There is more than meets the eye when it comes to everything involved with the two flag football leagues in the Wheeling area, but it is easy to see that these men and even a few ladies certainly play to win every Sunday at the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling.
Lead organizer Don Chamberlain oversees both the Ohio Valley Recreation League and the Ohio Valley Elite League, a pair of circuits that feature more than 250 athletes from throughout the Upper Ohio Valley. The recreation league consists of five teams, and four groups compete in the elite pool, and communities on both sides of the Ohio River are represented. Three of the teams are from the Wheeling area, two originated in Steubenville, and Shadyside, Bellaire, and Martins Ferry also are represented.
“We have these leagues because it gives these folks the chance to get back on the field again and compete, and we have a lot of fun with it each Sunday,” Chamberlain said. “I’ve run these leagues since 1971 soon after I got out of the service, and it’s a lot of fun each and every week.
“But the players on the teams do take it seriously, and they have designed plays on both offense and defense, so they don’t treat it like all of those pick-up games we used to play on the neighborhood sandlots,” he continued. “Every team has a lot of structure, and the players are dedicated. They all show up every week if they can.”
Chamberlain served with the U.S. Navy soon after graduating from high school, and upon his return to the Wheeling area he initiated a flag football league in the Moundsville area. The concept quickly grew throughout the Upper Ohio Valley during that first decade, but since then several leagues have shuttered.
“I learned how to play flag football when I was in the Navy, so when I got out and used those rules, at that time in the 1970s there were leagues in St. Clairsville, Bellaire, Wheeling, and up and down the Valley,” Chamberlain recalled. “But a lot of those went away because it’s hard to find people to run the leagues, and it’s also difficult to find people who will officiate them.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes take place all over the Valley as far as the population is concerned, so that fact also hurt the leagues because there weren’t enough players to fill out all of the rosters,” he said. “But we’ve continued to attract those teams for these two leagues because there’s still a lot of interest.”
The games take place each Sunday between 1-9 p.m., each team is guaranteed at least seven games including the playoffs, and the regular season will continue into the second week of November. That is when the postseason begins, and the champions along with two other teams qualify for the West Virginia Flag Football Tournament that is scheduled for the East Wheeling complex during the weekend before Thanksgiving.
“We have our two leagues from this area, and Morgantown has a league, and so do Parkersburg, Logan, Charleston, and a few other small towns in the southern areas of West Virginia, and the winners from leagues qualify for the state tournament,” Chamberlain explained. “The last few years the state tournament has been in Wheeling, and it will likely be here again this year because it’s really about getting the sponsorships, and we’ve been able to do that here.
“Whichever teams win the two leagues here will qualify to go to the national tournament as will two other teams from our tournament,” he said. “And then the national tournament is scheduled for the first weekend in December, and it will be in York, Pa., this year.”
The $500 entry fee paid by each of the teams is what makes the two circuits available here in the Wheeling area, and sponsorships for the state tournament are very important when the decision about the location is made.
“The teams are the ones who pay for the league. They either find sponsors to help them with that or the individual players pay a fee to cover those costs,” Chamberlain said. “It’s operated through the West Virginia Flag Football Association, and that’s a non-profit organization, so whatever is paid we put right back in it, and we pay the entry fee for the team that wins the league and goes to the state tournament.
“Those funds also pay for the equipment and for the four officials that work the games each Sunday, and we also supply the officials with the uniforms and buy the awards for those who win the leagues,” he said. “In the end everyone has a great time, and the expenses are taken care of, too. If we didn’t do it the way we do, it really couldn’t work, so I’m real happy that it’s continued to.”
Although it is flag football, it’s still football, Chamberlain insisted, and some of the teams have former high school and even a few former college players on their rosters. There are some players, though, who did not play beyond grade school but still enjoy the game.
“The skills of some of the players are really unbelievable,” Chamberlain said. “Their skills are very impressive, and we do have some players who once played on the college level at WVU and some other colleges. We also have a team from the Pittsburgh area that participates, and there’s always a lot of talent on that roster, too.
“As long as the team from Pittsburgh plays four opponents from down here, they can be considered for our state tournament, and they won that state tournament last year,” he explained. “Two years ago a team from Ohio won the West Virginia championship, and the last team from West Virginia to win was the Nighthawks a few years ago.”
But it’s only flag football, right? How competitive could it possibly be? These games merely feature adults tossing the ball around, and who cares whoever wins or loses, right?
“They are very competitive, and at times, too competitive, but that happens,” Chamberlain said with a chuckle. “They just want to win, and a lot of these guys used to play against each other when they were in high school.
“There is also that sense of pride that they have concerning where they are from and what town they are representing,” he said. “We all know that there are several great rivalries here in the Upper Ohio Valley, and those things don’t go away just because you graduate high school.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)