Kenwood junior Trayce Brim was never of the opinion that boys play some sports and girls play others.
“I grew up playing baseball, so that was always the No. 1 question,” Brim said. “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
Now Brim, who also plays basketball and runs track for the Broncos, is one of the first girls in the city to try another sport traditionally dominated by males: football.
She’s one of about 400 athletes from 21 schools who have signed up to play in the Public League’s debut season for girls flag football.
The program launched with assists from the Bears and Nike. The NFL team is providing organizational help, and coach Matt Nagy and the Bears Care charitable arm have teamed up to provide cleats to all players. Nike has donated uniforms for all the players.
The Bears hope the Public League pilot program will spark interest in girls flag football across the state so that it will one day be an IHSA-sanctioned sport.
“In order to grow football, it has to be more inclusive,” said Gus Silva, the Bears’ manager of youth football and community programs.
He and the Bears have been working on the idea since 2018 and initially expected to launch with eight teams. When they found out more than 20 teams wanted in — during a pandemic, no less — they were pleasantly surprised.
“We believed if we did it right, it would grow organically,” Silva said.
Next year, he sees anywhere from 32 to 48 teams in CPS, and there has been outreach to other conferences around the state.
What’s happening in Illinois mirrors the growth spurt the sport is experiencing nationally. It’s a recognized prep sport in five other states and is starting to gain varsity status at NAIA schools and junior colleges. The NFL is backing an effort to add flag football to the program for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
To get to that point, the pool of players will have to expand. That’s where the CPS program can help by drawing in such athletes as Brim and Kelly senior quarterback Cynthia Villalvazo from other sports.
“I wanted to play tackle football or rugby, but then they came out with flag football for girls, and I was like, that’s a nice experience,” said Villalvazo, who has played volleyball and softball. “I want to play [flag] football in college. I’m trying to research schools that have it.”
“My track coach, she told me I should try out,” Brim said, and the Kenwood QB is glad she did.
“My team, we have a nice bond, so that makes everything better,” Brim said. “It’s a great experience.”
It’s a chance to learn, as well.
“When I first came out, I was clueless,” Brim said. “I didn’t know anything about football, and the last two weeks we’ve been practicing, I’ve learned a lot.”
That includes the differences between the 11-on-11 tackle version of the sport and the 7-on-7 flag style. There are two 20-minute halves. Though it’s pass-dominant — there are six eligible receivers — quarterbacks also are allowed to run. There’s a four-second rush count, with four blitzes allowed per game. Punting is allowed, but there is no place-kicking, and teams have four downs to gain 20 yards.
CPS schools started practice Aug. 18, and a five-week season began Sept. 11. Schurz and Steinmetz are hosting games for teams in the North and West conferences, while Kenwood and Englewood STEM are hosting South and East games. The quarterfinals are Oct. 12 at Gately and Rockne, the semis and title game Oct. 16 at Lane.
The future looks bright, according to Kenwood coach Khristina Cruz, who has played the sport for 10 years.
“Flag football is here to stay,” she said. “After this first year, everybody’s going to get the kinks out. Second and third year are the years to watch. That’s when it’s going to be super-intense and super-competitive. It’s going to say, ‘Yeah, this sport is here, should be in the Olympics, should be at the college level.’ ”