PORTLAND, OR. — Across an expansive stretch of Portland’s Payson Park, football games are being played on six fields on a brisk, autumn Saturday. Players clad in NFL-licensed jerseys check the play on their pro-style wrist bands before running slants, curls and fly patterns, juking defenders with spin moves, and scoring touchdowns.
There are occasional cheers but none of the frenzied, us-against-them friction that football often elicits. Relaxed parents casually sip coffee from travel mugs, seated in camp chairs they’ve pulled from their cars.
There are no cheerleaders, no snack shack turning burgers for booster dollars. Most of all, there is no tackling.
This is flag football. And it might just be the way to save tackle football.
Fear over concussions has contributed to a sharp decline in youth tackle football over the past decade, but proponents of the sport see a silver lining in the rise of non-contact flag football programs.
“I have a mission that (flag football) is going to impact tackle football in a positive way and increase tackle football at an older age group,” said Josh Wolfgram, the director of Portland Youth Football’s flag program. “I’m using flag football as a vehicle for kids and parents who may not feel comfortable playing at a younger age.”
Nationally, participation on tackle football teams among kids aged 6 to 12 declined by nearly 17 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Flag football participation increased by nearly 18 percent during the same years.
In southern Maine, some longstanding elementary and middle school tackle football programs have seen even steeper participation declines. In Portland, youth tackle participation has fallen from 189 to 103 players in the past four seasons. The Marshwood Little Hawks tackle program has declined by more than 50 percent in nine years, according to middle school coach Jeremy Drobish.
Meanwhile, the popularity of flag football has boomed, particularly in Portland and Scarborough, two communities with more than 100 flag players from kindergarten to sixth grade.
For Samantha Nicholas, a psychiatric nurse from Portland, flag football is the right choice for her son, Granton, a third-grader.
“His brain is still developing,” Nicholas said. “At this point it should really just be about learning the fundamentals and having fun with his friends.
“I’m focused on head safety and brain safety. Working in health care, I’ve read all the research about how blows to the head at a young age leads to a greater incidence of concussions, traumatic brain injury, depression and anxiety, and other long-term, chronic issues.”
In the past year, a Boston University study found that playing tackle football before age 12 is linked to a threefold risk of depression as an adult. Those risks prompted legislators in five states (California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New York) to propose bills banning tackle football for kids under the age of 12, though none of those bills made it to a vote.
Bill Harris, 44, of Scarborough describes himself as “a football guy,” but he’s glad flag football was an option for his son, Alek, a fifth-grader who had previously suffered concussions from playground accidents.
“He loves football, but we decided, let’s stick with flag for as long as it goes,” Harris said. “It’s definitely making a difference in Scarborough. All of a sudden you have over 100 kids playing flag and they’ve had fun. Everyone gets to touch the ball and you can learn skills, like breaking down for a tackle, when you’re going to get a flag.”
Other communities have seen growth in youth flag football and decline in tackle participation.
South Portland had just 21 players on its middle school roster this fall. After a winless season in the Southern Maine Youth Football League (SMYFL), South Portland forfeited its playoff game Saturday.
Westbrook dropped its middle school program from the SMYFL. The Greely Jr. Rangers combined with Yarmouth this season at the middle school level.
“Obviously in the state of Maine we know tackle football numbers are declining,” said Nick Cliche, the vice president of Portland Youth Football.
Wolfgram, the son of former South Portland High and Cheverus football coach John Wolfgram, is not alone in believing that flag football can be an alternative pathway to traditional 11-man tackle football.
The NFL Flag program, sponsored by the National Football League, has more than 400,000 players nationally. Every offensive player is eligible to handle the ball in NFL Flag 5-on-5 games. There are no linemen, with the exception of a center who snaps the ball. However, there is no blocking; intentional contact is not allowed anywhere on the field. Play is stopped when a defender pulls at a flag attached to the waist of a ball-carrier.
This fall there are over 500 players in the NFL Flag league run by Wolfgram and Amos Goss of Scarborough Youth Football that includes teams from Scarborough, Westbrook, South Portland, Windham, Yarmouth, Cumberland, Saco and Cape Elizabeth.
Flag football also offers time and cost advantages for parents.
For instance, in Scarborough, tackle football costs $175 to register and parents are responsible for buying a practice jersey, athletic supporter and cup, football pants with padding, cleats, socks, mouthguard and water bottle. Flag football costs $75 and parents only need to buy a mouthguard and water bottle (cleats are recommended). Game days are a four-hour commitment for tackle, two hours for flag. Tackle practices start in August (after Labor Day for flag) and are longer and more frequent during the season.
In the short term, flag football could be eroding tackle football’s participation rate at the youngest levels.
“In Scarborough, if flag is available, you might lose five tackle players to flag and gain 35 football players,” said Goss, who started Scarborough’s flag program with 15 players in 2013. “So it does chip away at the tackle to a degree at the youth level but you increase the overall number of football players. I think that will increase the number of middle school and high school players.”
That’s why Scarborough Youth Football is running its “Try Tackle” program this fall. Interested flag football players could test out wearing equipment and doing a few drills in a controlled environment. On Monday, 18 flag players in grades two to six were at Wiley Field in helmets, shoulder pads and jerseys under the direction of Scarborough’s middle school tackle coaches.
“We’re just trying to offer the kids and parents a bridge experience between flag and tackle,” said Josh Moore, a Scarborough Youth Football board member. “We’ll see how many of them make the jump (to tackle). We’re hoping at least some do.”
Michelle Romano was happy her son Joey could get a taste of tackle football. A Biddeford native, Romano fondly remembers how the rugged, disciplined team sport brought her hometown together, and how much it meant to her younger brother. But like many parents, she’s uncertain if the game is right for her own son.
“I grew up in a football town. I love football. I don’t want to see football go away but I’m very afraid of putting my small son in tackle football,” Romano said.
There are exceptions to the downward trend in tackle football participation.
The Saco Junior Trojans are Maine’s youth tackle football gold standard. Roughly 200 players fill out multiple teams at each age level from grades two to eight, including four separate fourth- to fifth-grade teams, ensuring Class A powerhouse Thornton Academy will continue to have well-stocked varsity and sub-varsity teams.
“The blueprint we use is to register early, get the word out as soon as possible, promote like crazy and it doesn’t hurt to have a successful high school program,” said Darrell Whitney, the league president.
The Junior Trojans do not oversee flag football. The Saco Parks & Recreation Department offers flag football for pre-K to third grade.
Whitney said he’s glad the town offers flag football.
“You’re not going to get a soccer player to convert to football too often, but more than likely you will get a few kids from flag football.”
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