As girls flag football has continued to grow in Illinois, so have the opportunities to showcase the thousands of student-athletes who are trailblazers in the sport.
The most recent of those celebrations came November 29 at Halas Hall when the Bears hosted the first-ever All-State dinner to honor 56 of the top girls flag football student-athletes.
"It is such an honor to be in the presence of all these young women at the All-State dinner," Lane Tech College Prep head coach Caroline Schwartz said. "It's amazing that this is happening for the first time, and our girls are included. To look around the room and see 56 young women who played football and did an awesome job, were leaders and outstanding players on their teams is amazing for the sport and women's sports in general."
The event was hosted by Bears manager of youth and high school football Gustavo Silva and Chicago Public Schools senior manager of elementary sport Juliana Zavala, capping off a milestone 2023 season which featured over 100 girls flag football teams, more than double the count from 2022. Throughout its three seasons, the sport has not only provided girls with a chance to play a male-dominated sport, but it's also given the athletes a new group of teammates, coaches and supporters that feel like family.
"It's definitely an amazing feeling to be one of the first here at the All-State dinner," Willowbrook High School senior Emma Anderlik said. "Being surrounded by all these girls with so much talent really makes you feel like you're part of a community and just builds you up."
While the rapid expansion of the sport has required more outside involvement, including from the Illinois High School Association, who is looking at sanctioning the sport, Silva and Bears remain in the midst of the action. Holding the inaugural girls flag football All-State dinner at Halas Hall was another way for the club to show its ongoing support.
"Having the girls flag football All-State dinner at Halas Hall is important because in a lot of ways it's where it all began and where so many crucial moments of this journey have occurred," Silva said. "Halas Hall is where we hosted the first informational meeting, the first state tournament, the first college showcase and now the first All-State dinner. Some of these young ladies have been to Halas Hall upwards of three to four times. It feels comfortable to them, and I believe it's the home of girls flag football in Illinois."
Bears President & CEO Kevin Warren also joined in on the celebration, kicking off the night with opening remarks to congratulate the 56 student-athletes who received girls flag football All-State honors.
Warren and Bears chairman George H. McCaskey also took the time to sign each of the 56 All-State certificates that the girls were awarded with.
"That speaks volumes," Zavala said. "They've been invested, and not just invested from the sidelines. They've truly been invested from the inside and every girl feels a part of it. Every girl feels like, 'how is it that the CEO from the Chicago Bears is going to be here?' That is amazing. It's a dream come true. The Bears are so inclusive. This sport is inclusive, the leadership is inclusive and it just makes it a family. It really feels like that. We feel like a family from being on the ground all the way to the leadership."
Warren also had a surprise in store, handing out two Super Bowl tickets to Saja Alnajjar, the head coach at Stagg High School who advocated for a girls flag football team at her alma mater and volunteered to coach the team this past season.
Alnajjar was the only coach at Stagg, despite having no prior playing or coaching experience, and led the team to a conference championship, which qualified them for the State Championship tournament.
"That was exciting," Warren said. "She is an incredible coach and did it without any pay, any staff and really worked hard. To be able to do so well this year just shows her dedication and commitment to girls flag football and also her leadership skills. To be able to surprise her with two Super Bowl tickets, going to Las Vegas, is really what makes the world special."
Alnajjar grew up a Bears fan, watched games with her family and learned flag football by watching YouTube videos. The surprise from Warren was "very rewarding" and came as a complete shock to her.
"As they were saying all the things that I've done, it was just really nice to see that it was recognized," Alnajjar said. "It was a lot of hard work to do alone so just to see that everyone else recognized, it was very nice. When he said I won Super Bowl tickets, I was like 'Wait, did he say Super Bowl?' It was just a moment of excitement and I'm still in disbelief. I'm still processing it, but I was very excited and very happy that it happened."