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Bears welcome three girls flag football athletes to training camp

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The Bears hosted three girls flag football athletes during Saturday's training camp practice at Halas Hall–Emma Jazmin Valenzuela, Karla Martinez Rodriguez and Saniya Shotwell–who made history as the first three female players from Illinois to earn college scholarships in the sport.

In addition to watching practice, Valenzuela, Rodriguez and Shotwell broke down the team huddle Saturday with the help of quarterback Justin Fields. Fields, along with receivers Darnell Mooney and Daurice Fountain, stayed after practice to take pictures and sign autographs for the girls.

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"It was so special for us as a team to be able to host and honor Emma, Karla and Saniya today as part of Back Together Saturday," general manager Ryan Poles said. "Their trailblazing accomplishments on the field are inspiring and I was humbled to present them with their own Bears jerseys before they broke down the team huddle. Their success speaks to their hard work as well as the investments from the Bears and many others into girls flag football at the youth and high school levels."

Poles gifted all three girls personalized Bears jerseys to congratulate them on earning college scholarships. Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren also took time to speak with the girls and take pictures with them.

"I was about to cry," Valenzuela said after receiving the jersey. "But I was so happy because this has my last name on it and I'm just trying to make my parents proud. I FaceTimed my dad [after] and I showed him the jersey. He started crying … This is the best day of my life, to be honest. I'm loving the experience."

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Valenzuela, a graduate of Morton East High School in Cicero, will attend Bryant and Stratton College in Wisconsin. Rodriguez graduated from Solorio High School in the Gage Park neighborhood and is headed to Cottey College in Missouri. Shotwell, an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, is committed to Pratt Community College in Kansas.

All three student-athletes played for their respective high schools during the 2022 Chicago Public League girls flag football season. The league launched in 2021 with the help of the Bears and Chicago Public Schools and has expanded to more than 100 teams statewide after starting with just 22 schools.

Helping grow the game for other young girls is a shared passion of Valenzuela, Rodriguez and Shotwell, all of whom never played flag football before the CPL league was launched.

For Shotwell, once she experienced flag football for the first time, she "couldn't get enough of it" and developed a deep passion for the game because of "how comfortable I felt in the sport." Now that the sport has expanded into high schools and colleges, Shotwell believes it will continue to grow and become a positive outlet for girls.

"I know so many [girls] who love football, and there's no actual team for girls football," Shotwell said. "But we have flag football now and it's just as thrilling, it's just as exciting. We have our own way of playing that sport that everyone loves.

"Everyone loves football. America loves football. So we get to love football too in our own girly way."

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Last November, the Bears hosted a girls flag football showcase event at the Walter Payton Center and invited 120 high school student-athletes to play in front of various NAIA coaches. Valenzuela, Rodriguez and Shotwell were all participants at the event, which helped them get noticed by their soon-to-be college coaches.

While attending the showcase and playing in front of coaches was an exciting experience for Rodriguez, her favorite part of the experience was meeting all the other girls who play flag football as she noticed "playing the same sport brings us together."

"The community the teams have built with each other is special," Rodriguez said. "At the end of the day, we do compete against each other, but before and after they game, we're really kind to each other. That's what I really admire."

Following Saturday's practice, the girls were also interviewed by ESPN 1000 and NFL Network to discuss their journeys toward earning college scholarships and the importance of girls flag football continuing to be amplified.

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While the three student-athletes all have different backgrounds and stories of how they got into flag football, they are all grateful for the sport and hope to inspire the next generation of young girls flag players.

"When you hear girls flag football, I want you to be able to hear my name and the other two girls' names – Emma and Karla," Shotwell said. "I just really do want to make history for girls flag football and take it as far as it lets me."

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