Kyle McKinny throws a pass to Patrick McIntyre. (Liz Vance/For The Washington Post)

It started with a pickup game on the Mall.

“Back in the ’90s, there was a group of gay men who would play 7 versus 7 flag football on the National Mall on Sunday mornings,” says Kyle Butts, captain of the D.C. Admirals, who has been with the D.C. Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) for three years. Another group that played regularly near Dupont Circle joined the first, and in 1994, the league was formed.

And it’s still going strong. Nearly 20 years later on a muggy early September evening, the DC Admirals convened for a scrimmage on Francis Field at 25th and N streets. They are the DCGFFL’s all-star travel team. The league boasts 270 members, who together make up some 20 teams, each with about 14 members, plus drop-ins. If this practice was more frenetic than most, it’s because the Admirals are one of two league travel teams headed to the national championships — otherwise known as the “Gay Bowl” — in Phoenix next month.

It’s about more than flag football. Many players say the experience of playing on a gay team provides an unparalleled level of acceptance and community. “A lot of us grew up playing sports; we played sports before we knew we were gay,” Butts says. “And then to be able to have those two paths sort of come together, it’s pretty powerful to me. Growing up playing everything — baseball, basketball, tennis — and having a team sport and that sort of camaraderie, always in those situations growing up in junior high, and high school, college, it was like, ‘Well, I don’t want these guys to know I’m gay.’ And so to then be put in that exact same situation where everyone’s out and proud — it’s kind of mind-boggling.”

“For many guys here, it’s been their conduit to coming out,” adds teammate Patrick McIntyre. “It’s been a way of meeting people and establishing a sense of community and friends in what is often a new and transient city.”

McIntyre, whom a teammate calls “a founding father” of gay football in this country, says a turning point in the league’s development came when the Admirals (then known as the Washington Monuments) first competed in the national tournament in 2003 — and won. “The experience of going to Gay Bowl and seeing leagues in other cities made us say, ‘Hey, wait, we can do this here,” notes McIntyre, who serves on the board of the National Gay Flag Football League.

“In Gay Bowl, we have former NFL athletes who play. We have Division I athletes who play. We have people who have never played before, and they learn and they get much better.”

In Phoenix, the Admirals will be one of 40 teams from 19 U.S. cities, plus Toronto, competing in the national championships. Thirteen other cities across the country — including South Bend, Charlotte and Memphis — are forming leagues in hopes of competing in future championships. For the second time, the championships will also include a women’s tournament which, this year, is made up of nine teams.

DCGFFL teams practice on Sunday mornings through most of the fall at Carter Barron Park, drawing a dedicated group of spectators. “People are out there with their blankets and sushi and Frisbees,” McIntyre says. Many onlookers are friends and families of the football players and come to cheer them on.

But the teams aren’t made up of only gay men. “The straight guys like to play with us because we’re organized,” McIntyre says. “Every straight guy’s line is, ‘You guys run the best league. The straight leagues are a mess.’ ”

Despite nearly two decades, the league retains the spirit of those original pickup games: It is less an institution than a group of friends and teammates sharing the joy of the game. “The thing about gay flag football is it brings out the big masculine side of people and the big girly sides of people. So people come and they’re their competitive, sporty selves, but they’re their flaming gay selves as well. It’s fun,” McIntyre says.

“This is definitely a competitive and sporty outlet for us. But more than anything, it’s about the community. It’s meant to be a welcoming place for people to come and play football, meet people and hopefully get more involved. And we’ve seen that happen over and over again. People grow as a result of being part of this league.”