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'It matters for every girl who loves football': Broncos help set stage for future of girls high school flag football following CHSAA sanctioning

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Before she was a state champion, Saylor Swanson grew up playing football with her brothers.

"I always wanted to play," the Arvada West junior said Wednesday.

For a long time, though, it didn't seem to be an option beyond the backyard.

Swanson joined a coed flag football league, but the experience was far from perfect — and she ended up walking away from the sport.

"The boys were getting rough, and I kind of felt left out," Swanson said. "I was the only girl."

Swanson said she never expected another opportunity to play beyond the powderpuff game at her high school's homecoming, but she held out hope.

Her faith was rewarded in 2021 with the introduction of a high school girls flag football pilot program, and Swanson now quarterbacks the reigning Colorado state champion.

At a press conference Wednesday celebrating the official sanctioning of girls flag football as a high school sport, Swanson represented the state's nearly 1,500 girls flag players as she accepted a jersey from Broncos Owner and Denver Broncos Foundation Board Chair Carrie Walton Penner.

"To all the trailblazing athletes who helped launched this sport, you've not only found your community, you've been a part of building one," Walton Penner said. "As you continue making history, the entire Broncos organization and all of Broncos Country is on your team — and you're now part of ours."

Swanson originally planned to play wide receiver or running back before her coach switched her to quarterback after seeing her throw the ball before one of the team's first practices, and she's developed a strong on-field connection with her best friend Sara Walker. The two helped lead Arvada West within a yard of the inaugural state title in 2022 before capping off a championship season in 2023.

Those state championship games will now continue for years to come, as the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) voted Tuesday to sanction the sport.

"The question before us was about what was best for high school girls in the state of Colorado, but it was bigger than that," CHSAA Commissioner Mike Krueger said. "It was truly about all the young girls, all the young females in our state. It was a question that demanded our attention, our action and our unwavering commitment to equality and opportunity. It was a question that spoke to the foundational principles and values that we stand for as an organization and as a community.

"By offering girls flag football as a sanctioned sport, we're not only expanding opportunities for young women and their personal growth and success, but we are also fostering a culture of inclusivity and empowerment that reverberates far beyond the field and for generations of young women to come."

The interest in the pilot program was immense, as the number of participants (1,316) and games (680) grew by 161 percent and 310 percent, respectively, from 2022 to 2023. At Chatfield Senior High School — the 2022 state champion — school officials expected 10 to 20 girls to show up for tryouts. Instead, 85 girls tried out for the team.

"We've come a long way, in a short amount of time," Broncos Director of Youth & High School Football Bobby Mestas said. "In December of 2021, and alongside three metro area school districts, conversations around the first girls flag pilot program began. After hundreds of games, two unofficial state tournaments, six CHSAA board and committee presentations with unanimous approvals, and many, many miles traveling across the state in support of girls flag, we are so proud to welcome this new sport."

A number of young women, like Swanson, were simply looking for a chance to play.

"That's why this moment matters," Walton Penner said. "It matters for every girl who loves football but has never seen a place for herself. It matters for every student who has watched others find their passion. For every high school kid looking for her team, her people, her community, this matters.

"It's also clear this is part of a larger movement in women's sports, and we're drawing attention like never before. These athletes are inspiring individuals from every background and across the world."

With Broncos Vice President of Community Impact Allie Engelken and Mestas leading the Broncos' critical involvement in the pilot program, the Denver Broncos Foundation funded the inaugural seasons of the program and will continue to offer support via seasonal programming, coaching clinics, athlete and coach recognition and youth health and wellness initiatives.

"If you were a young girl who played on a coed flag football team and you hit middle school and you're like, 'What's next for me?', the ability to see yourself in the next step allows you to engage deeper in that moment and truly believe," Engelken said. "For the Denver Broncos, being a leader not only in Colorado but across the NFL, we're very fortunate to have incredible ownership, but also [several] female owners. When we talk about this moment in sports, there have been incredible women working in sports for decades — that is not new — but being able to shine a spotlight on that moment right now and show girls an opportunity not only on the field but off the field, we're doing right by the Colorado community and being a leader in that."

And, in addition to boasting mental, emotional and physical benefits, the sport is also simply fun. With a low barrier to entry and fast-paced style, the championship tournaments and jamborees have awed spectators.

"For those of you who haven't seen it live and in person, I would encourage you to do it," President Damani Leech said. "I think when you see the game, the speed and the athleticism of it, the opportunities for it are undeniable. It's an incredibly fun sport to watch."

Swanson, Walker and their teammates will look to earn another state title to cap their high school careers, but there's no shortage of talented players and teams looking for the next crown.

What's clear is that no matter which team hoists the 2024 state championship trophy, the current crop of athletes is blazing a trail forward.

"It's definitely cool that people younger than us and the next generation will have this opportunity and that they might look up to us because we were the first ones do this," Swanson said. "I'm just so grateful for this."

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