After Mariah Riddick speeds past three defenders, the junior quarterback for the St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls flag football team zooms ahead, and picks up nearly 20 yards, pushing her team closer to the end zone. Riddick is mobbed by her teammates before they huddle to dial up the next play on this recent Friday afternoon at a field in North Philadelphia.
Similar celebrations have occurred on fields across the city over the past several weeks, as the city’s NFL team recently launched a girls’ high school flag football league. The Eagles initiative has provided more opportunities in the sport for young women across the region, especially for Riddick and her teammates who attend an all-girls school.
Riddick detailed the challenges she has faced growing up and playing a sport that has been widely viewed as male-dominant.
“Being a girl who loves and plays football at my age is hard when trying to prove yourself as a football player,” Riddick said. “Many boys doubt my true love for the sport and my ability to play. It was hard when boys wouldn’t let me play with them. I feel now as this league is growing more, more people are starting to see that girls have what it takes to play football — and be successful at it.
“Representation matters when it comes to young people who are still trying to figure out who they are. When you love something with a passion but don’t see anyone who looks like you, it can degrade and lead people to lose hope that it is truly possible to follow your dreams. So when young girls see my teammates and me, they might think to themselves, ‘Wow, I never knew girls could play football. I want to play, too.’”
The Eagles also partnered with the NFL Foundation to make a $100,000 donation to Leveling the Playing Field, whose mission is to redistribute equipment to expand access and equity within youth sports and recreation programs in under-resourced communities. Through this partnership, the Eagles are helping distribute about 6,000 sports bras to girls across the School District of Philadelphia.
According to the team, the Eagles are the first NFL franchise to back female youth athletes from their community in this capacity.
“Ultimately, we are attempting to remove barriers,” said Jen Kavanagh, the Eagles’ senior vice president of media and marketing. “Barriers to entry for girls who want to play sports and football in particular. We are creating a path that we are hoping leads to girls football being a sanctioned sport.”
With 16 schools participating in the first season, including public and private schools, the Eagles aspire to expand the league to more than 100 teams over the next several years.
To help kick off the league’s inaugural season, the Eagles hosted a girls’ flag football jamboree last month at Lincoln Financial Field last month. All schools involved were invited to play their first game inside the Linc.
“When my team and I were in the tunnel about to run out onto the field,” Riddick said, “I felt like an actual Eagles player.”
The event featured a stadium tour, and many of the girls had an opportunity to interact with Eagles tight end Tyree Jackson.
Riddick says she models her game after that of Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has been a champion for empowering women in sports. During the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative from this past season, Hurts represented the Women’s Sports Foundation across his cleats.
“A lot of our players have expressed passion in youth sports and getting females more involved,” said Daniel Levy, the Eagles’ youth football and community relations manager. “The more that we work on this program, we’ll be able to integrate more of our players in years to come. This is only the beginning of a historical chapter.”
St. Hubert’s players sense it’s just the beginning as well.
Said senior Cerena O’Neill: “As young women, we have come far in history. I’m glad to be a part of a program that can show future generations that football is not just a male sport. Women are strong, fierce, and resilient. I hope through our program we are paving the way to one day see a Women’s National Football League.”
The culmination of the inaugural season of the girls’ flag football league will be the league’s playoffs and championship at Lincoln Financial Field in May.
Another inclusion from this groundbreaking initiative: The Eagles recently informed some girls from the league that they’ve been invited to attend this week’s NFL draft in Las Vegas. As part of the trip, the selected participants will announce the Eagles’ picks on Day 2 of the draft on Friday.
“From the airplane ride to being on stage,” Riddick said, “I expect the draft to be a moment I’ll never forget.”