As the NFL helps to give flag football prominence, St. Thomas University leads way

Gabriel Urrutia , Alejandro Silva
·4 min read

St. Thomas University athletic director Laura Courtley-Todd heard the whispers in January: The National Football League was going to back an effort to make women’s flag football a scholarship sport at the college level by 2021.

So she jumped on the opportunity for her university to be a part of this trailblazing effort — contacting leaders of other universities to bring them on board. She even involved St. Thomas president David A. Armstrong.

“As soon as it came up, I was emailing and texting that we were 100 percent in,” said Courtley-Todd, who was promoted to assistant professor in May. “I was calling the athletic directors and [Armstrong] was calling the presidents.”

St. Thomas began organizing a team and named as coach Erick Burzanko, who also serves as an assistant for the football team. He understands the importance of this effort by the NFL and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

“The opportunity I have here is pretty exciting,” Burzanko said. “I’m excited for all of these girls that are getting an opportunity at St. Thomas and other universities to play at the collegiate level for the first time.”

Flag football dates at least back to World War II when military commanders allowed troops to play but wanted to minimize injury. Since 1997, women have competed in small pockets around the world including Sweden and Latin America. One of its biggest tournaments, the Kelly McGillis Classic, is played every year in Key West.

The game developed as a result of Title IX, the federal legislation that guarantees female athletes equal opportunity in sports. Today, more than 300 Florida high schools sponsor women’s flag football teams.

Hillsborough High women’s flag football coach Spenser Hensel has been leading teams at Tampa area schools for five years. The biggest challenge he has faced has been finding girls willing to step away from their primary sport to play flag football in the spring.

“It’s hard to get girls that are athletic if they’re playing some kind of AAU basketball or track in the spring,” he says. “They’re worried about getting hurt and missing a chance to get a scholarship in a sport that actually gives scholarships.”

The new effort by the NFL and colleges should make this easier. “Now we have a chance to get those girls that play basketball year-round to maybe play flag as well,” Hensel says. “Now we have the opportunity to say, ‘This is a scholarship sport. Why don’t you come play with us?’”

There’s already been some progress.

“I’m starting to see girls basketball players who turned me down in the spring,” Hensel says. “I know some of them are starting to do packets now for flag football.”

Tiffany Walker might be emblematic of the sport’s future. She started flag football on an all-boys team in fourth grade. Last year, she played varsity soccer at Miami Barbara Goleman High School.

Goleman's Tiffany Walker committed to St. Thomas University’s first women’s flag football team.
Goleman's Tiffany Walker committed to St. Thomas University’s first women’s flag football team.

“I’ve done pretty much everything,” Walker said. “I’ve done karate, basketball, soccer. I was always in swimming and my junior and senior year I did soccer, so I’ve always been pretty much athletic and been on the move.”

But then a coach mentioned flag football. And this past spring, she committed to play on the St. Thomas University flag football team.

“When [the coach] first said St. Thomas, I was like, ‘Whoa, you’re kind of crazy,’” Walker recalls. “But [St. Thomas] was really nice, and they helped me a lot with financial aid and so that made it happen. It’s my favorite sport and I was going to continue doing it anyway, but now since I get to do it in college, it’s amazing.”

Courtley-Todd believes there are many young women out there like Walker.

“[Florida] added girl’s flag football years ago because of the Title IX, trying to find another sport to balance off all the boys sports, but then it ended up that girls were stepping away from their original sports and focusing on flag football,” Courtley-Todd said.

This summer, women across the nation signed letters of intent to play flag football at college programs in nine states including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and California.

At St. Thomas, Courtley-Todd has also seen interest from already-enrolled athletes.

“Many of our soccer players or our basketball players are asking, ‘How can I play? I played in high school and I loved it, but they didn’t have it in college,” Courtley-Todd says.

Added Burzanko: “Everybody is excited that it’s moving to the next level. We’re making history here at St. Thomas.”

This story is part of a collaboration between the Miami Herald and Florida International University’s Department of Journalism + Media.