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Flag Football catching on across Niagara

More than 500 youth played the sport through Niagara Regional Flag Football in the spring and summer last year

Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Gracie Cherney was one of more than 500 kids who played flag football in Niagara in 2023. 

With both the National Canadian Football Leagues sponsoring youth leagues, and the sport about to make its Olympic debut this summer in Paris, flag football is soaring in popularity.  

A Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School student, Cherney loves the sport so much she is registered with two local organizations. She’ll be playing on a house league team this spring and fall with Niagara Regional Flag Football and also is a member of a travel team, the Niagara Nitros, through Niagara Youth Flag Football. 

“I have always loved football,” says the 14-year-old granddaughter of Hamilton Tiger-Cats legend and CFL Hall of Fame member Angelo Mosca. “But I never liked the contact. Flag football is so much better because it reduces the chance of getting injured. With this, I get to experience a new version of the game that I love.”

Cherney was scheduled to be with her Nitros girls' team this weekend playing in a tournament in Buffalo. Already this season they have competed at tournaments at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and in Woodbridge, Ontario. And she can’t wait to get going this April with her house league team that plays their games in Niagara Falls. 

Flag football is a version of the much-loved gridiron sport, with each player outfitted with a flag attached to a belt. Instead of tackling an offensive opponent, you try to take their flag to end the play.

“I like to tell the little kids that it’s like playing a game of tag,” says Brandy Ireland-Keus, flag director of Niagara Regional Flag Football (NRFF). “You’re chasing the players on the field and trying to take that flag.”

The game is played with six players on each team. There is a quarterback who either throws the ball to a teammate, hands it off or runs with it him- or herself. Defensively, a rusher tries to capture the quarterback’s flag before any play can be made, while other defenders try to intercept the pass. Cherney usually plays as a rusher on her teams.

NRFF offers boys' teams and co-ed teams at various levels for ages four through 15, and hopes to soon have enough players to start a girls’ division. 

“A lot of my friends on my house league team are boys,” says Cherney, “It’s fun to be able to play with them and compete at the same level without being tackled.”

The daughter of Aaron and Melissa Cherney also plays soccer in NOTL and played basketball, volleyball and badminton at Holy Cross. The Raiders don’t have a flag football team, but Cherney says she has been talking about volunteering at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School, her alma mater, to help them start a team.

 Ireland-Keus says the way NRFF’s program is structured, with the spring session running from April 14 until June 22 and the fall session from late August to mid-October, fits conveniently around the timing of other sports. 

“Our program has such a great potential for team building, exercise and growth during the off-season,” she says. “We encourage coaches of teams from other sports to get their kids to join our league. We let them play together with their teammates.”

Dale Romanuk of Niagara Falls sees the value in that. He signed his 12-year-old son Donovan up with NRFF for the first time last year to play alongside his friends from his hockey team. 

“They need to take a break from their main sport,” Romanuk says. “The more sports the merrier. Taking a break is beneficial. It’s more of a gym class atmosphere but it’s also fun and competitive. The quality of the league and the jerseys, everything has been top-notch.”

It went so well with Donovan last year that Romanuk has signed his 10-year-old daughter Charlee up to play this spring with her teammates from her travel soccer team.

The NRFF program is sponsored by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. 

“It started last year when one of the directors of Football Ontario put us in touch with them,” says Ireland-Keus. “They help toward the cost of our jerseys, keeping the cost down for the players. They run a coaches’ clinic and a skills-and-drills session for the players at the beginning of the season. The Ti-Cats players are on the field with the kids for that one.”

The Tiger-Cats also designate one of their games at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field as Niagara Football Day. All players registered with NRFF receive tickets to that with their registration. And the end-of-season championship tournament is held at the Tiger-Cat’s home field as well. 

With her connection to a Tiger-Cats legend, that was a highlight for Gracie the past two years. 

“Gracie wears her grandfather’s number,” says Mom Melissa. “Last year she got to play at Grandpa’s home wearing a Ti-Cats jersey," referring to what used to be called Ivor Wynne Stadium, where Mosca became such a legend. "She is definitely connected to him through this league.”

Gracie says Mosca never had a chance to see her playing the sport that made him famous before he passed away in November 2021.

“I always feel that he can see me play, though” says Gracie. “It makes it that much more special.”

Registration for Niagara Regional Flag Football is $215 for a season. Each player receives a Tiger-Cat branded reversible game jersey, NRFF regulation shorts and a flag belt with a Tiger-Cat branded set of flags, as well as a ticket to a Hamilton home game. The league plays out of A.N. Myer Secondary School in Niagara Falls and in Grimsby at Smith Public School. 

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Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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