ATLANTA – What started out as a simple idea from Gwinnett County has now turned into an officially sanctioned sport for the entire state of Georgia, becoming the fourth state in the country to do so for girls flag football.
"I was just hoping that we could take these girls and teach them some basic fundamentals of football and allow them to have fun ..." Gwinnett County Director of Athletics Jon Weyher said. "And here we are today with other teams from other counties which now truly feels like a state championship."
In 2017, the Atlanta Falcons approached Gwinnett County Public Schools with the idea of fielding the first ever girls high school flag football league in Georgia. In the fall of 2018, the Falcons and Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation alongside Gwinnett County Public Schools funded the league's first season.
The process of adding girls flag football into all 19 Gwinnett County public high schools began with gauging interest among students across the county in order to determine the potential success of the sport. Given the newness of the sport, there was concern of little participation among girls in Gwinnett County.
However, when the schools were once expecting approximately 15 girls for each tryout, there were some instances that included more than 200 players who came to represent their school on the football field.
"There was a discussion of 'what do we do if one of the schools five girls sign up and we can't even field a team,'" said Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. "Let me just say this, that didn't happen because we had many, many schools where we were way oversubscribed."
The interest of students in Gwinnett County blazed a trail for girls across the state of Georgia, helping create an opportunity for five new counties who implemented girls flag football for their first season in 2019.
Participation in 52 high schools across Gwinnett, Cherokee, Forsyth, Henry, Muscogee, and Rockdale counties caught the attention of the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) and led to girls flag football becoming an officially sanctioned sport in all Georgia counties for the 2020 season.
"From the start to the finish of the season the interest grew," Weyher said. "It was hard for the GHSA not to look at it and with the help of the Falcons and the GHSA, they realized this is a sport that can grow and include more girls across the state of Georgia."
Gwinnett County began what is set to be a competitive sport across the state of Georgia for girls that are finally getting the opportunity to play football. Similar to other high school athletics, girls flag football will instill traits that will translate beyond the football field and into life after high school.
"This sport is truly a team sport and in team sports especially football there is some really valuable life lessons," Weyher said. "They're fiercely competitive, but when it is over shake hands, walk away and be OK with what happened. That's the essence of high school athletics and I think that will play a role in their lives."