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Photo courtesy of CMSA
Photo courtesy of CMSA

Bears' support of Pride Bowl 'very impactful' for Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association
Story by Gabby Hajduk

The Bears are celebrating Pride Month by supporting the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association at Pride Bowl 2024 and the 2024 Chicago Pride Parade. In honor of Pride Bowl 2024 kicking off Friday, spoke with two members of CMSA's flag football league — Nicki Griffith and Davione Cooley — about the club's support, their excitement surrounding the event and their Bears fandom.

More information on Pride Bowl 2024 can be found here.

Since 2008, Chicago has been the home of Pride Bowl — an annual flag football tournament that is part of the National Gay Flag Football League's competition series. The NGFFL, which was founded in 2002, is a non-profit organization that empowers thousands of LGBTQ+ athletes and allies around the country and in Canada.

As the largest NGFFL tournament that is always held in the same city, Pride Bowl serves as a way to connect members of the LGBTQ+ and ally communities from across the country through shared passions of football and competition. This year, Pride Bowl will be supported by the Bears for the first time through club donations, activations and volunteers to help create awareness for CMSA and its flag football league.

Seven Chicago teams — four in the Open Division and three in the Women's+ Division — will represent CMSA in the Pride Bowl. In total, Pride Bowl 2024 will feature a record 951 players including an all-time high 396 athletes in the Women's+ Division.

Two of those 951 players are Nicki Griffith, a 27-year-old receiver for the Chicago Surge, and Davione Cooley, a 26-year-old center for the Chicago Blaze.

Nicki Griffith and Davione Cooley
Nicki Griffith and Davione Cooley

As lifelong Bears fans, both Griffith and Cooley feel empowered by the club's support for Pride Bowl and believe it will positively impact CMSA for years to come.

"This is very huge, very impactful," Cooley said. "It makes my love for the Bears grow even more, just from them showing their support — that they want everyone to really enjoy the game no matter your race or your sexual orientation or anything. So that's really, really impactful to me."

While Cooley is participating in Pride Bowl for the first time in 2024, Griffith will be competing for the second consecutive year. She described her experience last year as overwhelming both because of the number of people involved and the kindness everyone showed throughout the event, but she also said it felt equally as rewarding.

"Seeing how many people came from across the United States to come together for our Pride Bowl and to see what it means to them was special," Griffith said. "Some teams will come from areas where their Pride celebrations aren't in June or they just don't have that big of a celebration to be a part of, so then it really means a lot for them to be able to come out to Chicago to be not only just in this tournament, but then also be here for Pride weekend as well."

Nicki Griffith participating in a flag football tournament.
Nicki Griffith participating in a flag football tournament.

Griffith, who hails from Lemont, joined CMSA and its flag football league a couple years back when she moved from the suburbs to the city. As someone who played volleyball and soccer her whole life, Griffith was eager to find a new path into organized sports postgrad. Through word of mouth, she discovered CMSA is the largest LGBTQ+ sports organization in the Midwest and immediately joined. What stood out to Griffith was CMSA's flag football league and the opportunity to play a sport she longed to play as a child.

As someone who was born and raised in Illinois, Griffith grew up a diehard Bears and football fan. She remembers attending training camp with her sisters and babysitter for a "girls day" in Bourbonnais, going to games at Soldier Field with her family and watching Devin Hester's kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLI. Those moments caused her fandom of both the Bears and football to become "second nature," but she felt being an active participant in the game was never attainable.

"That kickoff, that return, I can still picture it to this day — watching with my dad and watching with our family and just being like, 'holy crap. what is this,'" Griffith said. "Just watching his returns and how quick and twitchy and fast he was instantly made my view of football change. I immediately wanted to get involved with it, but since I was little, I learned, 'oh, women can't really play.'"

In discovering CMSA, Griffith found more than just an outlet for her competitive nature and passion for sports. She found a new community of friends and teammates as well as confidence in who she is and what she enjoys. The flag football league in particular has allowed Griffith to go back to her roots and create new experiences with the sport she always loved.

"It definitely feels like living out a childhood dream," Griffith said. "And being part of Pride Month, it's nice to feel seen. Being around other women and people in the community who want to play football and who had that same experience of 'if only' — if only there was a team or if only we could somehow play.

"This has really been something that'll stick with me for the rest of my life. It feels like one of those moments where it is life-changing —where you're like, 'wow, I know it's not just me. I know some other people actually feel seen and they feel like they're actually involved in the conversation now, or they actually get to have their foot in the door.'"

While Cooley shares Griffith's experiences of developing a new family through CMSA, his relationship with football had a different start.

Cooley was also born in Illinois and "always had the Bears fandom in [him]" despite moving to Tennessee at just five years old. As the main football fan in his family growing up, Cooley always watch the Bears on the TV and carried his Chicago sports pride wherever he went.

A year after the move, Cooley attended a football camp and tried playing in an organized fashion for the first time, but didn't enjoy his experience. Despite not playing, he continued supporting the Bears. Once his hometown team made the Super Bowl when he was eight years old, a switch flipped, and he knew he needed to find a way back in. From then until his senior year of high school, Cooley played football, mainly a fullback.

"From there, I was always full-fledged into football," Cooley said. "I was locked in because I was always still playing with the kids and playing football, but I just wasn't playing organized ball. So, I grew another love for the game in a different way."

After graduating high school and moving on from organized sports, Cooley was unsure if he'd ever have a chance to play in a competitive environment again. But a few years ago, he began seeing some of his old high school teammates joining leagues, which led him to finding his own path back to football.

"Around that time, I was starting to move from the suburbs — Algonquin where I grew up — out here to Chicago," Cooley said. "I was in a gay-friendly, queer-friendly, positive neighborhood. I just decided just to do some research, and I found CMSA. I went to a tryout type of thing and instantly fell right back into it. I was like a kid playing football again. So now I'm right back in it. All I think about is just playing flag football and just having fun with everyone.

"I definitely feel like I've gained not only just friends, but another family in CMSA. No matter who's in the league, no matter the person, we all just have that common bond where we wanna go out there and get to know each other, pick each other up and just play football."


CMSA's flag football league has reinvented both Griffith and Cooley's outlook on football. As they gear up for Pride Bowl 2024, they are ready to represent CMSA on a national scale. From a personal standpoint, both Griffith and Cooley are also excited about the support they've received from the Bears this year and are eager to fulfill childhood dreams of representing their hometown team.

"It's a huge confidence booster," Griffith said. "Having the Bears just say, 'hey, football actually is for everyone, and we want to show our support for the largest LGBTQ+ sports organization in the Midwest' will show other teams and the entire country that it's growing. Not just flag football, but also inclusivity — that this sport is for everybody.

"The momentum that the Bears will bring to our organization, flag football, and just Pride Month in general will really change our organization for next year."

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