FirstEnergy Stadium contained a full gameday feel Monday night — white lines covered the grass field, the scoreboard was lit up with graphics and the large orange helmets used for player introductions were sitting near the tunnel.
It's not often the stadium has that look in May, but everything needed to be in place for one of the biggest Northeast Ohio high school athletic nights of the year: the inaugural Girls High School Flag Football Championship Tournament.
Nine schools were welcomed to FirstEnergy Stadium to participate in the single-elimination tournament, which featured more than 125 athletes who played in the first spring season of the Northeast Ohio Girls High School Flag Football division. Players from each school received their own introduction out of the tunnel before the games and competed on three separately lined fields in front of a vocal group of supporters in the bleachers.
The experience was as real as it gets, and it could help girls flag football grow exponentially in participants in future years.
"It was almost a dream to see it happen," said Bob Berwald, president of NEO Flag. "It's about the girls and everybody that's been involved in doing everything to make this take place. To hear the girls walk on the field, see the signs, the logos and all those details, it was just great."
High schools that participated in the tournament included Berkshire, Cleveland Heights, Euclid, Hawken, Lake Catholic, Mentor, Perry, Strongsville and Kirtland. Each high school received photo opportunities and chances to talk with Browns players Jacoby Brissett, Johnny Stanton IV and Isaac Rochell as well as Browns Chief of Staff Callie Brownson and scouting assistant Riley Hecklinski.
"I think it's one of the coolest things I've been around," Brissett said. "I've never been around something like this, and it's cool to see them experience (an environment) they probably haven't played in very often. To see them go out here and have fun and look around the stadium, it puts it into perspective for me to not take it for granted when I'm out here."
Kirtland won the championship against Lake Catholic and was given a special trophy on behalf of the Browns for reaching the top.
The results of the tournament, though, were secondary to what the experience meant for the girls and the future of girls flag football in Ohio. Unforgettable settings like the ones the high schools played in Monday can help the girls realize the future they can carve in football and that the sport's male-dominated history doesn't mean their role in the sport has to end whenever they play their final high school game.
"You can't put a price tag on the smiles of these kids' faces," Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde said. "They were ear-to-ear smiles, and they all took a million pictures for their Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. It's something they're never going to forget."
The Browns have devoted heavy efforts toward making flag football a fully sanctioned varsity sport available to female student athletes through the OHSAA. In partnership with the Browns, Northeast Ohio Flag launched the first-ever All Girls High School Division in the state of Ohio. Girls flag football is gaining popularity in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and women's flag football is officially a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) varsity sport, thanks to a two-year partnership between the NAIA, the National Football League (NFL) and Reigning Champs Sports (RCX).
The movement has been particularly awesome to see from the perspective of Brownson, who became the first woman to coach an NFL position group in a game when she served as the team's acting tight ends coach during Week 12 in 2020. She's also temporarily filled in as a position coach for select games throughout her two years in Cleveland and was named the assistant wide receivers coach, while still maintaining her role as Chief of Staff, this offseason.
"This is how it all starts," she said. "You fall in love with the game and you play it in a competitive aspect like this. There's opportunities to get scholarships for it in the NAIA so they can play collegiate flag football now. That's never been an opportunity before, and now they have that opportunity to advance past high school, which can ultimately plant that seed for them to want to make football their life and their career."
Hecklinski, who is entering her third year as a Browns scout, also believes unforgettable experiences like playing at FirstEnergy Stadium will push girls to pursue a role in the sport beyond high school — just like the role she has with the team.
"They're saying, 'Hey, I can be in this environment, and I can thrive,'" she said. "They'll say, 'I really do love the game of football, so what career paths can I pursue within this,' whether it's to continue playing or go into coaching, personnel or scouting. There's so many avenues this can lead to just by being in the stadium."
The mission for the Browns and NEO Flag Football will be to continue to expand the amount of girls flag football teams and players . The program went from 55 girls in 2021 to over 140 girls in 2022, and the expectation is that the event at FirstEnergy Stadium — and overall movement across the country toward diversifying the game to include more women — will lead to an even higher jump next year.
"The more girls that can play the sport, the more opportunity they have to get out and be a part of the school program and get out in the community," Browns Vice President of Community Relations Jenner Tekancic said. "This should be the stepping stone for great things to come."