From the first moment Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young began coaching his daughters’ high school flag football team, he was captivated.
“I was blown away at their sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, I no longer love football because I get to watch it. I now love football because I get to play it,’” he told CNN Sport’s Coy Wire. “And the difference in the emotion that they had, it just shocked me.”
Recently announced as one of the sports making its Olympic debut at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, flag football removes contact from the game, so instead of physically tackling each other, players snatch flags worn on a belt.
For Young, coaching his daughters Summer and Laila on their flag football team, the Menlo Knights, has connected his family life with his “previous life” and reminded him of his original love for the game before it became his profession.
Often hailed as one of the most accurate quarterbacks ever, Young was named NFL MVP in 1992 and 1994 and won three Super Bowls, including in 1995 when he led the San Francisco 49ers to victory by throwing a record six touchdowns.
His flag football coaching career started less successfully, however. After he was recruited to help coach the Knights by fellow former NFL player John Paye, their first game ended disastrously when their opponents scored a safety, resigning the Knights to a 2-0 defeat.
“I turned to John. I was like, ‘Oh, John, because we were trying to cover formations and motion and the rules of the game and all the choreography … we forgot to explain safety,” Young says.
After that defeat, however, the Menlo Knights didn’t lose another game and went on a 15-game winning streak.
With the Olympic boost, Young expects to see “a women’s flag football explosion” in the coming years as it becomes more and more popular. It is now an official varsity sport for female student-athletes, while the number of girls playing flag football in high school doubled between 2008 and 2019, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
By the end of the season, the Menlo Knights were playing on the main field in front of a big crowd with announcers.
“This is it. This feeling you have right now, you’re about to faint and you’re going to collapse from the pressure, you have got to love this,” he says he told the team. “It was just so much fun for me to relate to these fresh new feelings.”
With the promise of Olympic glory, Young expects to see some current NFL players make the switch and play for the US flag football team in 2028.
“This game is all about the ability to spin and Barry Sanders in his prime would be the greatest … It’s not just speed, it’s the quickness that matters … (Current 49ers running back) Christian McCaffrey right now would be an incredible flag football player,” he said.”
The symbiosis between the NFL and flag football stretches beyond the Olympic team. As the NFL makes rule changes, particularly regarding tackling, Young says the game is becoming “more innovative” and “much more flag-like” as more space is created on the field.
That may give women more opportunities to inform the NFL game, he adds, “because they think about the innovation, where there are some concepts that coaches on the men’s side haven’t even thought of that.”
Young’s daughter, Summer, wears number eight on her jersey, the same number he wore during his NFL career.
“My boys have taught me more about life and didn’t play football, but I can’t tell you what they meant to me to be their dad. But my previous life wasn’t a part of our home very much until this last couple of months,” he says.
“My family life is sublime. I would want nothing more, honestly. But the fact that it does connect with my previous life in kind of a way that brings it home to me and then it’s my girls, it hits in a soft spot. It hits in a very, very soft spot.”
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