While football fans look forward to the annual Gay Bowl, the gay version of the Super Bowl, it didn’t start out with a fully-developed idea of a nationally-organized effort behind gay flag football. It began with guys playing pickup games, especially on the west coast where the weather tended to be more cooperative. But the birth of the National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL) and its iconic Gay Bowl competition wasn’t far away. While we’ve shared parts of these stories before, we’ve never looked at the organization in its entirety and the positive impact it makes, a story that’s worth telling.
Once actual teams began to form, the next logical step was to set up small tournaments. And in April of 2002 there were three teams that met at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles for the inaugural Gay Super Bowl. The charter members included Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In just one more year Atlanta, Chicago and San Diego joined in to play in Gay Bowl II in San Francisco.
It didn’t take long for the organization to evolve. As job changes caused some of the guys to move around the country, missing the chance to play with their teammates prompted the creation of new teams. Former Phoenix commissioner, team founder and Hall of Famer Shawn Rea is the perfect example of this. His first experience playing with the NFGGL was in 2003 while he was living in Los Angeles.
Rea said that “We were just a group of guys who bonded over playing football. We were family in a way that we were good friends and we weren’t hiding who we were because we were all gay. That alone made playing with these guys easy.” Rea and his group of friends would play pickup games here and there but nothing was official. And they’d occasionally travel down to San Diego where their local league was growing, the result of the first Gay Bowl the previous year and their participation in the first Surf & Turf Tournament.
After moving to Phoenix, Rea initially traveled back and forth to San Diego to play. But it didn’t take long for him to start recruiting football players in the Phoenix area by word of mouth, and by 2006 the Phoenix Hellraisers (now the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League) was born. Guys like Rich Serrano, Brian Miller and Joey Jacinto were among its first members. And when they recruited Jared Garduno, now current NGFFL commissioner, to the team, the Hellraisers gained its first set of sponsors and matching uniforms, showing up at Gay Bowl VII in New York City in style.
In many regards the NGFFL’s story is emblematic of the growing sports diversity movement. Like so many gay sports leagues, along the way the NGFFL has picked up a number of straight players. Some of them join because the gay leagues and teams are more fun, some because it’s the local team playing the game they love and some because they find really top notch athletes on gay teams.
Among the straight guys who have joined the NGFFL, Seth Greenleaf is a good example. He’s a Tony Award-winning producer with a musical theatre background who wound up quarterbacking the New York Warriors. It didn’t take him long to realize that his teammates and opponents were tough, competitive football players who loved sports … and just happened to be gay.
Greenleaf admitted that prior to joining the team his original perception of LGBT athletes was that they were “wimpy, girly and not athletic.” But playing with them quickly changed his perception, saying he discovered “a lot of them can kick my ass! That they’re men, just like me. Athletes, masculine and not at all weak.” He explained that playing a team sport is a unique bonding experience – in learning to trust your teammates you also share intense emotional moments that you will treasure all your life.
Deeply moved by their stories, by what he called “the plight of the gay athlete,” he determined to share their stories so others could see this side of gay culture. From this came the 2014 worldwide debut of “F(l)ag Football The Movie: A documentary about coming out … and scoring” that followed three NGFFL teams, the NY Warriors, the LA Motion and the Phoenix Hellraisers as they played their way to the 2010 Gay Bowl in Phoenix.
Based on the rave reviews and the number of awards the documentary received, it achieved its purpose of changing the stereotype of gay athletes for those who saw it. But in an especially heartwarming way, it also changed the life of one of the athletes, Joey Jacinto, one of the early members of the Phoenix Hellraisers.
A very talented multi-sport gay athlete, coach and personal trainer now living in Oregon, Jacinto comes from a strong Latino family where being gay was something you didn’t talk about at home. He shared that Greenleaf at one point had asked if he’d like him to call his parents but says he wasn’t ready then to risk what their reaction might be.
But after playing in Gay Bowl XIII in Phoenix where his family came to watch him play, Jacinto shared on Facebook what I believe beautifully captures the essence of the acceptance experience many lucky gay athletes have had with their families. “I have played in a few Gay Bowls … but this might have been one of the best!! There have been a few bumps on the road with my family and me being gay, especially with my Dad. So I was nervous on how I was going to juggle family, friends and Gay Bowl XIII.”
He went on to thank his teammates “… because you all gave me the opportunity to show my Dad that I am still the guy that he used to watch on Friday nights. We might have not won any trophy, but I want you all to know that next to my nephew and niece, my Dad was my greatest fan during Gay Bowl XIII and for that I am very thankful to you all.”
Many gay athletes I’ve spoken with over the years feel it’s important for people to understand that where we are today is thanks to the ripple effects made by the gay sports pioneers who had the courage to come out. Jacinto shared that gay sports leagues and teams like the Hellraisers are more than just sports to him, they’re “who I am, they made me the man I am today.” His comments are echoed by many of the players.
These same story lines have played themselves out in cities across the country, even moving into Canada. The NGFFL has now grown to 25 cities involved, most with multiple teams. There is an entire kit to support new groups interested in forming. And to show the evolving impact diversity and inclusion are having on today’s sports, the NGFFL now has a strong and growing women’s division.
Just like the birth of any living entity, the NGFFL continues to grow, to make changes and to positively impact the important work of the sports diversity movement. It’s what makes our individual and combined work so very meaningful. To quote Compete Magazine’s mission, we really are “uniting the gay and straight world through sports.”
By Connie Wardman
Photo by Pixil Studio
More stories coming in the NGFFL series. Make sure to check back to our blog.