Under the lights at Memorial Park, more than 100 Needham flag football players gathered to compete for the Dave DiCicco Championship Trophy on Nov. 6. Teams of students from second to eighth grades faced each other for the final games of the eight-week season.
Over the past six years, the Needham program has seen exponential growth, from 280 athletes in the first year to more than 600 registered this fall. Flag football gained popularity around the world — it will be an Olympic event in 2028 — as parents wanted to delay contact sports for their children because of the risk of traumatic head injury.
“The kids just love it,” said Liz Ostrander, whose second grade son has played in the league since kindergarten. “It’s probably their favorite sport because the program is so well run.” On Monday night, Ostrander watched her son’s team win its division. She said the community support and seeing so many people come together to fill the hill was a great experience.
After 11 years of coaching flag football, Dan Warn, whose grades 6-8 Vikings won their division championship, said there are many benefits to the sport. The obvious advantage is the lowered risk of contact injury, but he also believes it’s a great way to learn the critical elements of football at a safe speed. “You learn all the parts of the game — the route running, spacing, what you’re trying to do from one play to the next,” said Warn. “There’s no downside, they can transition from flag to tackle without missing a beat, all you’re adding is the contact.” Twelve members of this year’s high school varsity football team played in the flag league as children.
Warn said perhaps his favorite aspect of the league is that it is the last remaining sport where kids can play with their friends. “It’s the only sport left that doesn’t require tryouts or joining a club team. Kids have so much fun getting to be on a team with their buddies.”
League Commissioner Matt Borrelli and the late Dave DiCicco launched Needham’s league in 2017. The two began with clear goals of having a relationship with the coaches, giving kids a taste of football that they hoped would inspire them to play in high school, and to run the program as a nonprofit that donates back to the community. DiCicco was a longtime junior football coach, Memorial Park trustee and a Park & Rec commissioner.
Chris Gerstel, the current chair of Park & Recreation who manages the league, said it was a great idea. Over the years, he said, the community has come together to make the program successful. “We have a former Select Board member, the high school defensive coach, the Exchange Club sets up and cleans up, we have the athletic trainer, and the EMTs said they would help out if we need them. It’s a lot of people doing a lot of work.”
“I’m most proud,” said Borrelli, “that Dave and I had a vision, and that vision has been fulfilled. And to see tonight the joy in the parents and the joy in the kids at such a young level even at that young age, I am so proud to see how happy and involved they are.”