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Flag football program brings boy and girls onto the field

PHOENIX (KSAZ) -- Friday Night Lights is typically associated with high school football players hitting the field, but now, a much younger crowd is getting the opportunity to play under the lights.

In the Valley, a youth flag football league is making waves, and the fun isn't just for the boys.

A typical Friday night under the lights for hundreds of kids and their parents can involve running, scoring, and cheering when it comes to flag football.

"It's a non contact sport," said Red Zone Youth Football founder Martin Franco. "You're able to run, jump, pass, catch touchdowns, play defense."

It's the sport Coach Franco has dedicated his life to. He and Coach Jack Oliver decided to start their own league in 2017.

"It was one of those things where it wasn't going to be about the money," said Franco. "It was going to be about getting kids out here, and as you can see, we have a great turnout."

The NFL-approved flag football league started season 1 with 27 teams. Now in season 5, it has 53 teams, totaling about 600 players.

"How they come in, how they stick with us season after season. They move up from age group to age group. The teams are getting better. They're staying together," said Oliver.

"We're coaching the kids to get to the next level," said Franco. "We have also introduced 7 on 7, which is the next step before tackle, if that's something the want to decide to do."

The boys aren't the only ones having the fun. In this league, girls are playing with and against the boys.

"I imagined her a ballerina, tap dancing. Not football," said Deanna Dowdy, whose daughter plays in the league. "I think it's great. I think they should be able to play what they want to play, and they're all very good."

"These girls here, they don't know what it's like not to see other girls play football against boys. Not just with them, but against them. It's the norm to them and it's the norm now starting with those girls," said Arizona Cardinals Youth Football Manager Mo Streety. He oversees the entire youth football program in the state.

"This is the grassroots of the NFL," said Streety. "This is where our future is."

Streety says the interest in flag football has stayed strong through the years, and it may be because of safety concerns with tackle football. He isn't surprised by the fast success this league has had, especially since all kids are able to get in on the action.

"In the future, they'll get opportunities in college or our USA Football national governing body. That helps as well too," said Streety. "They have a future in this sport if they want it. There is no doubt these girls will probably have the opportunity to play if not professionally, at least in the Olympics."

The league offers some scholarship programs, so that all kids who want to play are able to. Games are played in Gilbert and Ahwatuke.