By Russ Crawford
The International Women’s Flag Football Association (IWFFA) held their 15th annual P-Town Classic in Provincetown, Massachusetts over the long weekend of 17-20 September. Unfortunately, due to the climate surrounding the pandemic, only four of the eight teams that planned to compete made the trip. Despite the uncertainty of holding events during these strange times, the teams that did play 8-on-8 flag football that weekend did so with enthusiasm and skill.
The IWFFA’s president Diane Beruldsen created the association in 1997. She began playing flag in 1978 in her native Brooklyn. She organized the Brooklyn Untouchables, and when traveling from that borough to Long Island became tedious, she created the Brooklyn Women’s Flag Football League. When that was too localized, she started the New York Women’s Flag Football League that included teams from each of New York’s five boroughs, as well as teams from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. When the New York area proved to be too small for her talents, she launched the National Women’s Flag Football Association. Even that was not enough, and after Canadian players complained that the association’s name was too localized to the United States, Beruldsen exchanged National for International.
That began Beruldsen’s odyssey to spread the semi-contact version of flag football to the world. In the nearly quarter century since the founding of her association, Beruldsen has spread the 8-on-8 version of the game to at least sixteen nations that included Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Belgium, and Norway in Europe. In Latin America, the IWFFA has created teams in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, and Cuba. Most recently, she and her association have made trips to Nigeria and India, where the IWFFA sponsored a game between women from India and Afghanistan.
When Beruldsen began taking her game to the world, her first stop was in Denmark. She once again evolved her plan. Danish women already had other sporting opportunities, but what interested them was Beruldsen’s argument that flag football could teach other things than throwing and catching. She explained that flag football could teach leadership skills to empower women, and that has become a central selling point for women in the countries she has visited. The IWFFA’s website asserts: “We are a women’s empowerment organization that uses flag football as the vehicle to bring equality to women around the world.”
With the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, those women who played against India (and absorbed some of the IWFFA’s women empowerment message) are potentially in dire straits. Beruldsen and the IWFFA have begun an effort to raise a legal fund to help get the women out of the country.
Back in the friendlier confines of Provincetown, the four teams came from different locales, and had different skill levels. One feature of IWFFA tournaments is the inclusion of a team of Loose Women. The tongue-in-the-cheek name indicates women who have no established team, but who want to play. In Provincetown, that included young women such as Tahji Thompson from Miami, who scored the tournament’s first touchdown on a one handed catch for a 50 yard score, and also women such as Maureen Travis, a retired college professor, who was 71. Thompson’s scoring pass was thrown to her by the 61 year old Beruldsen. Maria “MJ” Eguigure, who traveled from Honduras to play in and help manage the event, added the international element to the tournament.
The best team of the tournament was made up of current and former Pittsburgh Passion players, led by head coach Teresa Conn, and three-time Women’s Football Alliance national champion quarterback (and International world champion) Lisa Horton. Horton retired from playing tackle, as had some of her teammates. Others were still active players, but, due to covid, the Passion had not played since 2019, so they were anxious to play some kind of competitive football.
They won all three of their games in Provincetown. During Saturday’s games, they defeated the a combined team from New Jersey and Rhode Island (NJ/RI) 32-0, then had the same score in defeating the Loose Women. They closed out the tournament in Sunday’s championship game, again defeating NJ/RI 27-0. Horton, who was named the tournament Offensive Most Valuable Player tossed for four touchdowns, ran for another four in the games.
The second place Blue Wave team was made up of women from across the country. They had begun playing together as students at Florida Institute of Technology, and have kept playing whenever they can. They finished 1-2 for the tournament, but were awarded second place under the IWFFA rules, which calculates wins, points scored, and points given up to determine placement. They won their first game against the Loose Women 20-6, but were defeated by NJ/RI in the closest game of the weekend when they lost 3-0 on a Nicole Bregler field goal. They were led by head coach Eduardo Gonzalez, Michele Rizzuto (their team Offensive and Defensive MVP), quarterback Tricia Donovan, defender Michelle Alexander, and kicker/punter Julie O’Brien.
NJ/RI placed third, winning against the Blue Wave and the Loose Women, and they also lost to the Loose Women, and to Pittsburgh. The team was made up of women who played in the New Jersey’s Women’s Flag Football league, joined with women from Rhode Island. Alison Wood, who formed the New Jersey league and took them to their first IWFFA tournament in Key West, coached the collected team. Nicole Bregler led the combined team and was named their Offensive and Defensive MVP.
The Loose Women finished fourth, and won one game against NJ/RI. In that game, there were not enough locals to make up a full team, so Beruldsen recruited Bregler and Amber Trapassi from the Blue Wave, and Pittsburgh, respectively. Under IWFFA rules, that was perfectly legal, and both imports scored touchdowns to propel them to the win. They lost against everyone else, but scored the moral victory of having three players over 60 years old who played in all three games. Thompson won their Offensive MVP, and Eguigure was the Defensive MVP.
Following the conclusion of the games on Sunday, the coaches consulted to choose MVPs and hand out awards. Beruldsen worked the crowd at The Canteen, selling tickets for a drawing to athletes and casual customers alike. She was on her A Game all weekend, raising money for the tournament and the league. In addition to team MVPs, Michele Rizzuto (BW) was named North American Sportswoman, Eguigure (LW) the Latin American Sportswoman, and Horton (Pitt) the tournament MVP.
Events for the long weekend began with registration at The Bike Shack, a local business that helped sponsor the tournament, and that provided athletes with free bikes for the weekend. Games were followed by various parties at local bars and restaurants, and the league sponsored a closing banquet on Monday.
The play was spirited, and the 8-on-8 game was more physical that the 5-on-5 or 7-on-7 versions of flag football. Reaching for flags with both hands often led to collisions. The Pittsburgh team, in particular, had some issues transitioning from tackle to flag, and got called for several unnecessary roughness penalties. The referee crew of Head Official Mark Walker (who helped Beruldsen write the rule book), Jane Eldredge, and Renee Walker kept tempers under control, however, and used a combination of firmness and humor to maintain good spirits. The officials engaged in quite a bit of teaching, in addition to making the calls. They explained why they were throwing their flags, and the athletes seemed to appreciate that. The crew had been officiating at IWFFA tournaments for several years, so most of the players knew them well.
Beruldsen had to do some teaching of her own team. Some of the Loose Women had never played football of any kind. Travis, the retired professor, remembered that Title IX had not been enacted when she went to school, and that the only sport her school offered for girls was fencing. Therefore, before the kickoff, and prior to each play, she had to tell her teammates where to line up, and what to do when the ball was snapped. Unlike some versions of flag, the IWFFA rules allow kickoffs, punts, extra point tries, and punting. Extra points could be kicked for one point, or, if the team did not have a kicker, teams could try for one or two point conversions by running or passing, depending on where the try began.
The IWFFA holds several tournaments each year, though the pandemic has limited those. The primary event each year, that draws teams from around the world, is the Kelly McGillis Classic that is held in Key West each January. When Beruldsen organized the tournament, she wanted to brand it along the lines of the Dinah Shore golf tournament. She reached out to actress McGillis, who consented to having her name used. That epitomizes Beruldsen’s approach to promoting flag football – she has an idea, and with the brashness of her Brooklyn upbringing, she goes out to make it happen.
The IWFFA has a busy schedule for 2022. They will kick the year off with the 30th annual McGillis tournament, and then go to Quitte, Pakistan in February. Other tournaments include Tegucigulpa, Honduras, New Orleans, El Salvador, Mexico City, Sierra Leone, Havana, Grand Bahamas, Madrid, Spain, Gothenburg, Sweden, and Guatemala City.
The Pittsburgh women came primed for victory, but this wasn’t a win-at-all-costs tournament. Beruldsen sprinkled the proceedings with fun. During halftimes, players could compete in furthest throw or kick contests, with the winners receiving a gift package from Toys of Eros that included vibrators. When not playing, each team had to provide players for the chain gang, and sometimes extra players to reinforce the Loose Women. It was something of a family event, with parents and children watching the action. Both Brandy Alderson and Mary Angelini of the Blue Wave told me that they had met their wives playing in the tournament. Most of the athletes seemed to have played in the tournament before, and made it part of their vacation plans for the year.
Beruldsen has made a career out of spreading the game of 8-on-8 flag football, along with a practical feminism to a large part of the world. Back at home in Key West, she is now hoping to help some of the women that she taught the sport to escape from the Taliban. Some women athletes from Afghanistan have fled the Taliban takeover, and Kahlida Popal, a former captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, urged her peers left behind to burn their uniforms and delete social media accounts.
What will happen with the IWFFA after Beruldsen decides to retire is uncertain. As she told me in a 2021 interview, “Russ, I’m perfect. My personality, the year that I was born, my experiences, I am perfect to be this president, the founder of the IWFFA. Because, of all of my experiences. I wonder today if I was born with this society, if I would have been such a powerhouse for the women’s sports. This is my journey, I was born to do this for a reason.” For now though, the tournaments go on, giving women from around the world a chance to play flag football, and perhaps gain some empowerment along the way.
Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963 was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.