Atlanta’s flag football jocks break records as they open spring season

When the LGBTQ and allied players of National Flag Football League of Atlanta take the field for their season opener on March 9, they do so as just one of several queer leagues and fan groups kicking off spring sports in Atlanta. 

And they do so already breaking a number of league records.

Spring 2019 boasts the most teams, the most female players, and the most overall players that NFFLA has ever had. Plus, they introduce a second division of teams for the first time ever.

And for all those new faces on the field, there are plenty of returning veterans to break them in.

“We still have guys that started the league 16 years ago,” NFFLA Commissioner Justin Spears told Q. “We started a Hall of Fame process to make sure that we’re acknowledging these guys that did so much for the league over the course of 16 years.”

Spears moved to Atlanta in 2013. It took a chance message on a popular gay dating app to find out about the NFFLA.

“I didn’t know anyone here, and someone reached out to me on Scruff and said, ‘Hey check this out,’” he said. “It took some convincing, but I went out there, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last six years.”

Spears said he was ignorant in assuming that because it’s an LGBTQ league, it wasn’t “real” football.

“That’s the common misconception, that because it’s a gay league, it might not be as competitive or intense as regular football,” he said. “But it definitely is.”

“Everybody was so welcoming, I realized that the competition was legit, and I’ve played in the league ever since,” he added.

Until now, NFFLA drew one or two female players out of some 100 to 125 players, and they fielded eight to 10 teams. They ramped up recruitment efforts going into this season.

“We really wanted to make this the best year recruiting, and we wanted it to be an inclusive league,” Spears said.

It worked. The number of female players in the league jumped from one to 10, and nearly 150 players compete on 12 teams. That includes a new division for newer, more developmental players who just want to have fun. 

Of course, the spirit of competition on the field and fun off the field is a big part of what draws people to the league. 

The NFFLA hosts a series of social events throughout the season at local LGBTQ-friendly bars and restaurants.

“The biggest thing with the social events is it shows our sponsors that we’re giving back to them,” Spears said. “I want to make sure that our sponsors get a return on their investment. We’re giving back to the community, and they’re giving back to us, a nonprofit.”

“I love seeing the guys enjoy themselves and make new friends,” Spears said. “My best friend I met from the league in my first year. He’ll probably be the best man at my wedding.”

Of course, the main focus is on gameday, held on Saturdays in Atlanta Silverbacks Park next to Spaghetti Junction. 

“At some points in the season, it gets pretty electric on the sidelines because some guys are rooting for their friends,” Spears said. 

And there’s one key ingredient that brings something extra to gameday — the shade of it all.

“There’s always a fun mix of shade — and maybe some not-so fun shade,” Spears said.

But it’s all in good fun, and it can make for a lifelong connection.

“I love seeing the guys enjoy themselves and make new friends,” Spears said. “My best friend I met from the league in my first year. He’ll probably be the best man at my wedding.”

With that in mind, Q sent contributing photographer James L. Hicks to the field with some NFFLA recruits for this week’s photo essay.  We asked some of the other players what they love about NFFLA, and their answers appear with their photos below.

NFFLA opens its spring season on March 9 at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. Games take place each Saturday except Easter Weekend for nine weeks through May. nffla.com

All photos by James L. Hicks. Top photo Enrique Vellon. Find more of Hicks’ stellar LGBTQ-ATL community images by searching his name here on theQatl.com.

 

Taylor Mclendon

“Supportive, Irreplaceable, Inviting”

 

Enrique Vellon

“Proud, Friendly, Thriving”

 

Marcus Fritz

“Energizing, Convivial, Fun”

 

Brian Goldstein

“Competitive, Memorable, Family”

 

Lucas Carter

“Inclusive, Competitive, Fun”

A version of this feature originally ran in Q magazine. Read the latest issue below for even more.

 

 

Pick up a new edition of Q each week at queer and LGBTQ-friendly venues around town.