Decked out in his Dallas Cowboys jersey, wide receiver Braden Cabrera scored two touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens at AT&T Stadium on Saturday.
Cabrera, 14, of Phoenix, and 319 other youths from across the United States to make it to the NFL FLAG national championships to compete in boys, girls and co-ed divisions.
Governed by USA Football, NFL FLAG youth football league offers 5- through 17-year-old boys and girls the opportunity to play noncontact football without the fear of being seriously injured.
But some players, like Cabrera, compete to improve their game when they are playing tackle football at their local high schools.
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“I’ve never hurt anything in this game,” Cabrera said.
Concussions have recently emerged as a major issue among sports doctors, coaches, parents and athletes, spurred by a spate of studies and reports that detail the problems associated with brain injuries.
NFL FLAG participants wear mouth guards but no pads or helmets. A lot of kids play flag football in the spring and tackle football in the fall, or use it as a way to get into tackle, said Samantha Rapoport, director of football development at USA Football.
USA Football is the only official youth football development partner with the National Football League. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit heads more than 1,000 leagues nationwide.
Beth Barts’ husband, Bobby, coaches their 12-year-old son, Nick, and the rest of his team from Leesburg, Va. Beth Barts said she waited for Nick to turn 12 before allowing him to play tackle football, too.
Another parent, Christine Dean, watched with her husband, Adam, as their 13-year-old son, Tommy, played in the boys division. Dean said that unlike Barts, she is not going to let him play tackle, because he’s “too small.”
Flag football has its benefits, Barts said. It teaches boys football fundamentals on a fast-paced, less restrictive playing field.
This is not my team
Cabrera said he was excited to play in AT&T Stadium, “the best in the NFL,” but admitted he’d rather wear a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.
Teenagers like Cabrera train to make it to the NFL FLAG regionals in the fall, when they then travel to host cities and play on behalf of those cities’ teams. Teams that win the regionals make it to the championship game, which sent eight teams in the 9-10 co-ed, 11-12 co-ed, 13-14 boys and 13-14 girls teams to AT&T Stadium this year.
Teams representing the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals played on smaller fields: 70 yards long and 30 yards wide.
Little Ainara Ainara Vadillo, 10, a Miami native, was excited to wear a Houston Texans jersey during her 9-10 co-ed team’s 26-14 win against the Dallas Cowboys team.
Ainara is the only girl on her team, and she beamed with pride when she held her championship trophy.
“I can show those that say girls can’t play football. I just proved we can,” she said.
Harrisburg, Pa., native Ben Bragg shouted from the stands as his daughters Diamond and Passion represented the Baltimore Ravens in the girls division.
Bragg said that flag football helps his daughters stay in shape and travel, and that it also affords them opportunities.
“It gives them a chance to work on their skills, and puts them on an even playing field with the boys without getting injured,” he said.
Use your head
Retired NFL linebacker Rosevelt Colvin III introduced his sons to flag football when they were too young to play tackle. Now Colvin is the face of NFL FLAG, cheering on youth teams at the championships and leading his own girl’s team.
Colvin said there are many advantages to the flag game, like learning how to play different positions, reading defenses and catching the ball. But many play the noncontact sport to avoid concussions, he said.
But concussions can happen anywhere, said Jacob Resch, an assistant professor of kinesiology at UT Arlington and director of the university's Brain Injury Laboratory.
Resch said that regardless of whether the game is tackle or flag football, coaches and parents need to be aware.
“You can’t see a concussion, but it can still be present,” Resch said.
Which is why it’s important to always think of the head, he said.
In October, a national report said a “culture of resistance” in dealing with concussions is in place in the United States for young athletes.
Among the findings in Sports-Related Concussions in Youth: Improving the Science, Changing the Culture was that the number of sports- and recreation-related concussions among people 19 and younger in emergency rooms increased from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009.
USA Football has its own concussion awareness initiative called Heads Up, which educates coaches, players and parents about how to play it safe.
Besides a couple of dings here and there, Bragg said he’s certain his girls are learning skills by playing flag football.
“It helps them with teamwork,” he said.