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Passport panic: Auckland kids race to meet NFL flag football deadline

Jaxin Daniels

10 South Auckland kids won a free trip to America playing a strange sport. But only eight had passports

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

They are NFL Flag Football rookies in every sense of the word, have met NFL superstars like Todd Gurley and are off to Florida to represent New Zealand in a game they barely know how to play.

Te Rito journalism cadet Jaxin Daniels reports on the passport panic that followed Bader Intermediate School’s historic NFL Flag Football victory.

A South Auckland school has won a race against the clock to secure passports for eight students who earned a free trip to the United States playing a sport they had only just learned.

Eight of the 10 Sir Douglas Bader Intermediate School Flag Football players did not have passports when they won a national tournament in Wellington last month.

It gave Bader Intermediate – whose pupils were taught the game only weeks before the tournament – the right to represent New Zealand at the NFL Youth Flag Football World Championship in Florida in February 2024.

It is the first time New Zealand will be represented at the event, which is part of the NFL’s global mission to promote the game, which features at the Summer Olympics in 2028.

It is paying for flights and accommodation for youth teams around the world to gather in Orlando, Florida, on the same weekend (February 2) as NFL Pro Bowl Games are played.

Like Rippa Rugby, Flag Football is non-contact and players wear tags that the opposition snatches to make a “tackle”.

Unlike Rippa Rugby, Flag Football players can throw the ball forward, as in American Football.

Passport panic

Chrystal Otunuku, Bader Intermediate’s sports co-ordinator and Flag Football team manager, said eight emergency passport applications had to be made to meet an NFL deadline last week for booking flights for the pupils.

The paperwork was assembled and sent off and thankfully the passports have been approved.

“It is very exciting.

“Only two of our students out of the 10 had passports.

“Tickets have been booked so it hasn’t caused any issues.”

Todd who?

Students at the November competition got a surprise when they met former NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley. In the US, Gurley – a running back who had career earnings of US$49 million from six seasons – holds the same sporting status as a star All Black.

Otunuku says the kids, some of whom recognised him, were in awe of his sheer size.

“This guy’s huge.”

The game was foreign to the students and Otunuku before the tournament. She had to be coached before teaching the students.

“I took part in a coaching day.

“At first it was a bit confusing [for the kids] because they had to remember plays.

“It’s not just about running with the ball; there’s a bunch of teamwork involved.

“It wasn’t like what they had seen on PlayStation or Xbox.”

NFL star Todd Gurley with Bader Intermediate pupils (left to right): Hosea Vakaheketaha, Malakai Otunuku, Lennox Ah Wong Walker, Jeremiah Leaula, Lutu Moala and Justyce Tonga. Photo / Supplied

Forward thinking

Breaking a Kiwi kid’s habit of a lifetime and throwing an oval ball forward was an amusing challenge.

“It was quite funny.

“That was probably one of the challenges.

“Knowing that they can throw the ball forward and looking forward for the pass instead of thinking ‘I’m offside’.

“It was pretty much a few days of ‘Wait – I can throw it forward’.”

While the Bader Intermediate team are rookies, Otunuku is optimistic about their chances.

“What we have, that they don’t have, is that a lot of our students are quite elusive and have tag [Rippa Rugby] backgrounds.

“They’ve just got that hip movement … they’ve just got a bit more flair.”

Justyce Tonga is a Year 7 pupil who is embracing the new sport.

She can’t wait to get to the US and is thankful for the opportunity to represent her country.

“It’s been an interesting journey as the NFL Flag game was new to us, but learning new skills and winning the championship was so exciting.

“I feel lucky and super grateful to be heading to America and representing NZ.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I can’t wait.”

The team will leave at the end of January and stay in Orlando for a week at Walt Disney World.

What is Flag Football?

The game is played with two teams – there are variations of five-a-side through to eight-a-side.

Points are scored by moving the ball down the field and across the goal line on a pitch that is between 55 metres to 92m long, depending on the age group.

Teams include players of different genders, as it is a non-contact sport.

A “tackle” occurs when a tag is snatched from a player.

It is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports and is played in more than 100 countries.

Troy Vincent, executive vice-president of NFL Football Operations, has told that he believes it is the future of the sport.

“When we talk about the future of the game of football, it is, no question, flag.

“When I’m asked what the next 100 years looks like when you look at football, not professional football, it’s flag. It’s the inclusion and the true motto of ‘football for all’. There is a place in flag football for all.”

Hero image: Bader Intermediate qualified for an NFL Flag Football tournament in the US, but eight of the team did not have passports. Photo / Supplied

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