On November 6, 1869 the first American football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton University students in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On that fall day in New England, 50 college students lined up for a game that would kick off what would be the most popular viewed sport in the country. Those early games were played with two teams of 25 players and a round ball that couldn’t be picked up or carried. Football started out as a game very similar to soccer with the addition of rugby elements. Over the years, carrying the ball was legalized and teams were limited to just 11 players. By the time 1880 rolled around, the snap was introduced and we had something that looked very similar to modern American Football.
Since that time, American football has become the most popular sport in the country with leagues ranging from pee-wee on up to the professional National Football League. It’s now an American tradition, and especially here in the South. While those Rutgers and Princeton students would surely be proud to see how popular their game has become, many college students are now unable to play. College football has become serious business with daily practices and strict fitness requirements. Between classes, jobs, and other responsibilities, the average football-loving college student just doesn’t have the time for this level of dedication. Adding to that, you’ll rarely get minutes even on the practice squad unless you’re one of the most talented. Traditional college football is out of reach for many.
But intramural flag football keeps that original spirit from the early days of football alive. It’s more casual, less time consuming, and anyone can play. As a result, it has exploded in popularity on college campuses.
It’s the perfect sport for students like Jafett Puga, an Arkansas Tech computer science major, who has a heavy class load and just wants to have fun with friends. The season is short and matches happen after class, just across the street from Feltner’s Whatta-Burger.
Jafett was with friends one day and when he noticed people playing flag football at the intramural fields. They decided to watch, but were soon drafted onto a team that was short on players. He quickly fell in love with the sport. Practices are few and the games are casual fun between friends, not rival campuses. He says it fit into his schedule perfectly and was a great way to relieve the stress of his studies.
Jafett’s team “The Last Kings” didn’t make it far in the playoffs, but not for lack of trying. “We always started strong, but by the time the second 20-minute half came around we were tired and didn’t have substitutions.” Still, he says, “It was a lot of fun, and I’m going to try to start my own team next year.”
Compared to traditional tackle American football, flag football’s most obvious difference is the lack of contact. Kerry Shannon, head of Arkansas Tech Campus Recreation, explains that the play is finished when the ball carrier’s flag is taken. The flag is worn on a belt and offensive players are not allowed to guard their flag with their hands. In addition, physical blocking by the defenders is not allowed. This makes the sport more agility based than tackle football. Players learn to dodge and twist away from defenders, and quickness is a big advantage. Furthermore, the field is only 80 yards from goal line to goal line and the first downs are 20 yards instead of 10 yards. The resulting game is much safer and easier to play than tackle football while still being competitive.
Flag football rules let players experiment with lots of strategies that you wouldn’t normally see in tackle football. Jafett’s job as a defender was to rush the quarterback almost every play. His team’s strategy gave the other team’s quarterback little time to think and resulted in some great plays. Since players can’t block with their hands, speed becomes an important asset.
Arkansas Tech has a thriving intramural flag football program with nine women’s teams and 29 men’s teams. The program dates back to 1966, when it was organized by Coach Dobson, and has been a great success. Flag football season lasts four weeks between September and October, followed by a three day tournament to determine the champion. The regular season is a standard round-robin competition where each team plays each other team in turn. The top six women’s teams and top 16 men’s teams are then chosen to play in a three-day tournament to determine the champions. These playoffs are where the real action happens. These top teams battle it out for bragging rights and a chance to play the final game in ATU’s football stadium in front of a crowd of fans. In addition, the winning men’s and women’s teams are both offered a free entry into the regional flag football competition of their choice.
Lauren Bryan is the graduate assistant overseeing intramural sports. She is also a member of this year’s championship team, the Show Stoppers. She started her flag football experience much like Jafett. “When I was a freshman, I didn’t know a lot of people, but I’d go out and watch some games. I didn’t know enough people to start my own team, but during my sophomore year a girl asked me if I wanted to play with them. According to her, “You’ll have people out there who will come to class and say ‘Hey, do you want to play on my team?’”
Many players start their flag football career in a similar way. Some are ex-high school football players who love the sport but couldn’t commit to a full season playing with the Wonderboys. Others just like playing sports with their friends, meeting people, and working off energy.
Most Arkansas Tech students are eligible to play. The exceptions are varsity athletes and students enrolled in less than half of their full time class requirement. In addition, former varsity players are limited to two athletes per team. School faculty and staff are also eligible to play, provided they work more than twenty hours per week on campus. Teams must also meet a minimum sportsmanship rating. This rating is affected by personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Practice regimens vary by team. The Show Stoppers and The Last Kings had relatively few practices compared to some of the other teams. “Most of us have jobs, and we keep it very casual” Lauren says. Other teams take things a little more seriously with regular practices and scrimmages.
Despite their lax practice schedule, the Show Stoppers are a force in the women’s flag football league winning the 2014, 2015, and 2017 championships. Lauren says they started as a team years before she attended Tech. The girls were originally friends who played many different sports together including soccer and basketball. She’s one of the older members of the team now, but the name and spirit of her team is still being carried on into the future.
“When I was a student, flag football was always a great place for me to meet people and make friends. Now that I’m a graduate assistant, it’s still fun to see students getting involved,” says Lauren. Now, she and her team of student workers run the leagues. “There’s a lot to set up and do to make sure everything runs properly,” she says, “You’ve got to get it set up online, and that the teams have enough players. We paint and maintain the fields, train officials, and make sure students meet eligibility requirements.”
It’s a lot of work, but it’s all worth it in the end, according to Lauren. She says that her favorite part is that it’s just a fun, relaxed place to see your friends and sometimes win. Kerry sums it up in a few words: “It’s a great place to meet new people, make new friends, keep active and healthy, and be competitive.”