"You are built for this. You love this game. You have traveled near and far to get here today. Let that come out. Play this game with passion, play this game with energy, and you guys will do great today."
That was the sentiment shared by former Philadelphia Eagle and professional flag football player Jason Avant ahead of the Eagles-sponsored National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Girls Flag Football Showcase on Saturday at the Proving Grounds in Conshohocken.
The combine-style event was designed in tandem with the NAIA to provide high school athletes the opportunity to earn notice from scholarship-offering flag football programs.
With five coaches and SWOOP in attendance, 150 high school flag athletes hailing from California, Hawaii, Texas, Virginia, and the tri-state area displayed their football prowess in hopes of taking their game to the collegiate level.
The Eagles hosted a combine-style practice to help expose young athletes to scholarship-offering collegiate flag football programs.
"This is really big for the sport, really big for the young ladies to get noticed. We're trying to level that playing field and give them the same opportunities as we give our tackle athletes," NFL FLAG National Tournament Director Matt Reimel said.
"The Eagles were gracious enough to sponsor this event so that there was no cost associated with it and there were no prohibiting barriers for these young ladies to come out and participate."
As part of their fervent effort to promote gender equality within football, the Eagles distributed team gear, donated the use of equipment, and covered the cost of all registration fees, including that of 17-year-old Texas-native Hannah Jayes.
When Jayes started playing football at 10 years old, it was just for fun. She didn't know if she'd have a playing career in her future, but once colleges started creating flag programs with scholarship-backed roster spots, more opportunities for growth in the sport became attainable for her.
Now, she's one of many girls hoping to play at the next level; she's already received multiple collegiate offers from schools across the country. She even dreams of becoming an Olympic flag football athlete as soon as 2028, if the games decide to adopt the sport.
"Whenever we're all gathered in one spot, it's really cool to see that there's a lot more of us than we're aware of," said Jayes.
Jayes has been playing football for seven years, but many of the local athletes that participated on Saturday recently competed in their first year of the sport. In 2021, the Eagles organization established the Eagles Girls Flag Football League of Philadelphia, which boasted 16 teams by the conclusion of the spring season. The league's first championship was held at Lincoln Financial Field in May.
Lansdale Catholic captured the first Eagles Girls Flag Football League of Philadelphia Championship on Saturday, May 7, at Lincoln Financial Field after defeating Mastery Charter of Camden and South Philadelphia High School.
The league was created in hopes of catalyzing flag's progress toward becoming a state-sanctioned sport in Pennsylvania. Even after just one season, it's well on its way.
"It's really cool to have all those girls play their first year of flag football, and now have this opportunity to hopefully be recognized and play at the next level," said Eagles Youth and Community Relations Manager Daniel Levy.
"We're here to support them, we're hopeful that things like this will inspire the next group."
In order to be considered an emerging sport, 25 schools are required to play at the club level – and the league will likely reach that number by the start of the spring season. Though gaining that status is just a step forward through a tenuous PIAA recognition process, the growing number of new teams proves the goal is well within reach,
"Our counterparts in Pittsburgh are doing a similar league, so after this year, we hope to be at an emerging-level sport. Then, once we get to 100, we're going to apply to be a state-sanctioned sport, which would mean we're recognized by the state and they help to run the state championship," said Levy.
At the event, Archbishop Ryan's flag football coach Sue Dutka marveled at the talented pool of athletes on the field in front of her, thinking of her own team, who had participated in the inaugural season of the Eagles' league. She says her girls are anxiously awaiting their return to the gridiron after watching the Eagles' preseason game against the Jets the night before.
"It's grown so fast. I feel like after all of this, everybody sees how exciting the sport is. It's going to get even bigger in the year to come before the season starts," she said.