Newly selected for Olympic competition, flag football is poised for a breakout

Team Canada and Concordia University flag football quarterback, Sara Parker. (Photo by Reuben Polansky-Shapiro)

Sara Parker is the quarterback of Canada’s national flag football team, and next summer they’ll be competing in Finland at the 2024 IFAF Flag Football World Championship. That was the biggest stage Parker and her teammates could compete on — until recently, that is. Last week, the International Olympic Committee approved LA 2028’s request that flag football become an Olympic sport.

In addition to her role on the national team, Parker, 23, from Montreal, is the quarterback at Concordia University. She’s also the captain, the club president, the team’s founder, its athletic therapist — and now, a 2028 Olympic hopeful.

For the next six weeks, Sportsnet will feature conversations with top Canadian athletes from each of the new sports making an appearance in LA — squash, lacrosse (sixes), softball, baseball, cricket and flag football. Some sports are debuting at the Games, and others are making a return.  

Kicking things off is Parker, the QB who not only throws lasers, but who has also been instrumental in growing flag football here in Canada. This weekend, she and her Concordia flag football team will be competing in the playoffs to determine Quebec’s university champion.

Parker gets into her team’s chances there, what makes flag so different from American football, why her Bees are hoping to be Stingers, her thoughts on the 2028 Games, and why she doesn’t believe flag is the future of football.

SPORTSNET: Sara, flag football at the Olympics. Did you see this coming?

PARKER: We’ve been talking about it for a while, because we had a feeling it was going to happen [after the LA organizing committee applied for its inclusion]. I wouldn’t say it came as a surprise.

I was at home with my family, so when the announcement was made, it was something I shared with them. I was super stoked, because I’ve seen the sport grow here in Canada and just the fact that now it’s worldwide and you can play on the biggest stage is really incredible. It’s been a dream of mine to just be on the national team, and now to hear that I’ve made the national team and this announcement comes out? I mean, it’s huge. Really huge.

What growth do you figure your sport will experience in the years leading up to the 2028 Olympics?

It’s going to give us more opportunity. I think it’s going to give us more recognition from people that didn’t know about flag football. I’m pretty sure they found out, or they’re going to find out, that it’s a really serious sport. Just the fact it gets that additional visibility is going to be great for young players that want to make it that much further. In Quebec, we developed a university flag football league, and right now it’s a club sport, it’s not considered a varsity sport. The fact that now it’s in the Olympics means that universities are going to have to make that leap and recognize that this sport should be a varsity sport, to give us the same opportunities as other varsity athletes in hopes of becoming Olympians later on.

How are flag football rules different from what we see in the NFL?

The rules are very different. The field is 50 yards long and 25 yards wide, and it’s five-on-five — one quarterback, four receivers. On defence, there’s one rusher going directly to the quarterback, has a straight line to run, and then the other four players play defence. It’s four downs to get to the middle of the field, which is 20 yards. Wherever you cross the line, you start a new set of downs to get to the end zone. The quarterback is not allowed to run, but you’re allowed to do a handoff behind the line of scrimmage, or do a lateral pass backwards behind the line of scrimmage. Once you score, it’s six points. You can go for a one-point conversion from the five-yard line, or you can go for two from the 10-yard line.

You helped start the university league in Quebec [it includes every major university in the province, except for McGill]. How did that come together?

My first year of university was fully online, because we were in lockdown with COVID. A group of flag football players from different universities decided to get together and to communicate on all our sides with our schools to figure out what the process would be to get teams and a league started. I did that at Concordia University. It ended up being super successful, and our provincial league, the RSEQ, decided to recognize it. It was a really big success starting from Year 1. We had our provincial finals and then we ended up having a post-secondary national flag football championship. The first one was hosted in Ontario, and the second one was in Montreal last May. We had universities from all across Canada come and play against each other. It’s a lot of growth for the last three years.

This weekend, you and the Stingers are heading into playoffs…

Since we’re a club sport, we’re not allowed to say we’re Stingers [the mascot of Concordia’s varsity teams].

What do you call yourselves?

We’re the Concordia Flag Football Team. But we call each other Bees.

Our season so far is going really great. The past years, the University of Montreal has been the team to beat. They’ve been provincial and national champions two years in a row. This year, we have a really good group of rookies that came up, and we’re really competitive. We’re first right now, so we’re heading into playoffs this weekend with really high hopes.

The season is run almost tournament-style?

Exactly. In the university flag football league, it’s a little odd. We play four different weekends, and we play all of our season games then. It’s 12 games [in the regular season], so sometimes we play three games in a day, sometimes we play four. The top four teams make the playoffs.

QB, how will you keep your hands warm this weekend?

I have my blanket on the sidelines. I have my pouch on the sidelines. I even have an electric handwarmer — I do what I can. I need to have a good feel for the ball, so I don’t wear gloves. And I’m not allowed to wear anything on the field on my belt [like a pouch], because it lays on my belt and hides the flags. My drives aren’t really long but as soon as I get off, I have someone — sometimes it’s my coach — holding my stuff, ready for me.

How did you become a quarterback?

When I started high school, I went to tryouts for flag football, and they had all of us try QB. I’ve grown up in a little crescent in my hometown [on the south shore of Montreal, in Greenfield Park], so outside in the summer we would always play any kind of sport in front of my house. Throwing the football was one of them. Tossing the ball around with my mom — I think she has just as much of an arm as I do, to be honest. From tossing the ball around when I was younger, I guess in tryouts it showed.

As soon as I started flag football in school they put me at quarterback, even as a little rookie [she was 12] playing with older girls. I’ve never played another position.

QB is a big job. And then you’re also your university team’s club president, captain and founder?

Yes. And, this is pretty funny: I study athletic therapy at Concordia, so I also act as a therapist before games for my team [laughs]. That’s something we don’t get because we’re a club team, not varsity. We don’t have therapists, a locker room, we don’t have funding directly from the sports programs.

What happens when you need therapy?

Oh, I have lots of therapist friends, luckily [laughs].

You’ll be representing Canada for the first time next summer at the world championships in Finland. What are you most looking forward to about that experience?

It’ll be my first time in an actual world championship, playing against all the other countries. I’m so excited. I don’t really travel, outside of travelling for sports, so I’ve never been to Europe. Getting the chance to travel with my sport, with my teammates and getting to experience different cultures, seeing how people play the game elsewhere in the world, it’s so exciting. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to look like. I’m also the youngest on my team — we have a lot of players that have played in world cups prior to this one, so they keep telling me how they’re so happy I’m getting the opportunity to experience it, because it’s surreal.

How do you earn the opportunity to play for Canada?

The process for the last couple years has been that there is a national championship, and it’s open to any team that’s willing to travel where it is and build a team for it. Teams from different provinces end up at the national championship and the winner of this national championship gets to be Team Canada. This past summer, the national championship was in Halifax, and we won in the final by one point against another team from Quebec.

One point!

It was surreal. At half we were down, and we managed to come back up within the last minutes of the game. We scored a touchdown late to tie it, and then we had to get the one-point conversion to get the lead. On the one-point conversion, I remember my receiver, Laurence, was open at the back of the end zone on a curl, and she was wide open. Wide open. It must’ve been a mistake on their part. I didn’t even zip the ball, I didn’t put much power into it. I was like, ‘She needs to catch this,’ so I gave her a small pass from the five-yard line for one point.

There was a bit of time left, so our defence went on, and it ended on [the other team] trying to make a longshot in the end zone and our player making a big play on defence. It was incredible.

How was your team [called Subzero] assembled?

A coach put the team together. In January of 2022, we went to the [unofficial] world championships in Tampa Bay, Florida. They’re hosted by USA Flag [Football], so it’s an open tournament where thousands of teams register. We were in lockdown in Quebec, and we hadn’t played in months, but we were allowed to travel with all the different restrictions… We put up a small team, most of us were playing both sides of the ball. And we ended up winning that tournament. In the final, we scored on the last drive, the last play. It was pretty crazy.

There were teams from France, a couple from Mexico. Any team can register and then you have a chance to win prize money at the end.

What did your team do with the prize money?

I think it was something like $5000. We all split it and we got tickets to go watch Tom Brady and the Bucs play [laughs]. It was crazy. That whole weekend was like a dream because we get home and the next day you’re in your online classes, you’re in lockdown, but you just had this amazing weekend.

Football Canada is changing how they select the national team [it will be through tryouts going forward]. Do you have any nerves around that?

Not really. It’s a process that’s fair. If you go to the national championship and you feel there’s a team that’s stronger than yours, but say the quarterback isn’t as strong or as good as you, it’s not a great situation to be in, where I feel like that should be me, but her team’s stronger so she won. Not to say I’ve experienced it, but I would see where a situation like that would be unfortunate.

The Olympics are a long way away, but have you allowed yourself to look forward, to even picture yourself competing there?

As a little girl this is not something I envisioned myself doing. I didn’t think there was a possibility. But being where I am today and knowing how much I’ve grown as a player and the potential that I have to just keep getting better, I’m going to be at a good age in 2028 — I’m going to be 28. So, I think it’s definitely a possibility. I love the sport, so regardless, I’d be happy possibly coaching, or as a therapist. Like, I’m going to be there regardless [laughs], whether it’s on the roster or on the staff.

Is flag the future of football?

I don’t think so. I think flag in itself is a beautiful sport. I don’t think it’s fair to be taking away anything from football. It’s so different from it, too. Yes, the base is kind of the same, but I think people love football because there’s contact, there’s a lot of big plays, it’s really impressive. But flag is so strategic and quick. Both of them bring different things to the table. I don’t think the two sports really look like one another from a spectator standpoint. I think they have different things to appreciate.

What do you love most about your sport?

The community. Being a part of the university flag football league, the teams are small, between 12 to 15 players on each team, but we’ve all played against each other throughout our flag career. Everyone knows each other, everyone knows we’re all working toward the same goal of getting the sport recognized and growing it from that standpoint. We’re like one big family. Yes, we have rivalries, but at the end of the day when we’re off the field and the tournament’s over, we see our friends from other teams. Game days are really special.

Are the Concordia Bees going to win the Quebec university title?

 I would confidently say that… we have a big shot at winning the university flag football league this year [laughs]. And then once we win that, it’s going to be the national championship that we’re aiming for [next May].

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