On Saturday, the Buffalo Bills hosted a flag football Season Kickoff event for high school girls in partnership with NFL Flag and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). Teams from 19 schools in the Western New York area attended and participated in this event which was the first of its kind.
The 19 teams broke off into two sessions, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. They all started with drill work and then got into the scrimmages. With it being the 50th anniversary of Title IX, events like these are just another example that anyone can play football – not just men.
"I think it's important that all of our student-athletes get the opportunity to put on that school uniform and represent their school and have teammates and camaraderie and learn those life lessons that interscholastic athletics teaches all of our student-athletes," Todd Nelson, Assistant Director of NYSPHSAA said.
The energy from the teams was high throughout the entire event. You could feel it from the girls that were playing but also their teammates cheering them on along the sidelines. Amherst High School students Kelsey Sorensen, Sage Sabatino, and Sarah Murphy said that they didn't expect the event to be so big and that it was surreal for them to be playing inside the Bills' practice facility (ADPRO Sports Training Center). Growing up, a lot of the high school athletes didn't think an opportunity to play football would ever come but they are glad to be the first group to make a positive impact in women's sports.
"It's important for girls to understand that we're coming up in this world and making change," Sorensen shared. "This really provides the chance to make a change for girls. … I think it's definitely a gamechanger and will further improve everything in women's sports."
"I think it shows that there's equal opportunity for everyone and women can play any sport they want," Sabatino said.
Previously, flag football was just seen as an intramural sport, but it recently has been taken more seriously. It's provided an opportunity for more girls to be involved with the game of football and learn the life lessons that the game teaches.
"I think this gives the girls a really great opportunity for something that hasn't been in the section before," North Tonawanda High School flag football coach Katie Harrington said. "And it just shows them different venues that they can take for their futures because there are so many opportunities that they have."
NFL Flag Ambassador Phoebe Schecter was one of the guest speakers at the event and she led the drill session for all the girls. Schecter was previously a coaching intern for the Bills in 2018 and she was excited to be back at One Bills Drive.
"I think there have been so many emotions for me today," Schecter said. "Specifically, being here in Buffalo. Also knowing how much the Bills and Preston Teague (Bills Sr. Director of Community Relations and Youth Football) and the Community Relations team have wanted this to happen for years now. And then seeing the girls, watching them come in looking around at the indoor facility, running to the flag football sign and everything, it's wonderful. The energy has not stopped since they stepped foot in here.
After the scrimmage in the first session, Schecter spoke with the girls and explained what an amazing opportunity this was for them. She wished that she could have gone to an event like this growing up. Schecter told the girls they were all building sisterhood with their teammates and that those memories are priceless.
"The camaraderie, the life lessons that you get from specifically football, the character building, the integrity, the teamwork, all that," Schecter said. "Even from a female-specific point of view, the confidence and the way that this sport empowers someone, it's just amazing. And they'll be able to have these connections for the rest of their life.
"They'll be able to look back on this memory and who knows, maybe one day in the future, we'll have some girls in Olympics. We'll have girls traveling around the world playing flag football or officiating or coaching and their journey started here, and those memories start here."
Three Buffalo Bills players also came to the event to talk with teams and take pictures. The energy level was high during the scrimmages, and it was even higher when the girls saw Dion Dawkins, Siran Neal, and Tremaine Edmunds walk out on the field. Each team got a group photo with the players, and they even stayed after to sign autographs and take selfies with the kids and parents.
Dawkins is encouraged to see events like these and knows how empowering it can be for these girls. He's so proud that the Bills are the ones hosting it and hopes it continues to grow.
"Football has become bigger than what it currently is," Dawkins said. "It's not just for men, it's for girls, women, and all types of people. So, the fact that the world is coming to a fuller circle where all males and females can do what they do because some of these girls are better than the guys. So, the fact that they can get out here, show their stuff, be proud, be humble and just be free and just do what their heart is pulling them towards, it's amazing."
The pandemic has limited the amount of work the Bills' players can do in the community. Edmunds is just happy to get back out there and share the love with the fans who deserve it.
"These are things that I'm pretty sure all of us are used to doing," Edmunds said. "I'm used to doing a lot of things back home, showing my face and getting involved in community service. So, it feels like I'm at home here. Just being able to do it here in the Buffalo community where we get so much love and so much fan support, I feel like it's our right to go out there and show love back. I feel good doing it and I'm happy to be able to put smiles on people's faces.
20 local schools will be participating in a high school girls flag football pilot league this spring and will play games against teams in their Section (Section V and Section VI) as a part of a statewide initiative. Throughout the state, there are more than 50 schools launching high school girls flag in 2022. The Western New York schools received uniforms from Nike and grant funding to help with the launch of the program from the Bills.