NFL touching down in Walla Walla

A partnership between the NFL and Walla Walla Parks and Recreation helps local kids suit up in NFL jerseys for summer flag football.

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Vikings receiver Scott Golden shows his opponents a determined face as he rushes down the sideline for a touchdown during the team's first flag football game of the season in a partnership between the NFL and Walla Walla Parks and Recreation.

WALLA WALLA - Five consecutive passes were overthrown, under-thrown or dropped, leaving Vikings' head coach Mike Tompkins more than a little determined to improve.

"In this league, we're going to pass - a lot," he announced, tossing another football to his quarterback during a passing drill.

The quarterback's next throw promptly sailed over his wide receiver's head.

With a word of encouragement, Tompkins handed to the quarterback another ball.

It is an unlikely scene at a summer NFL practice, but it's precisely the picture created by the Vikings on field three at Wa-Hi.

There is one big difference between those athletes - who play for national audiences - and the ones on this nearby field.

These fifth and sixth graders don't play for paychecks.

A partnership between Walla Walla Parks and Recreation and the NFL has given community youth an opportunity to hit the gridiron in flag football from July 5 to August 12.

Tompkins, who coached last year, found the city's flag football league beneficial to the competing youth.

"Flag football gives them (players) an outlet to, number one, get involved, even if they're not the greatest in skills," he said. "The coaches, I've noticed, give them insight on what to do, how to do it, and some agility skills. If they have never played football before, it gives them an intro to football."

Tompkins said the flag football league last season quickly followed the football camp held that summer.

"Those kids went right from football camp to this and then to the Little League football," he said. "So they were already in shape and had been playing pretty much the whole summer, so come time to put the pads on they were ready."

Each of the 85 registered athletes competes on teams according to their grade level. There are four teams for fifth and sixth grades, four for third and fourth and two in second grade.

The teams practice two or three times per week, with one game per week. Games are not scored in order to place a greater emphasis on skill development, teamwork and sportsmanship.

"It's to teach kids about life and there is not a better vehicle than through sports," said Andy Coleman, Walla Walla recreation supervisor. "It teaches sportsmanship and competitiveness because everywhere you look there is competition. It's about competing to make yourself better and it's not always about the wins and losses."

That's not to say there won't be plenty of touchdowns.

Flag football, Coleman said, is "high pace," with "lots of activity, kind of like playing basketball on a field."

Flag football has seen a rise in prominence in the U.S., with some states, like Flordia and Alaska, designating it an interscholastic high school sport.

As an official athletic competition, it has also given girls the opportunity to become directly involved with football's hook-and-ladder, dime coverage and fifty-yard touchdown receptions.

"Most people think football is just for boys," said Kayla Needles, a city recreation worker who has helped with the league since it beginning three years ago. "All the kids love it."

While the high school trend hasn't quite caught on in Walla Walla, the city's youth flag football league has made it available to girls with all the teams being co-ed.

This season, five girls decided to go for it.

Celeste Langley, Amanda Dobbins and Maya Fogg all play for the Vikings.

A friendship formed by school and strengthened through softball, the girls wanted to stick together for another sport during the summer.

"I like being with my friends," said Fogg.

For Dobbins, it's "pretty cool," after her first time on the field. "It's better because I'm with (friends)."

Much of this season - their first - the girls are mainly learning the game's intangibles.

"Getting the throw down, like spinning it," has been a key skill, Dobbins said of the throwing a spiral.

All agreed on one needed improvement in their game.

"Catching it," they said, was a primary challenge.

While it may be their first year, their coach has noticed their quick adaptation to the sport.

"The three girls within just the first practice knew what they were doing and they were having fun," Tompkins said. "And to me that's what it's all about."

Third year player Sara Clark and second year player Allison Smith, both playing for the Colts, have enjoyed their experiences through the past few years, especially Clark.

Two years ago, Clark's family moved from the Downriver Community in Michigan. According to her father, Jim, it's a place where "Hockey was the king and football did not exist."

Upon arriving in Walla Walla, Sara's parents quickly signed her up for the inaugural season of the flag football league, seeing it as a way to meet other kids and to compete in a sport she often played in the backyard with her brother.

As one of the only girls on the team in her first season, Sara quietly did well but grabbed attention during her team's final game.

"They were just throwing and some of the boys weren't paying attention so I ran up and caught it and ran for a touchdown," reminisced Clark.

"We had Sara two years ago and we had a lot of fun, but we struggled scoring," said Colts coach Josh Wolcott, also the principal at Edison Elementry School. "I think she scored our only touchdown that year, so it's fun having the girls coming out and play just as well as the boys and work hard if not harder. They just enjoy the chance to throw and catch and things like that."

For boys like Mason Knowles, who plays tackle football in the fall, competing against girls is irrelevant.

"It doesn't matter," he quickly said.

To which his father John chuckled.

"Good answer, Mason," he said.

Instead, the most challenging aspect of flag football for Knowles is trying to cleanly take the flag without knocking his opponent to the ground.

"I think it's harder trying to grab the flag," than score a touchdown, he said.

Patrick McKibben, who plays tight end and wide receiver during the fall, agrees that the hardest thing is "trying not to tackle the other kids."

Despite all the games, the athletic development, and the potential touchdowns, for Tompkins, the league's focus is simple.

"The kids," he said. "Each of them is a little different but they're a lot of fun. Last year they were quick to learn where all I had to do was show them the plays and the rules and the team was theirs. They called their own plays, they huddled up by themselves, and they did all that. I just made sure they showed up. We had a lot of fun and that is what I am going to do this year."

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