Friendship, inclusion, and flag football at Gay Bowl XVII
Danny Tyrrell was a high school athlete who quit sports in his junior year of high school because, he says, “It was too hard to be an athlete and an out gay man in a locker room.”
Tyrrell is wearing a backwards baseball cap, eye black with the Gay Bowl XVII logo in it, and the jersey of his team, the Division A Boston Hancocks. He’s the Boston commissioner for the National Gay Flag Football League and one of the co-chairs of the Gay Bowl tournament, and today he gets to be the athlete he felt he could not be in high school. The NGFFL lets Tyrrell marry two things he loves—“being out and proud, and competitively athletic.”
At the 17th Gay Bowl, being hosted in Boston for the first time since 2003, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker: “If you have any aches or pains, or you just need a rubdown, stop by the Momentum Healthcare Tent!” Teams with names like Toronto Mounties, Boston Longfellows, and New York Shade huddle up, discussing strategy and formations. People are scattered around with ice on various parts of their bodies.
Most everyone looks sore. Most everyone looks happy.
Technically, the tournament is taking place in Lancaster, an hour west of the Hub, at Progin Park, a sprawling soccer complex. The fields—a mix of artificial and actual grass—are surrounded by trees that are mostly green but dotted with the New England fall colors of reds and oranges. It would be downright picturesque if not for the punctuation of cheers, whistles, and the occasional curse word.
Over 900 athletes comprising 48 teams from across the United States and Canada have come to Massachusetts to play football this Columbus Day weekend. Boston put forth six teams total, some of which have come together strictly for this event. Three days of tournament games plus three nights of social events makes this a packed weekend.
At its core, the Gay Bowl is about football, but the heart of the tournament is the community that has sprung up around this common interest.
To describe the structure of the NGFFL would be challenging, but the gist of it is this—21 cities have local leagues, most of which are registered 501c3 nonprofits. These leagues play their own games, and each city sends teams to the Gay Bowl to represent their local league. The Boston arm is the FLAG Flag Football League, which is one of the largest in the country. The league is open to all levels, and experience ranges from people coming in with no prior football experience to athletes who played at high school, collegiate, or even professional levels.
“My dad was a referee, but I had never played football myself before joining the league,” says Jill Prisco, a lineman who plays block and release for the Division B Boston Shamrocks. This is Prisco’s third Gay Bowl, but the Shamrocks are a brand-new team.
“We pulled the team together a week ago from the FLAG Flag Football League after another city left a hole in the bracket,” she explains. “As the host city, we were responsible for putting together another team to cover it.”
After two days of play, the Shamrocks are 0-3, but “we’re playing pretty well for a team that’s never played together before,” says Prisco. She is one of the few allies in the league, and one of the few women who play in the open division. The open division is open to any gender, though there is a required 80/20 ratio of gay members to straight members on the teams.
There is a separate women’s division, with nine teams, where the superbly named Boston Knockers are playing. They’re also a new team that came together expressly for this Gay Bowl. Comprised of mostly members who play in the Boston Women’s Flag Football League or the Women’s Football Alliance tackle football league, the athletes are adjusting to the rules of this tournament, which are different from those most of the players are used to. They played together as a team for the first time during their first game of the tournament, which they described as “humbling.” But, some said, the rest of the Boston teams have taken them under their wing, making for a stellar first Gay Bowl experience.
Applying to host the Gay Bowl is a major process, says Tyrrell. Boston had to put together a bid—not unlike the way cities bid to host the Olympics—which consisted of securing a host hotel, the playing facilities, and social event locations. Boston beat out New York and Fort Lauderdale to host Gay Bowl XVII. “The hope with hosting the Gay Bowl is that it will elevate the local league on the sponsorship level,” says Tyrrell, who is a middle linebacker and is playing in his eighth Gay Bowl.
What’s been a big deal for this Gay Bowl is that the New England Patriots are a presenting partner, which means they donated $25,000 to the event and their name is all on the signage, swag, website, and social media advertising. They are the first professional sports team to acknowledge the Gay Bowl. “It gives the league credibility,” says Thurman Williams, the NGFFL’s national commissioner. “Given the times we’re in, it speaks volumes about the Patriots’ willingness to stand with and support the LGBT community.”
Though the league’s profile was raised this summer when they were featured in a documentary called F(l)ag Football, that’s not what brought them to the attention of the Patriots. The Boston FLAG Football League does a ton of work in the community, particularly around making sports safer and more inclusive for youth. It was this work that impressed Josh Kraft, president of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation.
“A lot of times, connections are about who you know, but we didn’t know anyone at the Patriots,” says Tyrrell. “This was about who we were, that an organization like the Patriots recognized us.”
In addition to the Pats being the first professional football team to sponsor the Gay Bowl, Robert Kraft became the first owner of an NFL team to make an appearance at the event, joining Tyrrell on stage with his son Josh at the closing party at Royale nightclub. Kraft’s appearance came directly after two drag queens participated in a lip sync battle.
“We collectively share something special because of our love of football, unity, and inclusion,” Kraft told the cheering crowd of athletes decked out in Gay Bowl T-shirts, Daisy Dukes, and, in some cases, boas. “We need more of this in the world.”
“The Patriots see themselves as supportive of the LGBTQ community, and that’s great,” says Wade Davis II, a member of the Division A New York Warriors Black and a former NFL player who has served as a diversity and inclusion consultant to the NFL since 2014. However, he acknowledges that there’s a disconnect between Robert Kraft’s stance as an ally and his $1 million-dollar donation to and support for President Donald Trump, whose administration is rolling back rights and protections for the LGBTQ community (the Patriots did not return multiple requests for comment for this story). “One thing I’ve learned is that people sometimes have conflicting interests,” says Davis.
Regan McKendry is a rusher for the Division B New York Rebels who is originally from Haverhill. “Bob Kraft’s personal relationship with Donald Trump is casting a cloud over the many charitable and generous ovations that he and the Patriots organization have made,” McKendry, who is the assistant commissioner of the New York Gay Football League, says. “Whatever one’s political leanings are, let us not overlook what is a transcendent moment in establishing a precedent to continue the advancement of equality and, in particular, the cause for LGBTQ athletes.”
Tyrrell says the Patriots sponsorship allowed them to go to the other major professional sports teams in Boston—the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution—about supporting the event. Each of the four teams agreed to be bronze level partners, which means they gave $2,500 each. They’re hoping that after the example set by the Patriots, other cities will follow suit. The Gay Bowl is set to be hosted in Denver next year, and organizers will put pressure on the Broncos to support the event.
Kevin Lalli is playing in his eighth Gay Bowl as a cornerback for the Boston Bulldogs, the city’s lead B-division team. He says the league appeals to people because it offers a chance to play a team sport in a positive environment. “They get to feel included in a way they weren’t growing up,” he says. “It’s a novel and rewarding experience.”
It’s also a chance for people in the gay community to network and make friends. Williams says that every one of his close friends has come from the league. “I can’t imagine my life without it,” he says. He co-founded the Atlanta league in 2004, and when he moved to DC several years later, he says the first thing he did was check out the league there.
“It’s like a built-in friend network. I knew just where to go,” Williams adds.
Lalli says he loves the sense of camaraderie that comes with meeting other people in the gay community, “but it’s a better and more positive experience than meeting people at a bar.”
“We may not be who you think we are,” Williams says. “Our goal is to break some of the stereotypes that exist about LGBT athletes, but also to make it a really open and inclusive environment for all and a place for people to feel safe … I think given the high rate of suicide among LGBT youth, it’s important that we provide an avenue, a safe place, for folks who can come out and see folks that are similar to them so they’ll know they’re not alone. If through this organization, we touch one life, influence one child to be themselves, then we’ve done our job.”
As for the competition at this year’s Gay Bowl, the Warriors Black come out victorious in Division A, winning their first championship since 2009 and shutting out four opponents—something that’s virtually unheard of in flag football—which Davis, the former NFL player, credits to the team’s versatility and ability to make adjustments in real time.
“I’ve had a nice time winning, but I’ve had a better time meeting other gay athletes and learning a lot about myself and learning how much shit I had to unlearn about what it meant to be a man and to be an athlete,” Davis says. “The league has helped me attempt to let my ego die, and I hold gratitude for the league as a whole and the athletes who play in it who helped me see the game through different eyes.”