Flag Football Spring Classic Touches Down at AJA

Flag Football Spring Classic Touches Down at AJA

Over the last few decades, flag football has emerged as a wildly popular alternative to injury-prone traditional football.

While hosting last month’s tournament, Atlanta Jewish Academy came within inches of knocking off the Posnack Rams in the championship game.
While hosting last month’s tournament, Atlanta Jewish Academy came within inches of knocking off the Posnack Rams in the championship game.

It’s not always easy growing up as a football fan.

As you devour the games on the weekends, dreaming of one day achieving your own gridiron glory, your parents fixate on the seemingly endless string of broken fibulas, torn ACLs and concussions before deciding that tackle football is not an option. Enjoy the sport from the stands or couch, but not between the hash marks. Across football-crazed America, such is the predicament faced by thousands upon thousands of young athletes every autumn.

Over the last few decades, however, flag football has emerged as a wildly popular alternative to injury-prone traditional football. In the Greater Atlanta region, one would be hard pressed to find someone more passionate about flag football than Justin Katz, a lifelong devotee to the sport who now coaches the team at Atlanta Jewish Academy, where his wife also teaches and his kids attend.

Atlanta Falcons mascot Freddie Falcon was on hand for the inaugural Atlanta Jewish Academy Flag Football Spring Classic.

“It’s a great opportunity to play a sport that you see on TV that may not be so safe but allows kids to play without the drastic concern of serious injuries,” Katz says.

After graduating from the University of Florida and settling in Atlanta in the late ’90s, Katz emerged as a fixture in the city’s flag football leagues, playing in upwards of 60 games per year and coaching Team Atlanta in the Maccabiah Games.

In the early 2000s, flag football was becoming an increasingly mainstream sport in playgrounds from New York to San Diego, but Katz knew it was not yet on par with basketball as a galvanizing force for young Jewish athletes from disparate backgrounds.

“I’ve always heard these great things about the basketball tournaments in New York, Florida and Tennessee and how the kids love to go to them,” Katz said. “And I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t Atlanta have something? Why can’t we be the showcase for something?’ I just saw this as an opportunity to highlight Atlanta, the greater Jewish community and our athletes.”

It was during the fall of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, that Katz committed himself to seeing his idea come to fruition. He knew it wasn’t the optimal time to pursue such an endeavor, but with the support of the head of school, Rabbi Ari Leubitz, and the AJA community, Katz started reaching out to schools across the country to see if their flag football teams would be interested in participating in a Shabbaton-style tournament the following fall, when, presumably, the pandemic would be an afterthought.

Yered Witenberg of AJA pitches the ball to teammate Josh Asherian.

“The interest level was immediate from a number of schools, which was surprising, but a little overwhelming,” he says. “We didn’t have a template. We didn’t know where to start. We looked at some of the other tournaments just to get a model, but we didn’t know what scheduling would look like. We didn’t know how many teams we were going to get.”

Indeed, the last factor proved to be the wild card. Over a dozen Jewish day schools from California, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Florida, among other states, initially expressed a strong desire to participate. But, as COVID persisted, the interest level dwindled and, ultimately, the field consisted of just four schools: Memphis’s Margolin Hebrew Academy, the Posnack School from Davie, Fla., Yeshiva of Flatbush and AJA.

Katz remained undeterred. If anything, the four-school lineup promised to be conducive for a round-robin schedule on Friday morning/afternoon, followed by a bracket-style playoff competition Sunday. Sandwiched between the seven-on-seven games would be Shabbat observance activities, along with a trivia bowl and lecture from a guest speaker.

Speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times a week following the inaugural AJA Flag Football Spring Classic, Katz, who estimates that he spent at least 250 hours preparing for the event over the past year, is quick to point out that he “could not have asked for a more seamless weekend.”

From a thrilling championship game (the Posnack Rams edged AJA 13-7) to the outpouring of support from the Greater Atlanta community (Atlanta Falcons mascot Freddie Falcon was on hand for the festivities), the weekend provided Katz with a picture-perfect template for future tourneys.

There were well over 100 participants, many of whom stayed in host family lodging, and at least 300 fans cheering from the sidelines at both the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and AJA. After a brief weather scare, the four teams played under pristine conditions. Most importantly, in the spirit of flag football’s all-encompassing emphasis on safety, there were no significant injuries.

“Because it went so well, there’s not a whole lot we need to tweak for next year,” adds Katz, who hopes next spring’s event can include six teams.

Just as football is a team sport, the AJA Flag Football Spring Classic was very much a collaborative effort, one spearheaded by talented and dedicated executive committee comprised of Marc Sokol (director of logistics), Jodi Wittenberg (director of catering), Tova Isaacs (director of host families), Shoshana Dayanim (director of athletes) and Joey Wilson (director of marketing).

While an annual tournament hosted by AJA would bring together members of Atlanta’s Jewish community, Katz has a larger goal in mind: showing kids throughout the city that there is a way to enjoy football without worrying about injuries.

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