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A farm girl with good speed, Ruth Whelan enjoyed playing touch football with the boys during recess on the side field of her elementary school in Wisconsin.

The fun ended one day in the 1970s when a school administrator told her and a classmate they could no longer join in any football games.

"He said, 'Girls don't play football,' " Ruth said. "I was brokenhearted. My mom told me, 'That's just the way it is.' "

Four decades later, it's first and 10 for a new wave of girls' football.

Drawing inspiration from recent groundbreaking achievements by women in football, Ruth's husband, Jeff Erdmann, created a flag football league for girls. Launched this summer, the Go Girl Flag Football League is believed to be the first of its kind for high school-aged athletes in Minnesota, coming amid efforts by the Vikings to spark interest in the sport among younger students.

Ten teams in grades 6-8 and six teams in grades 9-12 are participating in a 10-game season. Afternoon games began in June and run through July at Rosemount High School, where Erdmann has served as the longtime football coach.

Players have largely come from nearby south metro cities such as Apple Valley, Eagan, Farmington, Hastings, Lakeville and Rosemount. The solid turnout prompted Erdmann to offer a six-game schedule in July for girls in grades 3-5.

Watching girls pass, catch, dodge and run through a recent Go Girl gameday along grass fields next to Rosemount's Irish Stadium, Ruth Erdmann said, "It's so great to see so many girls out here. The first day, they were a little hesitant. But they have grown so much in such a short time."

Growing interest

Beyond the field, Jeff Erdmann said he wants "to help girls learn more about the game" and gauge their interest in taking "graduate assistant roles" to help with coaching in Rosemount's program.

Those efforts come after Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate in a Super Bowl in February. Last fall, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller booted an extra point and became the first woman to score in a Power Five college football game.

Those national stories paired with Erdmann's experiences. Last fall, an officiating crew working one of Rosemount's home games included the first woman Erdmann encountered in 31 years of coaching. Five women are part of varsity football officiating crews, said Jason Nickleby, the Minnesota State High School League's coordinator of officials.

When Erdmann floated the Go Girl league idea at home, Ruth and his two daughters said they would have loved to have the opportunity to play.

Flag football should soon be attracting more girls as two Minnesota Vikings-sponsored initiatives take flight. The team mailed 985 flag football kits to elementary schools across Minnesota in March 2020. The Vikings' vision: Make flag football part of all students' physical education curriculum.

Those kits contained belts, flags, jerseys, footballs and a kicking tee. Vikings spokesman Tom West said the team is targeting a spring 2022 rollout for a similar mailing to middle-schools.

Aware of Rosemount's Go Girl league, Minnesota Youth Athletic Services Executive Director Dawson Blanck said he will "dig deeper" in conversations with Erdmann after the season. Typically, Blanck said, flag and traditional football are administered by individual communities, whether through associations, park and recreation departments or community education. Local entrepreneurs also run flag football leagues.

This season, MYAS is administering the South Suburban and Lake Minnetonka football associations. Adding flag football remains a possibility, Blanck said.

Tayah Leenderts, who celebrated a touchdown catch in the Go Girl Flag Football League, also plays on Rosemount’s skilled girls’ basketball team.
Tayah Leenderts, who celebrated a touchdown catch in the Go Girl Flag Football League, also plays on Rosemount’s skilled girls’ basketball team.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Slow but steady progress

Early reviews for Erdmann's Go Girl league have been positive.

On a recent gameday, after rock-paper-scissors determined which team would kick or receive, six teams of high school-aged girls began play.

Games are 5-on-5, with one quarterback and four eligible receivers. There are no coaches. Players representing teams such as the Kitty Girls and the Purple Cows ensure the two yellow or blue flags attached to a belt stay near their hips and out of opponents' hands.

Purple Cow Raegan Marx, after catching a pass and running into the end zone, told a teammate she had just scored her first touchdown. Moments later, on the adjacent field, Liberties player McKinley Chung raced toward teammates on the sideline and exclaimed, "I caught the ball!"

Jeff Erdmann moved about the three games with all the football intensity he brings to his exhortations to players on Friday nights: Nice spiral. Good job coming back for the ball. Look how far back they are; run shorter routes.

Erdmann watched the action and smiled beneath his bucket hat. Impressed with the speed with which players are picking up the game, Erdmann said, "It's just going to get better."

Among those joining in were talented varsity athletes from girls' sports throughout Rosemount, which enjoyed a banner 2020-21 school year. Tayah Leenderts and Alexa Ratzlaff, who helped the basketball team take second at the Class 4A state tournament. Standout soccer goalkeeper Jordan Hecht, who also won the Class 2A state track and field discus throw for the championship Irish team. Meanwhile, Ava Whelan helped lead the lacrosse team to the state tournament semifinals.

"I think it's really encouraging," Leenderts said. "Girls who are athletic and want to do better should come out. Because you do become better."

Leenderts and other girls from the class of 2022 participated against boys' teams in a past Rosemount in-house flag football league. They lost all but their last game and won respect.

Helen Staley, a basketball standout committed to Oakland University in Michigan, said playing flag football "helped me grow. In today's society, you have to be strong and tough. Flag football is a good platform for that."

Encouraged by her cheerleading coach to join flag football and learn something about the game, Chung has also learned something about herself.

"The league really inspires and empowers the younger generation to show that girls can do anything that guys can do," said Chung, an incoming senior serving as a cheerleading co-captain. "It really makes your doubts go away."

Count Vicar Pyne among the impressed. A cornerback and wide receiver for Rosemount's football program, Pyne answered Erdmann's open invitation to work as a game official.

"I thought it seemed cool and I wanted to see what the girls have got," said Pyne, who exclaimed praise for Raegan Marx on her touchdown catch.

"I think it's important to have girls playing flag football because football is a great team sport," Pyne said. "People come together as one and it doesn't matter where you came from or what your background is."

Jeff Erdmann shares Pyne's enthusiasm, a welcome change for women such as Ruth Erdmann whose desires to play were not embraced.

"Jeff's always got a story about a player or play every day," Ruth said. "And I love hearing the excitement in his voice. It's the same excitement he gets as when he's watching his guys play."