the girls and talking about the game with them on the sidelines. The moment was inspiring for the Browns players as well, who are excited to see flag football expand.
"That's how I started football, I was in second grade, I played on a city flag football team and my dad coached me all the way through to high school," Stanton said. "It's cool to see these girls get to have the same experience, get a chance to play at an NFL stadium."
Brissett also got his start playing flag football as a kid and remembers that phase of his football experience fondly.
"I played when I was younger and then when I was in middle school for two years," Brissett said. "It was the best day of the week. You got to go out there, go have fun, play with your teammates, your classmates and go against some of the schools that you may have friends at. And it was a lot of fun."
The Browns have played a big part in boosting flag football across Northeast Ohio, giving teams opportunities to not only play against each other but grow their knowledge of the game from mentors and experts.
"We have a junior Browns program where kids can start playing flag football and learn the basics and learn the joy of the sport—scoring a touchdown, having one of your friends throw you a pass," said Browns VP of Community Relations Jenner Tekancic. "We've been really encouraging the football development model, which talks about flag football as being the entry point when you want to learn the sport and just have fun playing the sport."
Meanwhile, teachers of the game, like Browns Chief of Staff and Assistant Wide Receiver Coach Callie Brownson, see how important this increased interest in flag football can be for young players, particularly for girls looking for opportunities to enter the football world.
"It's a great starting point for everybody. This is giving them an opportunity to get an education in the game and to play it at a competitive level and to be involved," Brownson said.
The Browns' trail-blazing coach is looking forward to seeing the growth continue and hopes events like the one hosted by the Browns become more commonplace across the state and country.
"We definitely hope [with] what's happening here in Northeast Ohio, people are taking notice, and having an event like this here at the stadium, people will take notice," Brownson said. "This is really going to help us project this thing and make other people think like, 'hey, why aren't we doing something?' So you really want to set the blueprint? This is a pretty cool blueprint."
And as the Browns continue to encourage flag football, the surge in interest is spreading globally as well.
The sport was recently introduced as an invitational sport at The World Games, making its debut this year in Birmingham, Alabama. The flag football competitions will run from July 10 through July 14, with The World Games scheduled for July 7 through July 17.
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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