Football was the biggest part of Spencer Devine’s life growing up. With a dad who doubled as his coach, football was his primary focus even when he wasn’t actively on the field.
After high school, when most football players call it quits, Devine wasn’t looking to let it go.
He has continued to keep his connection to football over the past three years as a member of Carolina’s competitive flag football club, which competes against teams from other North Carolina colleges and at regional tournaments. As the president of the team and its quarterback, Spencer has made football — albeit in a different form — a critical part of his Carolina experience.
“Getting onto campus my freshman year, I just wanted to find a way to stay active while at the same time continue to do something that has been a part of my life forever,” says Devine, a senior majoring in human development and family studies at the UNC School of Education.
One of 48 Sport Clubs at UNC Campus Recreation, the flag football team had been a club tackle football team for decades but transitioned to flag football in 2018. Today, the team has roughly 30 players with varying experience, from former high school tackle football players to people entirely new to the sport.
Previous football experience, Devine says, doesn’t necessarily translate to flag football anyway.
Aside from the obvious difference between tackle and flag football, there are differences that allow for more trick plays and keep the game moving at a fast pace. For a quarterback like Devine, there’s one significant rule change that sends defenders rushing at him — unblocked — quickly.
“That was a big thing for me coming out of high school,” Devine says. “The biggest thing is how fast flag football is. You have four seconds to throw the ball. If not, there’s someone rushing at you every play. Pulling flags is also a lot harder than it looks. Tackling somebody can be as easy as getting in their way.”
With a steep learning curve across the board, the team doesn’t hold tryouts and welcomes all Tar Heels to grab cleats and join them. That environment, Devine says, keeps players — including himself — coming back each week.
“More often than not, we’ve had people stay because it’s a friendly environment where maybe they weren’t the best athlete, but they just enjoyed being there,” he says. “Coming to Carolina, I didn’t have a ton of friends coming in. One of the first things I did was join the flag team, and I’ve made friends through flag who I talk to today. It really is just a way for us to come together.”
It’s also served as a stress reliever for Devine, who says he sees practice attendance increase around midterms and finals when Tar Heels are looking for a break.
But that’s not to say the team doesn’t care about winning.
With no formal coaching staff, Devine and other experienced players lead practices, developing schemes and plays for upcoming games. They train for two hours, twice a week, preparing for matchups against area colleges, including NC State and North Carolina A&T. Seasons conclude with a state championship, which has lately pitted Carolina against NC State.
It’s a rivalry that, though held in the shadow of Kenan Stadium, Devine and his team take seriously.
“No, it’s not Division 1. No, we don’t play in a packed stadium, but you’re still playing for a bigger cause,” he says. “You’re still part of something bigger than yourself, and I think that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day: making sure you’re putting on for the University.”