It may be hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, but Yianni Gavalas, 11, isn’t making a beeline for the pool, the shade or the nearest ice cream stand. He can’t wait to get out onto the football field.
“We’re having a scrimmage today,” said the Bayside 6th grader, the quarterback of the DePhillips Athletic Club Panthers, before heading out to Fresh Meadows’ Cunningham Park. “I don’t want to miss it.”
Yianni has a good reason for his dedication: his flag football team is headed on an all expenses paid trip to Cologne, Germany, in three weeks to represent the United States in the National Football League Flag Football World Championship.
The trip will be the culmination of an exciting ride for Yianni and his six teammates, who started playing flag football only last year. In November, the Panthers bested a field of 80 teams from around the country to win the national flag football championship at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
“When the final buzzer went off, the kids couldn’t stop hugging and jumping and laughing. It was really silly. I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Jimmy Gavalas, the Panthers coach and Yianni's father.
The game was televised on ESPN, and Yianni celebrated the team’s victory in true NFL fashion. “I poured water on my dad at the end,” he said.
Yianni’s flag football teammates, all from Bayside, are Eddie Roscigno, Nicky Athanasopoulos, Anthony Libroia, Kostas Akoumianakis and Brian Kruger.
The flag football league is a creation of the NFL, intended to spread the appreciation of American football to a new generation of players, both in the United States and around the world. The international competition in Cologne will include teams from Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain and Thailand.
This year’s defending champions are from Thailand’s Bangmod Wittya Middle School. “You’ve got to see what’s happening internationally,” said Coach Gavalas, of his far flung opponents. “I never thought they knew what a football was over there.”
Now he anticipates tough competition. “We know that Thailand beat the United States team last year,” he said. “Mexico is always good, and we’re assuming Canada is going to be tough also.”
That is music to the ears of the NFL officials, who have invested millions in the flag football program to develop worldwide interest in a sport many outside the United States consider complicated and utterly foreign.
“Here’s the game at its purest level,” said Michael Preston, an NFL spokesman. “Any time youngsters see a game, they can join in from the beginning, it’s going to be popular.”
The rules of flag football call for only five players on each team, and there is no tackling allowed. As opposed to traditional football, there is a heightened emphasis on throwing, catching and running, and a faster, looser style of play. But while it may be more fun, Preston expected there to be a high level of competition, with complicated moves and carefully executed trick plays.
Besides playing football, the Queens youngsters will spend their time in Germany touring medieval castles and museums and kick back at an amusement park—all courtesy of the NFL.
“I’d like to say thanks (to the NFL) for giving us the opportunity to go to the world championships,” said quarterback Yianni. “I think we have a chance to win, and I hope we do.”