Nearly 19 minutes into McKinley’s girls’ varsity flag football game on Friday afternoon against Ballou, the coaches decided it was time to unveil one of the special plays that the Trainers had been working on in practice. In the huddle, they called for the “wrap” play.
Junior quarterback Marcy Mejia took the snap, ran around junior running back Jamillah Blissett, stuffed the ball in Blissett’s stomach and she took off down the left wing for a 66-yard touchdown, the first in school history. Her teammates cheered as she neared the end zone.
“Whenever you hear football, it’s always like that it’s a boys’ sport and girls can’t really play, so I figured I’d show them that girls can play just as well as boys,” Blissett said. “I’ve always wanted to do it.”
Girls in D.C. Public Schools now have that chance, since the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association introduced flag football as a varsity sport this spring in an effort to raise girls’ participation in sports and improve its compliance with Title IX, the law mandating gender equity at all federally funded institutions. The season began Friday, with six of the 17 DCPS high schools fielding teams. Nearly 70 girls are playing.
According to DCPS figures for the 2010-11 school year, girls made up 51 percent of the total high school enrollment (6,058 of 11,988) but only 39 percent of the athletic participants (1,060 of 2,743). To improve those participation numbers, DCPS officials surveyed high school girls last year and adopted the two most-requested sports. Flag football was the overwhelming No. 1 choice followed by bowling, which was introduced as a varsity sport this past winter. Alaska and Florida are the only states that currently offer flag football as a varsity sport.
“It’s a good new sport added to DCPS,” said H.D. Woodson senior Kiayla Lucas, whose only involvement with athletics before now was a few weeks as a member of the cheerleading team this year. “More opportunities for girls to play more sports.”
While bowling appealed to school officials in part because colleges offer scholarships for the sport, the same doesn’t apply for flag football, which is only a club or intramural sport in college. Regardless, coaches and school officials said, flag football promotes exercise and could hopefully have a trickle-down effect on participation for other sports. A soccer coach with a small roster may spot a future player on the flag football team, DCPS Athletic Director Stephanie Evans said.
But so far, flag football has not drawn many first-time varsity athletes. Because it is played in the spring, which is home to the two most popular sports for girls (outdoor track and softball), the majority of flag football players are doubling up. Dunbar, for instance, has so many softball players and track athletes on its team that Friday’s inaugural game against Eastern marked the first time that the full squad was on the same field together.
“Using some of the athletes from other sports helps get the sport going,” Evans said. “But I want to see the sport as a gateway to get other young ladies interested in sports. Recruiting is a big part of this, that young ladies playing it will get others that aren’t playing sports to come get involved.”
The seven-on-seven games have two 20-minute halves and are played in the school football stadiums, using the full 100-yard length of the field. Instead of tackling, players must pull a flag from the belt on an opponent’s waist. Teams must advance the ball 20 yards in four downs for a first down. No contact is allowed.
Some coaches have flag football experience, such as McKinley’s Donna Smith, who plays and coaches a women’s adult rec team, the Lady Playmakers. Others have regular football experience, such as Coolidge’s Jonathan Blackmon, who was the offensive coordinator on the Colts team that played in the Turkey Bowl. (Natalie Randolph, who made national news two years ago when she was hired as Coolidge’s varsity football coach, is expected to help with drills during the spring.)
H.D. Woodson Coach LaQurisha Gray borrowed the passing routes of Warriors football Coach Greg Fuller. Three Dunbar football players — Mike Smith, Maxie Stevens and Rashaan Wright — drew up a handful of plays for the flag football team to use.
Nearly two dozen fans watched as McKinley defeated short-handed Ballou, 19-7, on Friday. There were some flashes of ability: 80-yard touchdown runs by McKinley’s Autumn Fennell and Kendra Childs, and four sacks by Ballou’s Nadiya Holley.
But there were also some early season hiccups, such as when McKinley senior Chinazor Anasoh forgot which way she needed to run after she intercepted a pass.
“We’re just still getting the hang of it,” she said after the game with a smile.
Jerseys are expected to arrive next week, so in the meantime, McKinley used its softball gear and Ballou borrowed extra football jerseys.
The season is five games long and participation awards, not a championship trophy, will be awarded at the end of this inaugural season.
“It’s just about having fun because it’s our first time and going out there and showing what you’ve got,” Blissett said.
Next year, she added, they’ll worry about winning.