Modern football and flag football — also called touch football — parted ways in 1905. Until then, it was all one game, played without protective equipment and with virtually no physical restraint. When 18 young men died from the violent play, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to bring order to the sport. Modern football, with its rules and protective equipment, was born. But some men never stopped playing the old way, without helmets and shoulder pads, and these were the forefathers of flag football.
Webster’s Dictionary officially dates flag football to 1933. Not long afterward, by the 1940s, it was all the rage on U.S. military bases as servicemen chose up sides and played against each other. Since America could not send football-battered soldiers into combat, tackling a ball carrier to stop him was replaced with the safer practice of grabbing a flag attached to his clothing. When the flag was taken, the player was stopped.
When men left the military and went home to their families, they took flag football with them. The game spread to America’s cities and suburbs. Early recreational leagues were in place by the 1950s. A decade later, in the 1960s, the first flag football organization, the National Touch Football League, formed in St. Louis. The NTFL tweaked the rules a little so that a ball carrier was stopped by touching him, eliminating the flags attached to players’ clothing.
By the 1970s, flag football had infiltrated college campuses and intramural teams formed, with students at each school playing against each other. The University of New Orleans hosted the first National Collegiate Flag Football Championship in 1979. Two years later, in 1981, the sport opened up to allow schools to play each other when the inaugural National Collegiate Flag Football Championship took place in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The NTFL was still going strong in 1988 when its regional director left the organization to form the United States Flag Touch Football League. In 1989, the United States Flag Football League Semipro formed in North Carolina. Going “semipro” allowed teams to represent their cities and winners to take cash prizes, though they were not actually paid for their play. The American Flag Touch Football League came together in 1991. In 1997, all the organizations joined and formed the Professional Flag Football League, Inc. and flag football went pro. The first PFFL Pro Flag Bowl took place in 1997, and the first PFFL season with a travel schedule began in 1999 with six teams representing Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio.