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Bears host second annual girls flag football jamboree


Juliana Zavala glanced around at the Englewood STEM High School campus Aug. 27 and felt chills run through her body. Zavala, the senior manager of elementary sports for Chicago Public Schools, saw hundreds of teenage girls sitting on the football field, dressed in Nike uniforms, cleats and helmets, with a belt of flags fastened around their waists. 

Zavala watched from the sidelines as Gustavo Silva, Bears manager of youth football and community programs, introduced the second annual High School Girls Flag Football Jamboree. As Zavala saw the 40-plus teams break into scrimmages and drills held by USA Football, she felt proud. 

Four years ago, Silva brought the idea of creating a girls flag football league in Illinois to Zavala. In 2021, 22 high schools in the Chicago Public School district competed in the inaugural season. In just a year, the league has expanded to 50 CPS teams while bringing in six schools from the Western Suburban Conference and eight teams from the Rockford area.

"Being a part of this, it just makes me so happy," Zavala said. "I can't even say it in words. It just makes me so happy. Today just being here, seeing these faces, hearing the whistles. I mean, some of these girls have never pulled the flag before, put cleats on before. And they're just coming out saying thank you to me, and I tell them like, 'No, thank you for giving us the opportunity to show you a new sport.'"

On the date of the event – just a day after Women's Equality Day -- the girls who attended the jamboree heard from two women who have changed the game for girls in football: Zavala, the woman who made this opportunity possible; and Dr. Jen Welter, the first female coach in NFL history.

Welter delivered an inspiring speech at the event, motivating the girls to accept any challenge the sport brings and continue pursuing the game of football. Welter discussed becoming the linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 and how difficult yet rewarding it was to be the first woman to do so. 

But Welter also emphasized that these girls won't have their dreams limited like she did. Girls can now look around at a football field and see players, coaches and officials who look just like them. 

That's why advocating for this program is so crucial. Welter sees how Zavala is changing the landscape for girls and women in football through opportunity. 

"I'm telling you what, the amount of lives that are being touched right now in this program should set the standard for the rest of the country on one, it doesn't have to be a 10-year plan," Welter said. "It can be action right now. And two, just how important it is to basically think of that 'Field of Dreams' and know that build it and they will come, because thinking that girls don't want to play is incorrect. Girls have never had the opportunity to make up their own minds in a situation that was supported to play. It was so often that they were the exception to the rule, and they were playing someone else's games by their rules. You were the one of one. I've been the one of one. Being the exception to those rules is tough. Yet this is not. 

"This is their game doing it with support, in big venues and having the backing of the Chicago Bears. This means you're not an outsider, we're creating something for you, where you don't have to feel wrong for feeling different or loving football, where you see that this game is right for you, and you get to make those decisions. So, to me, this is everything."

Daniela Navas, a junior at Steinmetz College Prep, played flag football for the first time in 2021. At first, Navas doubted her ability to participate in a sport that had been dominated by boys and men. 

But Navas' previous experience as a softball player led to a natural talent for the quarterback position. With the help of her coach at Steinmetz, Navas learned how to play quarterback and quickly excelled, becoming a key piece to her team. 

Then in September, Navas was presented with the LatinX Youth Leader Award by the Bears and attended the team's game against the Bengals in the fall. Watching football from the lens as a player was new to Navas, but she saw the broad similarities between her and the professional athletes. It began to change the way she viewed herself. 

"It's really amazing because I have a thing that I don't really believe in myself, or I don't think I'm gonna be good enough," Navas said. "I doubt myself most of the time. So, knowing that I'm doing this really good at this age, and then thinking that I can keep doing it this for my whole life. I can just imagine how improved I will be when I'm older."

Cristal Sotelo and Brenda Macias are seniors on the Back of the Yards team, which won the first CPS girls flag football league championship. Neither girl had prior playing experience or even knew much about football. Macias tried out for the team because it was summer, she was bored and wanted to try something new. 

Sotelo originally went out for the volleyball team, but didn't make it, so she tried out for flag football. In hindsight, Sotelo is glad the opportunity for the latter came up. But at the beginning of the season, there were nerves. Trying a new sport was scary, but the fact it was a sport that girls typically didn't play added to that fear of the unknown. 

"I would have never seen myself playing football," Sotelo said. "It was just crazy to be like, 'Oh, I did this.' Whenever I tell any family members that I played football, they're all so surprised because they're like, 'you're a girl, how do you do that?' So, I invite them to my games. Some of them come and they're like, 'oh, this is how you play.' It's awesome."

Macias recalled the experience of Back of the Yards making it to the final game and eventually winning the championship. Even a year later, Macias told the story with a big smile on her face. The team captain remembered her teammates crying tears of joy after the semifinal game, then feeling an overwhelming sense of pride and excitement when they were crowned champions. 

"It was crazy. I know that we had a game before that, we played two games that day," Macias said. "And then it was the last three minutes, and it got to like the 10 seconds we all started counting down. We were all counting down and right when the timer was out, we all ran to each other. It was so crazy. It was such a good experience. I'm glad that I got to experience that at least once."

This year's championship will be supported by the Bears as the game will be played at Halas Hall. With hopes of making girls flag football an IHSA-sanctioned sport in 2024, Zavala said the aid from the Bears has been crucial in her efforts to expand the game further. 

To make the year two expansion possible, Bears Care donated more than $140,000, while Nike provided a $100,000 grant. The financial assistance gave every girl on each new team to receive cleats, helmets, uniforms and equipment. 

"It is incredible to see how the community and young girls in particular have embraced the sport of flag football over the past year and the great turnout for the recent Jamboree," Bears Care director Marge Hamm said. "Bears Care, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bears, is proud to be able to invest in these exciting new opportunities and programs across northern Illinois that provide girls the opportunity to learn, compete and excel in the game of flag football."

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