Flag football's growth extends to Southeast Missouri

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Maybe it's their longing for the days of past football Fridays or their love of playing the game.

Either way, athletes from across Southeast Missouri are combining to keep Cape Girardeau's flag football league growing.

Nationwide flag football has grown into a phenomenon. From Flag Football Magazine to the Professional Flag Football League, the sport continues to take off. Nearly every state has its own flag football association, and there are a handful of national and international flag football organizations.

Besides obvious rule differences such as the absence of tackling, flag football has several small rule variations. The field size in flag football is 80 by 40, with first downs fixed at 20-yard intervals. Players are down at the spot the flag is pulled, and players are not allowed to shield their flag in any way. There are no fumble recoveries in flag football; the ball is down once it hits the ground.

Locally, only Cape Girardeau and Perryville have area flag football leagues, but both have a regional feel. In Cape Girardeau's league alone there are teams from Chaffee, Scott City, Charleston and many from Jackson.

Despite a drop-off in teams in Perryville this year, the sport is gaining fans in the area. Scheduling problems and new recreational sports are just a few reasons for the drop in Perryville, which was up to eight teams just last year.

Cape Girardeau league director Chris Eastridge said the city's league has grown significantly since its start six years ago and includes almost 250 athletes this year.

"It's gone up about five or six teams each year," he said. "The word has gotten out each year."

Not only is the league attracting more and more players -- it is at 23 teams now -- but the talent level of the league has improved. Besides former high school players that compete in the league, there are teams made up almost entirely of former college players.

Mike Colon, a former Southeast basketball player, said playing against teams that have ex-college football players is a big draw.

"You're competing against guys who played in college on a level playing field," he said.

As the league has grown, a new format was adopted several years ago. In the beginning there was only one division where each team played each other, but the teams now are broken into several divisions.

This year's league has three divisions, which are broken up by skill and competitive levels so teams of ex-college players aren't playing a group of guys looking for more of a recreational game each Sunday.

Eastridge said the new format allows teams to have more fun and not worry about playing a team that's on a totally different skill level.

"If you're not as good you're playing people of your caliber," he said.

But separating teams into divisions doesn't guarantee competitive balance.

For years the National Guard team of the top division led by Jason Liley, Southeast's all-time passing yards leader, dominated the top division. After that team's 56-game winning streak was broken this year, players are starting to see that competitive balance has come back.

Tony Vincent, a member of The Mountainmen, said teams are more evenly matched than in the past.

"It's about as even as it's ever been," he said.

Although the players are out to win, the league gives its competitors a chance to socialize and enjoy the sport. It's not uncommon to find teams taking a break at a cooler watching their competition after a game is over.

"Lots of these guys love football," he said. "This is just one way of coming out and saying you're playing football."

With increased competitiveness, the league also has gained more spectators. It helps to have several ex-Southeast players in the league like Bobby Brune, who also was a starter at Central.

"We do draw a pretty good crowd out there," Eastridge said.

Perryville's league coordinator, Brian Roth, said he is disappointed with the drop-off this year, but isn't ready to give up on its future.

"We'll try it again next year and see what happens," he said.

While Perryville's league has lost a few teams, Colon said he has seen a big difference in the popularity of Cape Girardeau's league over the years.

"Each year it gets bigger and bigger," he said.

jjoffray@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 171

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