By Andrew Bergee | Special to Gay San Diego
San Diego hosts 15th annual Gay Bowl
Eric Reissner, team captain of the San Diego Bolts — a flag football team that has represented San Diego for the last several years during the annual Gay Bowl — is looking to clinch his fourth national championship. This year, however, he hopes to do it on his home turf as San Diego is playing host to the national championship series for the first time.
Hundreds of flag football athletes from around the country will descend upon San Diego to participate in the tournament, which takes place Oct. 9 – 12, from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., daily, at the Del Mar Polo grounds.
Gay Bowl is the largest national LGBT flag football tournament, put on every Columbus Day weekend by the National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL) and the host city’s Gay Bowl Planning Committee.
Every year, a different city hosts the tournament, which typically includes approximately 30 men and women teams from around the country. The first Gay Bowl dates back to 2002 in Los Angeles with only three competing teams.
Flashback to Gay Bowl XIV: It’s a cloudy afternoon in Philadelphia on Oct. 12, 2014.
The championship game is down to the final play of overtime with only a few seconds on the clock. The San Diego Bolts are up 51-50 against the Phoenix Hellraisers and they need to stop Phoenix from scoring on this play to win the game. Reissner watches anxiously from the sidelines as his defensive team prepares for the final ball snap.
The whistle sounds, the ball is snapped and the play is in motion. The Bolts send three rushers to the Phoenix quarterback, which causes him to quickly throw the ball into the back corner of the end zone. Everyone holds their breath watching the ball sail into the air as two San Diego defensive-backs guard Phoenix’s wide receiver. But with the pressure from the triple rush, the quarterback’s ball lands out of bounds, ending the play as the final whistle blows.
San Diego has won its third Gay Bowl in a row.
While Reisser hopes to see his fourth win here in San Diego, there is more competition than ever before.
This year — Gay Bowl XV — will be the largest ever, with 36 teams participating in three divisions: “Open A,” “Open B” and a Women’s division. San Diego alone has six teams competing in the tournament. Men’s teams include the defending Gay Bowl champion Bolts, the Toros, the Sharks, and the Vipers. The two women’s teams adding to the mix are the Breakers, making their third appearance at Gay Bowl, and the Shredders, the newest women’s tournament team, making their first appearance.
San Diego’s success at Gay Bowl comes from a strong local league, the San Diego American Flag Football League (SDAFFL). Going into its 13th season in 2016, the SDAFFL is one of the country’s largest LGBT flag football leagues of its kind. Founded in 2004 with only a few teams, it has grown to its current membership of 300 players on 16-18 teams.
The league is open to anyone over the age of 18 and currently boasts its most diverse population to date, with 75 percent of the league identifying as LGBT, including approximately 35 women, and 25 percent identifying as straight allies to the community.
Steve Farrow is a nine-year SDAFFL veteran and the outgoing league commissioner. His last games will be played at this Gay Bowl before he retires from the league but he is leaving after a legacy of wins and a lifetime of friendships.
“With the way the league is set up, it’s a great way for participants to meet new people and make new friends,” Farrow said. “Everything we do is on a league level. I love watching new faces come into the league and by the end of the season it’s great to see them become part of the family. I don’t think there is any other league that is as successful at doing that than ours.”
Many SDAFFL participants both past and present have expressed how most teams become a family as individual players grow close to each other over the course of a season on the fields, at practices, post-game socials and team bonding activities.
As the competing San Diego teams enter Gay Bowl XV, they know the stakes are high, and the pressure is on.
“These visiting teams are gunning to beat us on our home turf, so a win this year is more important than ever,” Reissner said. “No team has ever won four Gay Bowl Championships, let alone four in a row. Winning Gay Bowl XV would show everyone just how hard my teammates and I have worked throughout the years … [and will] put the San Diego Bolts, and the SDAFFL, in a league of their own.”
But there’s something even more important than winning that Eric Reissner considers as the tournament approaches: how the league has impacted him personally.
“I have been more passionate about very few things in my life than this flag football league,” he said. “The SDAFFL is what introduced me to life as a gay man and as a gay athlete. I have met the most amazing people because of this league, and formed ever-lasting relationships that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
“This flag football league is literally the foundation of my ‘real’ life,” he continued. “It has allowed me to live my life as an openly gay athlete.”
With the passion behind his drive and confidence in his team, Reissner enters his seventh Gay Bowl with a positive outlook for another win.
Family, friends and fans of the SDAFFL will be watching the national tournament play out at the polo fields of the San Diego Polo Club, located 3855 Via de la Valle in Del Mar. Those fans will be watching and many hoping the San Diego Bolts will make history as the first team to win four Gay Bowls.
For more information about Gay Bowl XV, visit GayBowlSanDiego.com.
Anyone interested in playing in the 2016 season of the San Diego American Flag Football League should register at sdaffl.com beginning in January. Player clinics will be held late January/early February and the season will run from March to June.
—Andrew Bergee sits on the board as the director of public relations for the San Diego American Flag Football League and has been an active member of the league for three years. He can be reached at email@example.com.