NAUGATUCK — On Tuesday at the Elks Lodge on Rubber Avenue, a steady stream of supporters showed up for a benefit dinner held for the Connecticut Big Blue. The borough’s 9-11-year-old, co-ed flag football team is headed to Miami next weekend with an itinerary that includes NFL Pro Bowl activities and, it hopes, a national title.
Big Blue won recently an NFL flag football regional tournament by defeating Youngstown, Ohio, 7-6. It marked the third year in a row that the team, under head coach Jeff Scanlon and assistant coach Ron Plasky, has brought the regional championship trophy to Naugatuck.
“It takes a lot of dedication and teamwork to pull it off,” Scanlon said. “You need to win five or six games to even play for the championship. This is our third year going to Florida to play for a national championship, and we are hoping this is our year to win it all.”
Launched in 1996, the NFL Flag program now includes more than 100,000 kids across the country, competing in three divisions for boys and girls, ages 5-17. The NFL Tournament of Champions brings eight regional winners together in three age groups: 9-11 co-ed, 12-14 boys, and 12-14 girls. A total of 24 teams get to play for national titles.
Last season, Big Blue traveled to Orlando; this is the first year the NFL has coupled the Tournament of Champions with the Pro Bowl.
“This is an experience of a lifetime for these kids,” Scanlon said. “They get to meet the greatest players in the NFL and play for a national championship. It doesn’t get much better than that. We instill in the kids that when you get an opportunity like this you need to come together and work as team to achieve that goal.”
Scanlon, an assistant freshman football coach at Naugatuck High School, has been entering his team in NFL Youth Football tournaments since 2005. This year’s Big Blue is represented by eight local youths: Jason Bradley, Tyler Deitelbaum, Corey Plasky, Michaela Pernell, Evan Pelliccia, Chris Flynn, Ethan Vance and Chris Jeffries.
Teams in the tournament range from eight to 10 players, with five-on-five games being played on a 50-yard field. Each team has three downs, starting at its own 5-yard line to reach midfield. If successful, it earns another three downs to reach the end zone. Teams can elect to throw in the extra point from 5 yards out or go for two points from 12 yards out.
“It’s an introduction to the game of football,” Scanlon explained. “They learn the skills of the game and learn to play as a team. About half of the team plays Pop Warner football, and some have already played for national championships at that level. They have made the transition from the skills they have learned playing flag football.”
Big Blue will arrive in Ft. Lauderdale next Friday. Once the team registers, there will be a coaches’ meeting for all teams. There will be a practice session the next day at 9 a.m. at Lockhart Stadium, with pool play and playoffs running from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. A beach party will follow for all participants from 6:30-9:30 p.m.
On Sunday, the youth field at the Game Day Fan Plaza adjacent to Dolphins Stadium will host championship games in all three divisions, between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. All teams will attend a luncheon after the championships then attend the Pro Bowl that evening.
“An opportunity like this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Scanlon said. “We try and prepare these kids to take advantage of opportunities like this, and it all starts with teamwork. They are pretty excited to be representing the town of Naugatuck and hopefully we can bring home a national championship.”