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Girls flag football is officially a high school sport in Illinois: ‘This is just the beginning of greatness’

Juliana Zavala, senior manager of elementary sports at Chicago Public League, recalled when Gustavo Silva, Chicago Bears manager of youth football and community programs, reached out to her in 2019 saying he wanted to start girls flag football in Chicago and then expand it throughout Illinois.

In three years time, it happened: Girls flag football is officially an IHSA-sanctioned sport after the IHSA board of directors approved the motion during their Feb. 4 meeting.

Zavala got a bit emotional during a news conference Wednesday to announce the news at Halas Hall, sharing thank-yous to Silva, the Bears organization and Chicago Public Schools sports administration among others for their support. She also thanked the girls who had the courage and vulnerability to try the sport.

“We did it,” she said. “Now they’re walking the hallways with their head up knowing they don’t have to play powder puff once a year. Now they have a league of their own. Now they know they walk around those hallways and can say, ‘I play football. I also know how to run some plays.’ That’s really exciting to see.”

In 2021, Zavala and Silva had plans to start a pilot program with six to eight CPS high school teams. But interest was stronger than expected, and the program launched with 21 schools. The girls flag football league has since expanded to more than 100 teams across the state, including more than 60 CPS schools and additional leagues in Rockford and the west suburbs.

Zavala recalled nervous youths and more than one set of bleeding gums from participants who didn’t know about putting a mouthpiece in hot water to mold it to their teeth. And now, three years later, seeing girls who are fearless and confident on the field. She said sanctioning the sport reminds everyone that women do belong in the world of sports.

“This is only the beginning,” she said. “The best is yet to come.”

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson agreed, citing the more than 100 high school teams that have committed to playing in the girls flag football state series this fall (the state finals will be held Oct. 11-12). He said a growing list of more than 40 schools have committed to starting programs in 2025.

“With girls flag football in the fold, the IHSA is proud to now offer 40 sports and activities that over 400,000 Illinois high school students will participate in during the upcoming school year,” he said. “The IHSA is over 100 years old and I can tell you that this type of growth is unprecedented throughout our history.”

The IHSA sanctioning came a few months after the news that flag football will be played at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren said now is the time for organizations like his to step up and set the tone.

“This is just the beginning of greatness,” he said. “It is now our responsibility to carry it forward and provide a mechanism and support system that we can show the world, that dreams do come true and that football does matter.”

Teen trio — the first to get college scholarships for girls flag football — honored by Chicago Bears

Graciela Mandujano, a 16-year-old sophomore at Solorio Academy, was smiling ear to ear in a football jersey while at Halas Hall for the announcement with teammates and players from other schools.

“Oh, my god, it’s unreal,” she said. “I play wide receiver. When I started high school, I didn’t even know flag football was a thing.”

Now, she said, her family is proud of how far she has come.

“They always show up to my games, always supporting,” said Mandujano, who plans to play throughout high school and will apply for football scholarships.

“That’s always been part of the vision,” Silva said, “to create this opportunity, not only for girls high school flag football but an entry point for girls into the football ecosystem, so that they can also pursue education through the sport of football and really have access to everything that’s great about football — education, coaching, officiating, being administrators.

“There’s so many great things about football. Using it as a vehicle to get an education is one of them. We want to create a pathway to everything.”

Silva mentioned having conversations with local universities, including Rockford University, about creating flag football programs.

“We’re working toward the future, to college and opportunities beyond college, professional opportunities,” he said. “But also working back to youth football, so little girls now have the opportunity as well. There’s a lot of work to be done. The plan is to attack the work and to support it and get girls flag football on par with boys tackle and youth football.”

The Chicago Bears hosted the 1st girls flag football championship in Illinois. Officials want to make the game an IHSA-sanctioned sport by 2024.

For Simeon senior Kilah Jackson, it meant a lot to hear the news in person.

“This is my second year playing. I never thought it would be this big,” said Jackson, who played linebacker, safety, wide receiver and running back last season. She has her sights set on becoming a physical therapist for professional athletes.

David Rosengard, executive director of sports administration for CPS, said the sport’s impact can be seen in the number of girls signing up to play, especially those who never played any sport until flag football.

“Now here’s a fall sport that they can get involved in,” he said. “That’s the transformational piece to this, young ladies finding a sport where they didn’t know they could be involved, and now there’s motivation to keep their grades up.”

Mickey Pruitt, a former Bears player and the current senior director of CPS sports administration, said the next steps are getting more schools involved not just in Illinois, but also in other states. He said nine states have girls flag football programs, and he hopes that number increases to 20 or 30 in the next few years.

Anderson added that the IHSA sanctioning brings recognition to the sport, which will bring more interest from other schools to adopt it.

“What we’ve done here today will bring a level of expectation for our schools that coaches now need to be on a pay scale, they need to be recognized on the same level of other sports with similar types of responsibilities,” Anderson said. “There’s a number of flag football opportunities right now for boys. I see that being expanded into the girls side also.”

For Zaldana, the moment at Halas Hall made her feel like a little girl again. Getting flag football into schools in Illinois means a lot to her.

“I’ve received emails from so many dads saying how their relationship with their daughter has improved tremendously because now they’re sitting with them on Sunday nights watching football,” she said. “To me, it’s more than just football, it’s everything around it, and it truly means a lot and (is) something that I will remember for the rest of my life.”