If you’re looking for a cliché-filled story that condescendingly describes how girls are playing football — gasp! — go back to your childhood. Or 1972, when Title IX mandated that females are given the same opportunity as males when it comes to high school and college athletes.
Instead, simply read about what happened on the first play of Morristown’s first flag football season, when a runner from East Orange gave an NFL-quality stiff arm to the helmetless face of Morristown’s Olivia Schubiger.
Schubiger, perhaps stunned by the obvious breach of the rules, went down hard. She then got up, gathered herself and played on, leading Morristown to victory as a two-way star.
This story isn’t about toughness — female athletes long ago proved they have that. This story is about the next big sport in New Jersey high schools.
Flag football, sponsored and financially backed by the New York Jets and New York Giants, with corporate support from Nike, has 16 teams playing this spring in pilot programs across the state. There are eight in North Jersey, sponsored by the Jets. And eight at the Shore, sponsored by the Giants.
Everyone involved — from the players to the coaches, athletic directors to game officials — is convinced its growth will be great.
Shabazz head coach Tyrone Turner, who also coaches what will now be called the boys’ team at the school, said the coaching community has been blowing up his phone.
“I think I’ve already had every school in Essex County call me to ask about how we got started — and how they can get started,” he said. “This is going to be huge.”
The Jets already have committed to doubling the number of teams they sponsor next year. And Colleen McGuire, the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said she has spoken with the Philadelphia Eagles about starting a division in South Jersey.
McGuire, a former two-sport all-state star herself, said anything that gets more girls playing more sports is a good thing.
“I will always be supportive of any and all efforts to engage female high school student-athletes,” she said. “With the 50th anniversary of Title IX fast approaching, we are reminded of how far female participation opportunities have become and we need to continue to grow these opportunities.”
Smitty Horton, the athletic director at Morristown, feels he got lucky.
The school was working with the Jets, pre-pandemic, about making improvements to the school’s weight room when the idea of a pilot program for flag football came up. He was intrigued.
“We sent a note out to the students to see if there was any interest and, almost immediately, we had 40 girls sign up,” he said. “So, we quickly got an application in and we feel lucky that we were one of the schools selected.”
Jesse Linder, vice president for community relations for the Jets, said the organization was happy to make a match with Morristown and the state.
The Jets, who helped to get flag football started in New York a decade ago, were eager to bring it to New Jersey as part of a leaguewide initiative that started pre-pandemic. The Jets have helped the schools pick up some of the costs and Nike provided each player with a full uniform, including top-level cleats and catching gloves.
“Everybody just got to the same place at the same time — the NFL, the clubs and Nike all kind of looked at this said, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” Linder said. “We’ve seen it be successful in New York City. It’s been successful in Florida and Georgia. And we just thought it was the right time, not only here in New Jersey, but throughout the country.”
The pandemic obviously slowed things and forced some adjustments. For one, the Jets could only give the schools participating virtual clinics. But, as Linder points out, the initiative is more than just learning how to play football — it’s about playing, period.
“There are a million more boys playing high school sports than girls,” he said. “We want to help even out those numbers.”
Linder said the Jets want the players to know there are opportunities for women in sports as a career, too. One of the preseason workshops brought together three women working in the NFL, including former Buffalo Bills assistant coach Phoebe Schecter.
“They did a panel discussion where they talked about their career path and how they were able to work in football — and then, we had breakout sessions where each school could pick three girls to learn more,” he said.
Athletes aren’t hard to find. Irvington coach Kyle Steele says he’s got plenty of them. The key is turning the athletes into football players — that’s the biggest challenge, he said.
New Jersey isn’t the first state to have high school flag football for girls — it’s the seventh. But of the nearly 400 schools participating, most are in Florida.
Because of this, the modified rules of play have been established. Here are a few:
The players: It’s seven-on-seven. On offense, there’s a center (who pitches the ball back on the snap), a quarterback, running back and four eligible receivers. The defense team gets a rusher, but she has to line up behind a 1-yard neutral zone.
The field: It’s 80 yards long and 40 wide: On a regulation field, that means both end zones start at the 10 and end at the traditional goal line — and the sidelines start where the large numbers on the field are.
The clock: There are two 20-minute halves — and it’s a running clock until the last minute. Teams get 2-3 possessions per half. Games take about an hour.
Tackling: It’s not allowed. In fact, there’s no contact allowed on blocking. But there’s plenty of contact — only some of which is called as a 10-yard penalty. Flags are connected magnetically. Any pulling of the shirt to slow a runner is a penalty.
The set of downs: Markers are set every 20 yards (in a regulation field that would be both 30s and midfield). When you cross one, you get a first down. Depending how far you cross the marker, you could be looking at first-and-20 or first-and-2. You just need to reach the next marker for a new set of downs.
Kicking: There are no kickoffs, but there is punting. Teams need to declare their intention beforehand. And, while there are returns, there is no rushing of the punter. There are no points after; schools get one play and can go for a 1-, 2- or even 3-point conversion based on where the ball is placed.
“You have to start with the basics — the rules, the technique, even the names of the positions,” he said. “Some girls knew a lot, but some knew very little. But you can see each week how quickly they are picking it up and improving.”
The same can be said for their relationships with each other.
Steele said all the boys on his fall team not only know each other, but they have been playing together since they were little kids, whether it be in a pee-wee league or in the park. The need to do team-building exercises this spring at the start of the season — and a lot of them — was the biggest surprise, he said.
“We have a lot of athletes, but they come from different sports,” he said. “Some know each other from basketball, some know each other from soccer. So, we had different groups that had to come together, first as friends and then as teammates.”
Steele, who has approximately 20 girls on his roster, is confident the number will more than double next year.
“We had 50 girls express interest, but many didn’t make it to the team for a number of reasons, including other sports,” he said. “This was the first year. A lot of girls didn’t know what it was going to be.
“But now that they’ve seen it, they’re all talking about it.”
Great energy, great excitement, great enthusiasm for growth. McGuire said she saw all three on display when she took in a game between Shore Conference schools.
“It was a fantastic environment,” she said. “I was surprised by the number of spectators that were present. All feedback from the schools participating is very positive — many schools have a member of their boys’ football team coaching, and, from all accounts, the coaches are having as much fun as the girls.”
So, it only makes sense that flag football will soon become an NJSIAA-sanctioned sport when the two-year pilot ends, right?
Not so fast.
Because it still is a club sport, girls are able to play football and another sport in a spring season that already has lacrosse, softball and track teams at most schools. It’s the reason why some are suggesting the state slow-play the process: Grow the sport but keep it as a club sport for a while.
“I don’t want it to take away from other sports,” Horton said. “Right now, we’re able to have a happy mix. I don’t want to lose other teams that we have, I want it to be another option to get more girls playing sports.”
McGuire is just as diplomatic.
“I look forward to meeting with all involved to solicit further feedback on the program, and I also look forward to watching the program grow,” she said. “NJSIAA membership will have a voice as to when it is the appropriate time for girls flag football to be considered as sanctioned, varsity sport.
“There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration along the way.”
Moving the sport to the fall, where there is less competition, is not a likely scenario. It would be harder to find coaches, since many already coach boys’ teams. And harder still to find field time — especially as the days grow shorter and fields with lights are necessary, Horton said.
And then there’s the referee shortage that is impacting all sports right now.
Jerry Picazio, a longtime official who not only is working games this spring, but helping to assign officials, sees the issue every day.
Picazio said he has loved doing flag football — “the intensity and the level of play is much higher than we expected,” he said — but feels adding a girls’ league to the fall is not practical.
“It’s a struggle to cover the games we have now,” he said.
On June 3, all eight North Jersey schools will gather at Greystone Park in Morris Plains for the first round of the playoffs. The complex is big enough to handle four games at once.
(Editor’s Note: Due to weather, the event has been moved to Sunday.)
Sixteen high schools in New Jersey are participating in flag football this spring, the first year of a two-year pilot program sponsored by the NFL and Nike.
North Jersey area
- East Orange
- Indian Hills
- Passaic Tech
- Mater Dei
- Middletown North
- Middletown South (two teams)
- Pinelands Regional
- Shore Regional High School
Jets officials, who will honor a senior on each team with a scholarship donation, are hoping to create a festival-like atmosphere to celebrate the first season of competition. The four winners will move on to the next round, when they will meet at MetLife Stadium, when both the semifinals and finals will be conducted on the same day.
Playing at an NFL stadium would be an obvious thrill — but the same can be said for simply getting a chance to play at all. That’s how Morristown junior Kathryn Duff feels.
“Growing up, I wanted to play football, but my mom wouldn’t let me,” she said. “This is the opportunity.”
One she and her teammates are taking seriously.
“We want to show it’s a fun sport, not a joke,” she said.
Duff, who plays high-level soccer year-round, also acknowledges that the players this year are trailblazers, too.
“It’s about empowerment, showing that girls can do the same thing,” she said.
Schubiger feels the same way. Growing up as the third of three girls who are accomplished athletes, the year-round basketball player says she is thrilled that some girls today may see her the same way she saw her older sisters.
“Growing up, my family would go to a bunch of Morristown athletic events,” she said. “Now, if some young girls hear about flag football and they see people who look like them doing it, then they can have the expectation that when they get to high school, they can play, too.”
And they can see firsthand that flag football should not be confused with touch football, as Schubiger found out.
“When I signed up, I’m thinking flag football, you have to pull the flag, there’s not going to be much physicality,” she said. “But now, as we’re going through the season, it’s clear that there is going to be some physicality and the refs aren’t going to blow the whistle every time.”
No big deal, Schubiger said.
“When I play basketball, you know there are going to be some games where there’s going to be more physicality and be more intense,” she said. “It’s the same thing. You just have to adjust and compete.”