Juliana Zavala took one look around the Englewood STEM High School campus on August 27 and felt shivers run through her body. Zavala, the senior director of elementary athletics for Chicago Public Schools, saw hundreds of teenage girls sitting on the soccer field, dressed in Nike uniforms, cleats and helmets, with a sash of flags tied around their waists. .
Zavala watched from the sidelines Gustavo Silva, manager of youth football and community programs for the Bears, presenting the second annual High School Women’s Football Jamboree. As Zavala watched more than 40 teams engage in USA Football-sponsored scrums and drills, she felt proud.
Four years ago, Silva pitched Zavala the idea of starting a women’s flag football league in Illinois. In 2021, 22 high schools in the Chicago Public School District participated in the inaugural season. In just one year, the league has grown to 50 CPS teams while bringing in six schools from the Western Suburban Conference and eight teams from the Rockford area.
“Being a part of this makes me so happy,” Zavala said. “I can’t even put it in words. It makes me so happy. Today, being here, seeing these faces, hearing the whistles. I mean, some of these girls have never pulled the flag before, I put on cleats before. And they just come out to thank me, and I’m like, ‘No, thank you for giving us the opportunity to show you a new sport.'”
On the date of the event – just a day after Women’s Equality Day – girls who attended the jamboree heard about two women who have changed the game for girls in football: Zavala, the wife who made this opportunity possible; and Dr. Jen Welter, the first female coach in NFL history.
Welter gave an inspirational speech at the event, motivating the girls to accept all the challenges the sport brings and keep pursuing football. Welter opened up about becoming the Arizona Cardinals linebackers coach in 2015 and how difficult but rewarding it was to be the first woman to do so.
But Welter also pointed out that these girls won’t have their dreams limited like she did. Girls can now look around on a football pitch and see players, coaches and officials who look just like them.
This is why promoting this program is so crucial. Welter sees how Zavala is changing the landscape for girls and women in football through opportunity.
“I’m telling you what, the number of lives that are being impacted right now in this program should set the standard for the rest of the country on one, it doesn’t have to be a 10-year plan,” said Welter. . “It can be action right now. And second, how important it is to think about this ‘Field of Dreams’ and know that building it and they will come, because to think that girls don’t want playing is incorrect. The girls never had a chance to make up their minds in a situation that was supported to play. It was so often that they were the exception to the rule, and they were playing someone’s games. another by their rules.. I was one of them. Being the exception to those rules is hard. Yet it’s not.
“It’s their game that does it with the support, in big venues and with the support of the Chicago Bears. It means you’re not a stranger, we’re creating something for you, where you don’t have to feel bad for feeling different or loving football, where you see that this game is for you, and you can make those decisions. So, for me, that’s it.