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Gridiron Partners Redefines Football in Westchester

By Ava Fleisher   

Photography by Gil Vaknin

Around six years ago, when Katie DiChiaro was running an after-school “intro to sports” program for young girls, a first grader excitedly ran off the field after playing flag football for the very first time. She turned to her mom, Jennifer Kisslinger, and exclaimed, “Ma, I have to play football.” Jokingly, Kisslinger asked DiChiaro, who was also a friend, if she wanted to start a league together. DiChiaro gladly responded with a “yes!” 

Today, the two women are co-founders of Gridiron Partners Inc., which, over the past few years, has transformed from being an entryway for young girls to play flag football to several youth and adult leagues and programs across Westchester, promoting female empowerment in flag football and beyond. 

A game plan

Akin to Kisslinger’s daughter, the other girls who were on the field that day were also interested in pursuing flag football. After DiChiaro and Kisslinger held an open house to gauge interest, it became apparent that starting a girls flag football league was something parents and children needed and wanted.

“We weren’t sure what we would get, but we got about 30 signups,” says Kisslinger. 

It was 2018, and their new league was established under a privately-owned boys league. It was composed of girls from the after-school program plus an additional division, so they could only play against each other every week—and the girls kept coming back. Six months later, DiChiaro and Kisslinger held another open house, and this time, their signups doubled. Another six months later, at their third signup, the league gained around 40 more girls. 

Then, in 2020, a new player came onto the field: COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the league played on indoor fields, which had far more restrictions and costs compared to those outside. But with pandemic restrictions, they were forced to move their venture outside.

“We knew we would reach more girls if we were able to do it in our own town, on our own fields and cut the cost for people,” remembers DiChiaro. “It wound up being really an event for many people because during the pandemic they couldn’t really do anything. A sport outdoors was something that everyone really wanted to come out to.”

So every Sunday in 2020, when people were typically cooped up inside their homes, Somers residents safely gathered, and it was girls flag football that brought them together. 

Moving the goalposts

DiChiaro and Kisslinger realized it was time to grow, so they spent hours on the phone in the months leading up to September 2020, planning their next move. 

“We decided to be a part of the town program, and we got a huge enrollment,” says Kisslinger. 

Now, with over 250 girls signed up to play flag football, their project started to take off in numbers they hadn’t seen. This is when they also joined NFL Flag, an official youth flag football organization backed by the NFL. 

“When we got sanctioned, we were thrilled,” Kisslinger remembers. “It was a big piece of credibility that was added to our program.” 

Around the same time, Gridiron Partners Inc. was officially founded. In order to accommodate girls outside of Somers, DiChiaro and Kisslinger needed to make the organization their own. Their ultimate goal, at this time, was to see flag football become a high school sport for girls in the area. 

“That was a big priority for us,” explains Kisslinger. “The idea was to try to get these K-8 leagues prepared so that when the day comes that there’s a varsity program, they’re ready.”

A few months prior, the New York Jets had begun a female high school pilot league, similar to what DiChiaro and Kisslinger sought to do. With a clear vision in mind, DiChiaro reached out to the New York Giants to see if they had any plans to do the same; they said they would be open to doing so sometime down the line. 

The women then contacted New York State to see when they planned to sanction flag football as a girls varsity sport, and they were met with the challenge of garnering enough interest to start the pilot league. 

“Once you have enough girls, we can do that,” they were told.  

“We kept in touch with them and basically hounded them every month about when we could start,” DiChiaro explains. “So, with a lot of determination, our athletic director [from the high school], New York State and the Giants, we were actually able to start that pilot league a year earlier than we were supposed to, in 2022.” 

By March 2022, girls who had never held a football before and girls who had been throwing the ball for years were all trying out for the new league. DiChiaro describes it as a “very special year,” which eventually yielded 10 different teams in Westchester.

In February 2023, thanks to DiChiaro and Kisslinger who were the key initiators, flag football was sanctioned as a statewide varsity sport, and the inaugural state championship will be this year. There are now 26 Section I high school flag football teams in New York. 

From generation to generation

Gridiron Partners now welcomes women and girls of all ages and backgrounds—their youngest players are in kindergarten and their oldest is in her late 50s, although they say there is virtually no age limit. The fifth graders who came to them in 2018, for example, are now in high school and have carried their love of flag football with them through the years. And with Gridiron Partners’ well-established high school programs, girls can play throughout their entire childhood and beyond, an opportunity not always available to young or adult women. 

Ashley Retta, a Mahopac resident who began playing in Gridiron Partners’ women’s league this past winter, says she wishes something like this existed when she was growing up. 

“I grew up around football, but there were never any opportunities to be able to access that world,” says Retta. 

After a couple months of finally being able to play flag football in a women’s league for the first time, Retta says she’s proud to be a part of something “revolutionary.” 

“It’s magical,” she says.

DiChiaro and Kisslinger also facilitate youth coaching by players from the high school programs and women’s league, a true full-circle phenomenon. 

“We really want to get these women who are playing football in front of the girls to show them that there’s no limit to when they can play and that females are really equipped to be in this arena,” says DiChiaro. 

During Gridiron Partners’ annual clinic with the Giants, which has since grown to almost 500 girls, women from the adult league coach the youth right alongside the Giants players, who also serve as coaches. DiChiaro and Kisslinger say this gives the younger players direct female role models in flag football. 

Empowering women

Team sports of any kind can be beneficial for people of all ages, especially in a world that often restricts women and girls, and fails to uplift them on and off the field. 

“Women have told us this is life changing for them, and there are parents who have told us it’s life changing for their daughters,” Kisslinger proudly explains. 

For a lot of women in the adult league, being a mother can feel all-consuming, but Kisslinger says that when these women have the space to expand their role and participate in something they love, it empowers and supports them in multiple ways. 

Not only are DiChiaro and Kisslinger redefining women’s roles in sports, but when their children or spouses come to watch them play, it puts women at the forefront of a traditionally male-dominated field. 

“It’s everybody coming to see a woman in their life play,” says DiChiaro. “My daughter will be yelling on the sidelines for me to get in front of someone or grab their flag. It’s a wonderful thing.” 

DiChiaro and Kisslinger say that Retta, like many other women and girls who start playing flag football, was initially hesitant about entering the sport. But at her first practice, Retta says “it automatically felt like home,” thanks to the supportive and energetic environment Gridiron Partners creates. She says that after years of not playing sports, this created an immediate confidence boost in all areas of her life. 

“[Women and girls] have the freedom to just get out there and play, which boosts confidence,” Kisslinger says. “The whole mission and point of our programs is that we want women and girls to have every opportunity that exists for men and for it to never cross their mind when they walk onto a field, or into an office or anywhere that they don’t belong.” 

Going the extra yard

More recent additions to Gridiron Partners’ programming are their travel teams. Because of the mass influx of those who want to play flag football competitively, DiChiaro and Kisslinger have started a travel program that allows their players to become part of local teams that go to tournaments around the country. 

For DiChiaro and Kisslinger, the sky’s the limit. But with Kisslinger’s recent move to Florida, she’s now working more behind the scenes. However, she is exploring ways to bring flag football leagues to her new area, including how to give those in underserved communities opportunities to play. 

The two say they’re looking into organizing instruction at camps that may not have flag football programs, as well. 

“We’re trying to expand beyond just Westchester, because the idea is to reach as many girls as we can in areas that don’t have [flag football] yet or in areas where we can help make it more successful,” explains Kisslinger. “We’re not limiting ourselves.” 

One day, the two would like to leverage the diverse experiences, careers and backgrounds of the women in their leagues to give back to the community. 

“At the tiny level, we have women’s events like boxing and yoga nights, or we get together at a restaurant,” says DiChiaro. “But on a broader level, we’d like to get together and really make a difference. With 200 plus women, we would love to accomplish things together.” 

This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Ava Fleisher

Ava Fleisher is Connect To's star intern and a local high school student. When she’s not writing, you can find her spending time outdoors, reading, or volunteering in her community. When she grows up, she would like to pursue a career in journalism and travel the world.

Gil Vaknin

Gil Vaknin is a Katonah-based freelance photographer whose big break came 24 years ago when his photo of Britney Spears was featured on the cover of a small teen magazine. When not taking portrait shots of the incredible people in our towns, you’ll find Gil coaching ice hockey or taking his dog for long walks.