“Are you ready to play?” shouted coach Nathan Fabian.
“Yes!” was the unanimous answer from the 20 teenage boys crowded around him, listening intently to his advice before their first official American flag football game.
These 20 teens have a few things in common: they are all high school students at Colegio México in downtown San José; they all play for the school’s Aguilas (Eagles) American flag football team; and none of them had played flag football until just over two months ago.
Fabian and fellow U.S. citizen Thomas Powers, both 23 and interns with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, started the team in March as a volunteer project. Just a few weeks later, the Aguilas de Colegio México played their first real game. The young players had the opportunity to strut their stuff in front of parents, girlfriends and friends at their school April 23, followed by an exhibition game during half-time at a Costa Rican Federation of American Football (FCFA) game April 25.
“It’s so great to see all the kids so passionate about a sport,” said Fausto Montes de Oca, Colegio México’s physical education teacher for the past two years, who has been helping Fabian and Powers coach while learning the rules of the game along the way.
Montes de Oca discovered an interest in American football when he first started teaching his class. An attempt was made to start a program last year; there was a huge showing, he said, but it didn’t work out.
“We had about 70 students show up to the first practice, which was held during class time,” he said. “But to continue it costs money, and when a program is held after school it’s hard for them to commit.”
Montes de Oca said it’s “thanks to God” that Fabian and Powers came and took over the team. They’re teaching the kids but also teaching him, so that he can continue the program after Fabian and Powers return to the United States in a couple of months. The eventual goal is to help other public schools initiate similar programs.
“The boys are so happy and excited about the game,” Montes de Oca said. “They have such a keen desire to learn.”
Before the kids took the field for their first game, Fabian and Powers handed out new game jerseys to the kids, who walked in proudly, two by two, to receive them.
Three schools in the United States donated all the jerseys, flags and equipment used by the Aguilas. Fabian contacted his alma mater, GeorgetownUniversity, in Washington, D.C., and Bellarmine College Preparatory and AlmadenCountrySchool in his native San José, California, to ask for support. They responded within a week, and soon after sent down the jerseys and equipment, including a monetary donation from Georgetown.
As the players made their way to the field whooping and hollering, friends followed, pretending to ask for their autographs. They ran a couple of laps around the field, cheering as they went.
Reyhan Fraile, president of the FCFA, came to watch the Aguilas’ first game and gave the players a pep talk before the first whistle blew.
“It’s important to learn discipline from those willing to teach you, by listening to everything your coaches tell you. In this sport, every kid of every body type has a role to play,” Fraile said, receiving claps and whistles from the boys at the end of his speech.
Fraile, a Costa Rican, founded the FCFA in 2007 after he gained interest in the sport while training as a body builder in Miami, Florida. The league consists of six teams, and most have been training together since October (TT, March 20).
Fraile thinks initiating flag football teams – which are cheaper and less dangerous than tackle football – at the high school level is a great way to prepare kids for tackle football at a later age.
Flag football is a less aggressive form of American football played on a slightly smaller field with nine players a side instead of 11. Instead of having to tackle another player to the ground, a player needs only to remove the flag attached to the other player’s waist, usually with Velcro.
“Tackle is usually more attractive to kids,” Fraile said. “But I think it’s a good idea to learn the technicalities and the skills before moving on to tackle football.”
The game was close and ended with Powers’ team only one touchdown behind Fabian’s, with a final score of 12-7. Fabian wore a euphoric smile after the game.
“I think the kids had a lot of fun, and that’s what’s most important to us,” he said.
“I think this was very important for them to see what football actually looks like and what it feels like to play, because it’s very different from the practices.”
Powers was just as excited about the game, and said most of his players weren’t even sure who won.
“Today was fantastic,” he said. “For the kids it was the beginning of something they’ve been working at for a couple months now –and what we’ve covered over the past two months, they showed us today on the field.”
The FCFA game April 25 was the first time any of the kids had seen a professional game, Fabian said, and it left them inspired to learn more.
He and Powers agree the most important thing is to ensure the team will continue after they leave. They are currently looking for more coaching staff and, if possible, other teams to play against.
“It’s been an incredible experience, and the team is really coming together,” said Abdul Canto, 17, who plays quarterback for the Aguilas and scored a touchdown during the first game. “It makes such a difference to have actual North Americans who know the game really well coaching us.”
Alfredo Aragón, 14, one of the smaller players on the team, gave his all during the first game and caught a number of passes, edging his team closer to the goal line. He said he hopes the team will continue.
“It’s challenging, but it’s fun more than anything,” Aragón said. “We have such a good time, and it gives us something to do.”
To contact the team’s coaches, e-mail Fabian at [email protected] or callMontes de Oca at 8913-4389.