When Layla Flores, a senior at Kelly High School, started playing flag football two years ago, she learned of Diana Flores – star quarterback of the world champion Mexico Women's National Flag Football Team.
Sharing the same last name, jersey number and passion for flag football, Diana quickly become Layla's role model. So it wasn't a surprise that Layla become emotional when meeting Diana at Halas Hall Aug. 18 at a dinner for 30 girls flag football players hosted by the Bears.
Meeting Layla was equally as "mind-blowing" for Diana, who said the moment "was like finding my twin and another part of me on this Earth."
The next day at the Bears and Chicago Public League's third annual girls flag football jamboree, where Diana would be the surprise guest, Layla showed up with a sweatshirt with "Flores 33" on the back.
Layla shared an emotional moment with her hero as Diana signed the sweatshirt and took several minutes to share encouraging words with Layla.
"Meeting her in person, she's very humble, just the sweetest soul, just genuine," Layla said. "You feel the vibes from her. She connects with you on a personal level. Just talking to her, I teared up a little bit.
"When I talked to her, she opened up about never stop being true to yourself. Always go the furthest. Dream big was her thing. I love that because it's true. Never stop dreaming just because everybody else around you doesn't push you to your dreams."
Diana spent the entirety of Aug. 19 at the jamboree, first giving a motivational speech to over 700 Illinois girls flag football players who attended the event at Englewood STEM High School. For the next few hours, Diana met with as many girls as possible, always taking a few minutes to learn about who they were and why they love flag football.
"I'm just super happy to see all of these girls playing, to see all the passion that they put into the game. I cannot wait to see how big this gets in the next few years. The future is bright for flag football worldwide, but also for these girls. The fact that the Chicago Bears are pushing forward, are trusting in this sport, are investing in this sport, [shows] they care about representation.
"They care about building opportunities, about bringing a voice to all these girls that deserve it, and giving them the platform to show up to the world. That means the world to me and to all of us."
From starring in an NFL commercial, "Run With It," during Super Bowl LVII, to winning a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, to being the first flag football player featured in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Diana has become the face of the sport.
Eliana Arce, a senior at Guilford High School, knew Diana would be an advocate for every girls flag player ever since she saw that Super Bowl commercial.
"Having that support system, having that role model to look up to, we aspire to be her," Arce said. "We want to be just like her because she's broken down barriers for girls like us. We want to continue that. It's just amazing. There are no words to describe the feeling of it because it's a dream come true."
Starting out as an 8-year-old girl playing flag football with boys or girls years older than her, Diana can't always fathom the legacy she's built. For her, flag football is what makes her feel free and happy; it brings out her true identity.
And now, by doing what "makes [her] feel alive," she's helping a generation of girls feel seen and heard.
"I never imagined that I could achieve all these things one day," Diana said. "I never dreamed about this, not because I didn't want to, but I never believed it was possible for a girl like me, playing a sport that the world was telling me was not for me. It was not for girls.
"So right now, being that inspiration or role model for all these girls is not just a blessing to me. It makes me feel happy to think, 'so now where are all these girls going to be in a few years knowing everything that is happening right now is possible?'"
Along with meeting Diana at the jamboree, seeing the growth of girls flag football was a highlight for the student-athletes.
Emma Jazmin Valenzuela, one of the first three female players from Illinois to earn college flag football scholarships who participated in last year's jamboree, also attended this year's event. A 2023 graduate from Morton High School, Valenzuela was speechless watching hundreds of girls experience pure joy while playing the sport she loves.
"It's pretty emotional because you can see how many more girls and schools are getting into it," Valenzuela said. "It shows that girls can play this sport. It's exciting to see how many girls are going to get the same opportunity that I got because sometimes we don't really have the hand to help us out. And the Chicago Bears are giving us that hand to help, so it's really exciting."
With the high school girls flag program going from 22 teams in the inaugural 2021 season to 60 teams in 2022 and now 109 teams entering the 2023 season, the jamboree featured girls of all skill levels.
Stevenson High School is one of the latest schools to create a girls flag team and brought its student athletes to Englewood STEM to participate in the scrimmages facilitated by USA Football. Elle Alder, a junior at Stevenson, joined the flag team because of the sport's inclusivity. A former competitive swimmer, Alder enjoyed participating in flag football because it "felt like we were back being four years old, learning how to play this sport together."
"This is only our sixth day playing football and we just won our first game 42-0," Alder said. "It's amazing getting to see all these girls come out here that have never even touched a football in their life. We're learning routes together, becoming a team, making friends. It's just amazing to see everyone together."
Partnering with Nike, Gatorade, Buffalo Wild Wings, Visa and the Chicago Public League, the Bears used the jamboree to kick off the 2023 season, which began last weekend.
While continuing to advocate for the sport to be sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association in 2024, the Bears will once again host the league's state series at Halas Hall.
The consistent efforts by the Bears are felt by Alder, Arce, Venezuela and Layla, who all voiced their gratitude for the organization. Knowing a team like the Bears is out there watching and supporting adds another level of motivation for the girls to keep breaking barriers in the sport.
"We're getting the acknowledgement we deserve," Layla said. "Men always say, 'women can't play football.' But look at us now. We're out there. It's great that we have girls that are interested in football instead of just labeling it as a boy's sport. No, it's an all-gender sport. All age groups can play this game. It's open.
"It's awesome, that's all I can keep saying. It's an amazing sport. People don't realize how personal you take it when you are dedicated on the field and you're pushing yourself."