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Flag football provides outlet for Rochester girls to learn the game

Flag football is increasing its popularity as concerns over physicality of tackle football continue. For girls, this means the chance to enter the football world earlier than ever before.

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Penelope Merino runs after catching the football during a game at the Rochester Youth Fields at RCTC.
Contributed / Kimberly Merino
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ROCHESTER — Nora Astorino has always wanted to play football. But, even at age 13, she knows that some people only think of football as a boys sport.

“Because I’m a girl, I’m not really supposed to play football,” she said.

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That hasn’t stopped her from considering playing tackle football when she heads to eighth grade in the fall.

Until then, a local flag football league this spring gave Astorino a taste of the sport. In her first season, she scored at least eight touchdowns and played multiple positions for the team that her dad, Jesse, coaches.

“I hate being quarterback, but my dad puts me as quarterback,” Astorino said. “But I have a really strong arm.”

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As the only girl playing in her age group, Astorino has heard other players' surprised reactions when they realize a girl is playing. She doesn’t take it personally — instead, Astorino enjoys watching people’s reactions when she scores.

Astorino was one of 647 kids registered to play spring flag football through the Rochester Youth Football Association, an increase of 169 players from 2021.

Minnesota, and the Minnesota State High School League, haven’t sanctioned flag football as an official sport. Six states — Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York — are the only places in the U.S. to have official flag football teams. In the 2018-2019 school year, the National Federation of High School Associations reported 11,209 female flag football players across the country.

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Nora Astorino, center, throws the football during a game Sunday, June 5, 2022, at the Rochester Youth Fields at RCTC.
Abby Sharpe / Post Bulletin

There are still plenty of kids who want to participate in the sport, which is why youth organizations like RYFA host flag football leagues. Concerns about the safety of tackle football, especially for young kids, has led to an increase in flag football participation.

The NFL has long supported flag football, officially kicking off its first youth flag football camp at the New England Patriots’ stadium in 1994. NFL FLAG has more than 500,000 participants in all 50 states.

The Minnesota Vikings are leading the latest charge to provide flag football opportunities to girls in Minnesota. In May, the team announced a partnership with Minneapolis Public Schools to kick off a three-week flag football season tailored to girls.The team also shared a long-term goal to expand girls high school football to a varsity sport.

Kimberly Merino knew that she should put her kids in sports, but she didn’t want to be a soccer mom. Her daughter, Penelope, wanted to play flag football after watching her younger brother play last season.

The seven-year-old has enjoyed playing — and she should, given she scored the most touchdowns for her team.

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For young kids playing flag football, it’s less about the passion for the game and more about trying different sports. Penelope plays volleyball and gymnastics in addition to flag football.

“They get rid of that energy that they have, being so young,” Merino said. “I like them to be involved in stuff because it takes them away from being home and just being on the tablet or playing games on the phone.”

But for girls like Astorino, flag football is the outlet to learn football. Though there aren’t too many similarities between flag and tackle football, especially on the youth level. But flag football still provides a competitive opportunity to introduce girls to the game.

“Doing flag football is a big step for me,” Astorino said. “But it will be an even bigger step to do tackle, which I really want to do.”

Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. While at ASU, she created short- and long-form stories for audio and digital. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or asharpe@postbulletin.com.
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