Rise and shine, it’s game time!
The Dennis Women’s Flag Football League offers competition, camaraderie, and some early morning exercise on the gridiron
When watching members of the Dennis Women’s Flag Football League (DWFFL) in action, the classic Irving Berlin song “Anything You Can Do [I Can Do Better]” immediately comes to mind. “When I was growing up, women could ‘only’ play soccer, softball, or field hockey,” says Ashling Sullivan, a Cape Cod-based social worker who moonlights as the league’s co-commissioner. “Football was always considered a boys’ sport, so having a flag football league for women holds a lot of appeal for our players. . . . It’s a neat dynamic when people ask, ‘So you play football?’”
Sullivan says many of the women who participate in the league are as tough as nails, and can be as competitive as the guys in any men’s football league. Case in point: One season, when Sullivan was racing toward the end zone for Team Chaos, Jojo Bednark’s fierce competitive nature kicked into overdrive (Bednark was co-captain of the opposing squad, sponsored by Buncey’s Pizza & Sport Café of South Dennis).
“Some of us are super-competitive, so accidents happen,” says a chuckling Sullivan, who has been helping to run the league since 2007. “When I was running for a touchdown, Jojo decided that she didn’t want me to go any further. She tried to grab my flag, but grabbed ahold of my shirt and hung on, instead—a total penalty.”
While between the lines, many members of this five-team flag football league—which plays its games on Sunday mornings in the fall at the Johnny Kelley Recreation Area in South Dennis—are fierce competitors, but all are required to have short memories.
“During a game, you’ll go up for a ball and you might bump someone or take a bruise and get in each other’s face a little,” admits eight-year veteran Bednark, whose last name is just a vowel shy of NFL Hall of Famer Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik’s. “But an hour-and-a-half later, we’re enjoying beers at Buncey’s or watching a Pats’ game at someone’s house.”
Hollie Handrahan, a local resort manager and the league’s co-commissioner for the past five years, agrees, noting “once we shake hands after a game, there’s rarely been bad blood between players. Sportsmanship is very important to the league.”
Longtime league referee Brian Raneo commented on the difference he has observed between flag football leagues of different genders. “The women are competitive,” he says, “but they don’t think they should be playing in Foxboro, like a lot of men do. Guys play for stats and how many points they can score, but the women are there to have fun. It’s a totally different mindset.”
This league filled a need
The Dennis Women’s Flag Football League was founded in 2003, when members of the Dennis Women’s Softball League felt there was a void in their weekend schedules during the offseason. “I like something I can look forward to each week that’s not work-related,” says Bednark, who works as a banker by day. “Flag football allows me to tune out the real world for a while and just have fun.”
The league began play with two teams, comprised primarily of softball players looking to keep active and enjoy their friends’ company on fall Sundays, and has now grown to five teams. The teams play seven-on-seven games, with most players rotating positions while playing both offense and defense. In total, about 60 women participate.
Other than Team Chaos, which is underwritten by Provincetown businesswoman Carol MacDonald, the other teams in the league are named after their sponsors: Buncey’s, Soprano’s Ristorante of Mashpee, Bush Gardens of Osterville, and disc jockey Rich Corso’s Secret Productionz of Buzzards Bay.
Whether it’s a firecracker running back just out of college or longtime Chaos quarterback Marsha Sirota, who’s still slinging the pigskin in retirement, the league offers a level playing field to women of all ages and fitness levels. “We’re supportive of all players,” says Bednark. “We capitalize on what your strengths are and we find a role for everyone.”
Everyone includes women from all walks of life. Bartenders, postal workers, waitresses, nurses, bankers, social workers, teachers, and desk jockeys of all stripes are among the players on the gridiron regularly in the DWFFL.
“A lot of us play to stay active, to stay social,” says Jen Ciliberto, a mother of two boys and a physical education teacher in the Barnstable Public Schools. “It’s fun to make new friends and connect with people from different backgrounds.”
For some participants, the social component of league play might be the most appealing part of the DWFFL. “I would be lying if I said we didn’t frequent a local pub after our games,” admits Handrahan. More often than not, that local public house is nearby Buncey’s, where the players discuss the day’s games, an upcoming Patriots’ contest, work, family, or all of the above.
“I just love getting up on Sunday mornings and playing football with my friends, getting some exercise, and cheering for my teammates,” adds Ciliberto, one of the league’s founders who plays for team Secret Productionz. “I’ve played with my sisters over the years, and I’ve reconnected with old high school friends.”
Like the league’s many family connections, a lot of on-field friendships extend beyond the sidelines. “Some of these women have become my best friends,” says Sullivan, who adds that most league members will quickly rally to a fellow player in need.
When the Cilibertos’ home was destroyed in a fire in 2015, many players prepared gift baskets full of necessities for the family. “The entire league pulled together and bought our family items and gift certificates for things we’d need when our house was rebuilt,” says Ciliberto. “They also did a clothing drive so that my children and my husband and I had things to wear, and then another player held a fundraiser for us. Our family has adjusted very well since we moved into our new home, and it was an easy transition thanks to my football sisters.”
Getting to know the Xs and Os
Where none of the league’s participants grew up playing organized football, learning the game’s skills, arcane rules, terminology, and the Xs and Os—the symbols that coaches use to denote offensive and defensive players when drawing up plays on a chalkboard—is arguably their biggest challenge. Most teams employ an approach that incorporates playground-style football (i.e. drawing up plays in the dirt) with a few formal plays such as draws, double reverses, flea flickers, and the Statue of Liberty (a classic misdirection play).
“Some teams’ quarterbacks have wristbands with Xs and Os,” says Bednark. “We have a play we call ’Bama that includes a double fake handoff with the receivers running a crossing pattern, and whoever gets the final handoff throws a bomb down the field.”
Sullivan’s Chaos team has worked for years to perfect—almost—one signature play. “Our team has gotten a lot better at running a reverse,” says Sullivan. “When we first started running it, I don’t know how many times we ran into one another. We still bump into each other once in a while, but we’ve figured it out and gotten a lot better at it.”
Where the teams square off so frequently, tipping off plays is always a clear and present danger, so a poker face—and speaking to one’s teammates in code—can be important. For example, the term “blueberry” has signified a sweet lateral play for Secret Productionz in the past.
“We play each team every third week, so we have to keep teams off guard and guessing,” Bednark says. “So we like to run similar plays with lots of different options.”
One option players do not have is sleeping in on Sundays due to inclement weather. Other than a nor’easter that canceled play one year, the women of the DWFFL play in all kinds of weather. “We’re not afraid of bad weather,” says Bednark. “It could be rain, sleet, or snow, and we’ll still go out to play.”
One year, during a driving rainstorm, the referees called it a day and went home in the middle of a game. “We stayed,” Handrahan says, “and played a mud bowl.”
And what about when the wet stuff turns to white stuff? “When we first started playing, we actually brought snow blowers and shovels to the field so we could play,” Ciliberto says. “We’ll do penguin dives in the mud; we’re really just a bunch of kids who never grew up.”
To learn more about the Dennis Women’s Flag Football League, visit leaguelineup.com/dwffl. To sign up to play, email email@example.com.
Joe O’Shea is a freelance writer—and a former placekicker—from Bridgewater.
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