How MOJO helps grow flag football in under-resourced communities
| 5 min read
Ryan Sarna (back row, left) with players from the inaugural season of The Coach Sarna League.
Ryan Sarna’s roots go deep in the Bay Area city of Vallejo, California — back six generations, in fact. And the name Sarna is well-known. His grandfather Ed — the original “Coach Sarna” — left an indelible mark at Vallejo’s Hogan High School, where he was a multi-sport coach as well as the longest-serving athletic director in the school’s history.
The younger Sarna has coached himself, helping out with the flag football team at the public middle school where he taught in nearby Richmond. “It was a great way to make connections with the students,” says Sarna. “Having relationships with kids is vital. It could get pretty tough in the classroom.”
So when Sarna switched schools to teach in his hometown, he arrived with an idea. Vallejo deserved its own youth flag football league — a league intended for all families. And he used the MOJO app to make it happen.
The aptly named Coach Sarna League — named in memory of Sarna’s grandfather — came together roughly a year and a half ago. And it was founded on a simple principle: Everyone can play, whether they can afford it or not.
Vallejo, explains Sarna, is a diverse, multi-lingual community where 80-85% of the families live below poverty level. That means recreational sports aren’t always affordable and accessible — even for his own family.
“Myself, I have three kids,” he explains. “My wife, she’s a homeschool mom. We’re on a single income. If it’s $300 a season, that’s $1,000 for my three kids. And that means it ain’t gonna happen.”
Sarna teamed up with NFL FLAG, who was looking for an operator in the area. The Coach Sarna League — a non-profit, low-cost league, subsidized by scholarships — was approved to serve Vallejo and also nearby Benicia and American Canyon. A 10-week season cost just $65. No child would be turned away.
The league caught on quickly. That fall, their first season, they had 120 players — co-ed, from 5th through 8th grade — with roughly $4,000 in scholarships. By spring, they added elementary-age players, and doubled scholarships.
But more importantly, the kids and families of Vallejo were loving it.
“Man, they had a blast,” says Sarna.
NFL FLAG took notice. At the league’s 2022 summit in New Orleans, the Coach Sarna League was chosen as one of the top 5 new NFL Flag Leagues in the country.
Sarna quickly realized that while the appetite for flag football was strong, the volunteer base wasn’t.
“Coaches are the most challenging part of the whole league,” says Sarna. “It’s not about getting kids. It’s about getting coaches.”
It’s particularly challenging, he found, in Vallejo.
“Where we are, there are so many single moms, or the dads simply aren’t around,” explains Sarna. “The moms are not raised in football, so it’s hard to find experienced coaches.”
That’s where the MOJO app came in.
“MOJO gave people confidence to coach with little or no experience,” he says. With the equivalent of an expert coach in their pocket, local volunteers were able to more easily marshall young players to success — even if they’d never played themselves.
What’s more: Coaches that used the app were, to Sarna eyes, reliably the better coaches.
With the app, Sarna was able to stand up a high quality flag football experience for volunteers, new players and families alike — down to team management. “Communication-wise, it’s been helping,” he says. “With scheduling, it has been a big help — so they know where to be and when to be there.”
“I’ve never spent more time with my family than I have since joining the league,” says Sarna. Each of his kids is a part of the league. The staff directory is heavy on the Sarna name.
But it’s not just his own family that benefits.
“Our kids come from every corner of Vallejo, kids from tough neighborhoods, opposing neighborhoods,” Sarna explains, noting the high levels of violence where he lives and works. “Flag fosters a community — that is something we’ve focused on.”
And Sarna has enjoyed watching that community grow stronger, in numbers and in spirit, season after season. To date, the league has grown to more than 500 players, with, all told, more than $40,000 in scholarships. What’s more, it’s a through-line that connects him to the original Coach Sarna, who saw generations of kids learn and grow, all through the power of sport.
“There are kids who’ve never played before, who couldn’t afford to play. And you see them now — they’re full of so much talent and skill. They’re all over the field making great plays,” he says. “It’s great to watch them be the tip of the spear.”
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