Over 1,200 athletes representing 13 different counties in the state of Florida gathered at the Tournament SportsPlex of Tampa Bay for the third annual Girls Flag Football Preseason Classic, presented by AdventHealth. It is the largest sanctioned girl's flag football tournament in the nation and is usually held at the Buccaneers training facility. This year, due to COVID-19 concerns, the round-robin style tourney was moved off-site but still kicked off without a hitch.
To celebrate the third iteration of the program, Buccaneers Co-Owner and President of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation Darcie Glazer Kassewitz was on hand, along with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and both assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar, fresh off becoming the first two female coaches to win a Super Bowl. They spoke to the athletes in attendance after the first day of tournament play and the message was all about the limitless possibilities for women in football.
"The only thing that you need to ensure that you build up is that belief in yourself and that confidence that you can do anything," said Mayor Castor. "Do you think the coaches here when they grew up watching football on TV that they ever thought they would have an opportunity to coach NFL team? They didn't know that because they didn't see it, they didn't see any women standing on the sidelines but now you get to see them standing on the sidelines, you get to see them as coaches in the NFL and you can be the first players in the NFL, if that's what your dream is and you're committed to work hard enough to get there."
View photos from the 3rd Annual Preseason Classic Buccaneers' Girls Flag Football League kick-off event.
And it wasn't just about the athletic ability that the girls displayed on the field. Javadifar stressed the importance of their work off the field in order to accomplish their goals, even in sports.
"Remember, you guys are student athletes, your knowledge is power," she said. "And without that, there are no sports. Continue to push through, continue to work hard, both on and off the field, and you guys will succeed."
Javadifar holds a doctorate in physical therapy, which she got after being a collegiate athlete during her undergraduate years. Though she works in the NFL now, Javadifar earned her scholarship in basketball. There aren't too many opportunities at the collegiate level in football yet, after all.
But that's something the Buccaneers are helping to change. The Buccaneers Foundation has put forth a $250,000 commitment to their Girls in Football scholarship, that awards female football players, whether it's tackle or flag, at the high school level with a scholarship to go towards pursuing a career in sports at a four-year accredited university. One of the inaugural winners of the scholarship, Jade Rayburn, was also in attendance, having been a former participant in the tournament before she went off to Florida State University this past fall.
"If you look around right now there's probably coaches right beside you, there's a GM, there could be the first woman head coach of the NFL sitting right beside you right now," said Locust to the participants on Thursday. "What MJ and I have done is going to pale in comparison to the promise and potential of anybody that's here, if this is what you want to do. So, keep pushing."
The scholarship and flag football tournament are just a couple of the initiatives the Buccaneers have put forth in order to provide opportunities for girls and women at all levels of football. The Foundation also launched a series of clinics and a flag football league that is free of charge, which is geared towards young girls in order to expose them to the game of football early on. With more exposure comes more girls participating at the high school level and then hopefully earning opportunities in football through college.
Then, when they are out of college and with their degree, they could end up right back at the Buccaneers. Nearly half of Tampa Bay's front office leadership positions are held by women. The league's first female team dietitian was on the field for the Super Bowl this year in Stephanie Kolloff-O'Neil. The Bucs' director of football research is Jackie Davidson, who has been instrumental in putting and keeping the team together this past season. Carly Helfand is the team's first female scouting assistant. And there will hopefully be many more women in these and other positions as the Bucs continue their diversity and inclusion efforts.
"It means so much to the Buccaneers personally because we believe women and girls can do anything," said Glazer Kassewitz. "We believe you should be in the game, and it's so, so important to us."