Leap of faith: A middle school flag football team’s first season

A photo of a flag football player from the back. He is wearing a red jersey with the number 4 in the back.
A player with the middle school flag football team, the Hellcats, adjusts his flag belt.

Daniel Hudson stood on the sidelines of a grass field early this spring watching middle schoolers toss imperfect football spirals and chase after anyone who hauled in a pass. His two oldest sons blinked up at him with wide, pleading eyes. Their team needed a volunteer coach.

“That,” Hudson said, “is how I got sucked into flag football.”

If not for Daniel, 14, and Dyson, 12, the father of three would have found better ways to spend every Saturday afternoon between April and June. But they really wanted to be part of Alameda Flag Football, and Hudson always tries to support their interests. So, in a matter of minutes, a 34-year-old chaplain became a coach.

It was an unlikely role for a man who spends much of his time attending to the spiritual needs of hospice patients. While his older brothers played sports growing up, Hudson’s interests gravitated elsewhere. His grandmother claimed he came out of the womb playing music. For many years, he traveled around the San Francisco Bay Area as a drummer in semi-pro bands, and he also learned his way around a keyboard and bass guitar.

Now, music makes its way into his work. After asking patients about their pain levels, if their appetites are still there and if they’re drinking enough water, he prays with them. Sometimes, he invites them to join him in a hymn. “Echoes of mercy,” they’ll sing. “Whispers of love.”

He starts each day with a prayer, centering himself to support families while their loved ones are dying. “It is okay to feel what you are feeling,” he tells them. “It’s okay to cry.”

For Hudson, it is important to pass on messages like these. And there is no more important audience than Daniel, Dyson and their younger brother, Drew. When the oldest boys pleaded with him to coach their team, it was a done deal.

Despite having no clue about the ins and outs of flag football, he gathered his players for the first time. Five of the six teams in the fledgling league were formed based on where kids attended middle school. The Hudsons live in West Alameda, where no single school represented enough players for a team. Coach Hudson’s squad of eight, including his sons, came from three separate schools.

If they were going to be a proper team, they needed a name. The players started yelling out suggestions.

“What about the Beluga Whales?” said one.

“I am not going to be a beluga, no thank you,” replied another.

Names were tossed out in rapid succession, until one made the team members pause. It was perfect, they agreed. They were the Hellcats.

On that April afternoon, the odds of holding a championship trophy at season’s end seemed remote for an unlikely coach guiding a first-time team in a league no one was sure would take flight. But one thing was certain: They were joining one of the country’s fastest-growing sports.

About 2.4 million kids under 17 play organized flag football in the United States, according to the International Federation of American Football. The sport’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, becoming an official high school sport for girls in many states and set to make its Olympic debut for men and women in 2028. The reasons are twofold: safety and inclusion. While many rules of flag football mirror the tackle counterpart, such as getting four downs to gain 10 yards, the largest differentiator is that no contact is allowed. Instead of dragging or knocking opponents to the ground, players try to snatch fluttering flags that are clipped onto belts. The sport’s rules are designed to lower the risk of concussions and other serious injuries.

In Alameda, there was no organized flag football until 2023, when the national franchise Gridiron Football arrived. However, with an entire season planned, Gridiron canceled the local program before a single game was played.

Many families expressed disappointment, but one man, Travis Wilson, took action. He created Alameda Flag Football. Serving as its commissioner, Wilson schedules practices and games at the mercy of more established sports like middle school basketball and track. Through flyers circulated at middle schools and word-of-mouth, families slowly committed to the league from all over Alameda.

There was sufficient interest to form two leagues, one co-ed and another for girls, each with a nine-game schedule..

When Hudson went home after his team’s first scrimmage, he had to learn how to be a football coach. He started doing research. He looked at YouTube videos for drills. He downloaded plays from the NFL flag football website. He bought a playbook.

A quarterback emerges

As the weeks flew by, the Hellcats used their practice time to turn Hudson’s studies into on-field cohesion. Orange cones were positioned around the baseball outfield at Woodstock Park to mark the dimensions of a flag football field.

Where the park’s grass met gravel pavement, backpacks were strewn haphazardly. “Careful,” said Jamie Hettiaratchi, ushering her daughter, Maria, and other players away from broken glass as she handed out fruit popsicles before a practice.

After the popsicles disappeared, Maria, Daniel, Dyson and their five teammates headed onto the grass to clip on their flag belts. With a shout of encouragement from Hudson, they ran

through a series of sprints and footwork drills. Then it was time to try out some plays. Hudson positioned eight yellow cones in a circle and split six of the boys into two teams. They’d switch between offense and defense, three on three.

Matched up, one boy laughed and yelled, “Dyson, I’m gonna spin you like a washing machine.”

Maria Hettiaratchi, 13, clutched a football in her right hand. At 5 foot 7, Maria is taller than most boys on the team. She has dark eyelashes and curly brown hair, which she sweeps up in a ponytail for practices and games. She plays guitar and enjoys advanced math. Her mother is mostly Italian-American, with some Croatian and French. Her father is Sri Lanken.

Sports runs in Maria’s blood.

On her mother’s side, she has four uncles – all were football state champions in Pennsylvania. Her mother was a cheerleader in high school and college, and the family grew up cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Her father played soccer and rugby.

Ever since Maria could stand, she’d throw a small, glow-in-the-dark football with her mom. As a middle schooler, the larger, 10.5 inch regulation-size junior football, which is used for flag, fit more comfortably in her hand as she palmed it.

Maria has always been a driven kid, her mother said. When she was younger, she wanted to be an astrophysicist. At age 9, she handed her mom a list of the top five colleges that Maria wanted to attend. She put UC Berkeley first and even listed how much it would cost to attend the university, live on campus and feed herself while there.

But Maria didn’t know she could play football until last year. “I always thought of myself as non-athletic,” she said. “I just thought I was horrible at it.”

Then one day a physical education teacher called her name as she was running during gym class. As she turned, she saw him throw a football at her. Hands lifted, she caught it and continued running. “I was like, wow, I can actually do this,” she recalled. “I’ve loved flag football ever since.”

One of Maria’s uncles has two daughters, both of whom were field goal kickers on boys’ teams. With rare exceptions, that is the only position available to girls in tackle football. Flag represents Maria’s chance to be a quarterback.

Loving a sport and getting good at it are two separate things. The first scrimmage she played in flustered Maria. A boy started calling out names and formations and positions she didn’t know. But she caught on quickly. She started consulting her uncles for advice. She worked one-on-one with a coach. She practiced her footwork.

Coach Hudson noticed her dedication and named her captain of the Hellcats.

“She just knocked down all kinds of walls and just showed up hungry, ready to play, ready to learn,” he said. “I couldn’t turn a blind eye to that.”

The Hellcats started their season on a high note, with a 38-20 win against the Bay Farm Dolphins. They fell hard the next week, losing to the Wood Beavers 47-0. “It was a wake up call,” Hudson said. “I think I felt kind of bigheaded” after the opening win.

In the loss, Hudson witnessed plays he’d never seen before. Often, a Beavers player became a double threat after getting the ball from the quarterback; he might throw a pass or he might sprint down the field. The Hellcats had no response. Later that week, Hudson taught his team a new defensive scheme. They wouldn’t be caught so unaware again.

The Hellcats bounced back with wins over the Lincoln Lions and the Lincoln Lynx. They were a contending team, but a rematch with the Beavers would test their level of progress. For one half, the two teams matched each other step for step, touchdown for touchdown. But in the second half, the Beavers’ more aggressive defense began to dominate.

“We beat ourselves,” Hudson recalled. “Through losing, I was able to recognize what I need to do and what changes I need to make.” At practices, he worked more on defensive positioning and on pass catching.

The adjustments paid off in wins over the 4th Street Olympians and the Lynx. After a 40-34 loss to theLions, the Hellcats only had to beat the Dolphins to make the playoffs. And one victory beyond that would crown them league champions.

They saved their best performance for the regular season’s final game. Maria threw passes to leaping receivers who caught the ball two feet in the air, arms outstretched, mouthguards on full display. She chucked spirals to teammates who cradled the ball, spun past one defender and then another. At halftime, she switched positions with the team’s other quarterback in a 40-6 rout.

All that stood between the Hellcats and trophies were … the undefeated Beavers.

David and Goliath

Minutes before the championship game, Hudson gathered his players, minus one boy who was running late. Each had on a bright-red cotton T-shirt jersey, last name and number proudly stamped in white on the back. Hudson wore a red hoodie with white text on the side that read, “Take a chance, roll a dice.”

The chaplain addressed his players. “Let me tell you a story,” he said, “The story of David and Goliath.”

“What I think is crazy, or wonderful, about this story is [David] had no fear about Goliath because of three things,” he continued. First, David believed in himself. Second, having faced lions and bears, he was prepared. Third, he was fighting for his community, his people.

“Look around,” Hudson said. Seven young faces blinked back at him. “We are doing this for us.”

In flag football, not everything plays out like scripture.

Maria threw two interceptions early in the game, including one that a Beavers defender ran back for a touchdown. “Maria,” Hudson called to her as she walked to the sidelines. “Take a breath.

Midway through the first half, Maria, on a first-down play, threw a ball deep to one of her receivers. He lept and caught it with the fingertips of his right hand, falling hard to the ground. Maria screamed in joy. This was more like it. The drive stalled, however, and at halftime the scoreboard read Beavers 20, Hellcats 0.

Hudson stood in disbelief, questioning himself. How had it gone so wrong, so fast? Where was the team he’d seen all season, scoring touchdowns seemingly at will? He huddled with his players, who looked distraught or in a daze. There were 24 minutes still to play, the coach reminded them.

In the second half, Hudson began to recognize his team. With Maria now playing defense exclusively, they scored their first touchdown. The Beavers responded with one of their own, then the Hellcats did the same. Maria took pleasure in rushing the opposing quarterback, eyes wide to see if he’d hand off the ball or throw it.

“They were moving and grooving, and I’m, you know, excited,” Hudson said after the game. “But it’s harder to come back when you were down three touchdowns…We were in too deep.”

Down 32-16 late in the game, the Hellcats had one last highlight-reel moment – an interception, followed by a dramatic dash toward the end zone, only to be denied by inches. Parents and players erupted into cheers. On the sidelines, Hudson clenched his right hand into a fist and pumped it in the air.

Minutes later, the final whistle blew.

The Hellcats scanned the field in all directions: at each other, at the celebrating Beavers, at the purple trophies glinting in the sun. “It’s been a great season,” Hudson said. “We’ve worked hard all season, and I’m proud of you all.”

Maria stood by her mom, looking on as the Beavers were handed their small trophies. “They deserved the win,” she said. Even after not having a great game, she looked upbeat and self-assured, a big smile on her face. “I felt frustrated because I didn’t live up to what I could have done, but I believe they deserved to win and I’m happy for them.”

This wasn’t the end of the road for Maria’s flag football career. This fall, she plans to try out for Encinal High School’s team.

“One thing is, I’ve heard quite a few people say that, oh, it’s not a real sport, or it’s just the girl’s version of football,” she said. “But to me, and you know, to the Olympics and the NFL and every organization that does football, it is a real sport and you need real skill to be good at it.”

One by one, the Hellcats got into their family cars and peeled away.

“It’s a bittersweet moment, you know, a bittersweet feeling,” Hudson said. “I’m trying to figure out what I could have done differently.”

In many ways, the music-loving chaplain was the perfect coach for this scenario. Who could understand loss better than someone who worked with it almost every day?

To celebrate the season, most of the players and their families made their way to Mountain Mike’s for pizza, soda and laughter. At one table, the kids watched a United Football League game on TV, comparing each other to the professionals. The parents sat nearby, chatting about summer plans and how their babies would be in high school before long.

For Hudson, this one season of middle school flag football exemplifies his greatest hope for his sons: “You can do whatever you put your mind to.”


  • Kaylee Kang

    Hailing from Fullerton, California, Kaylee Kang graduated from UCLA in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. During her time in Westwood, she discovered her passion for tackling systemic issues that affect the wellbeing of people all across the state she loves. After graduating, Kaylee went on to work for a public affairs, government relations and campaign consulting firm, where she worked on everything from statewide ballot initiatives to local county food programs. In her free time, Kaylee loves watching sports, eating Korean food, and spending time with loved ones.

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