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    Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii

    By John Chen–

    In all my years of playing, competing, coaching, managing, and leading LGBTQ+ sports, some of my fondest memories have come from traveling to gay national championships representing San Francisco/Bay Area in the largest tournaments, such as the Gay Softball World Series, the North American Gay Volleyball Association (NAGVA) Championships, and the National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL) Gay Bowl. Altogether, I’ve competed in 15 nationals hosted in 15 different amazing cities in a span of 10 years. However, in 2013 I “officially” retired a la Tom Brady and/or “evolved” like Serena Williams from competing on the national level.

    But against all odds, I decided to come out of retirement or evolvement in October 2022 and traveled to Hawaii for Gay Bowl XXII. Why did I take the Tom Brady path (Serena hasn’t made a comeback yet but publicly stated she may play again)? Well, financial incentive was certainly not a factor. Competing for history seemed a bit of a stretch. For the pure love of the game managed a few eye rolls and chuckles, mainly because I am older and broken.

    The main reason I participated in Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii was for the love of our gay football community, which I helped, in a small role, build. It has been nearly 10 years since my last Gay Bowl in 2013. I remembered all the great people I’ve met from all over the U.S. and Canada, all the amazing leaders who put NGFFL on the map, and the strong camaraderie forged among the pioneer teams that competed.

    It also occurred to me that I can chronicle for my readers what it’s like to attend a national gay sports championship with all the excitement, pageantry, thrills, and fun that make these tournaments an unforgettable and lasting experience. Additionally, I can give you an inside view of what it takes to run a large-scale LGBTQ+ sports national championship.

    Like most sports tournaments, the Gay Bowl returned after a two-year absence due to the pandemic. The buildup to the tournament reached near fever pitch for the majority of the competing teams, including our two San Francisco teams: the Dragons and the Seals. We couldn’t wait to get to Hawaii, not just for the tournament but also for the destination.

    The Seals Team Captain Marti Davis echoed everyone’s excitement and anticipation. “This will be the first Gay Bowl for many of our players, including myself,” Davis told me for the San Francisco Bay Times. “We couldn’t wait to get to Hawaii and represent our magical city, San Francisco. Our team was ready to showcase our skills and diversity of players, including talented women who oftentimes get overlooked. Just as importantly, whether we are men or women or non-binary, we are the same on the field, competitors playing to win and have fun while doing it.”

    The Making of Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii

    Born and raised in Hawaii, Alvin Ty Law, a long-time footballer and friend (and a fellow UCLA alumnus), is the Chair of Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii. Affectionally known just as Ty, Law played gay flag football in various leagues around the country and represented several cities in past Gay Bowls.

    “I went to Kahuku High School, a big powerhouse football program here in Hawaii,” he said. “I always loved football, collected cards and stats, and was a big [Troy] Aikman fan since he went to UCLA. In high school, I was very skinny, especially compared to the Polynesian boys, but wound up starting my sophomore year as a receiver.”

    He added, “At UCLA I got into gay flag football my senior year when I came out and started looking for people ‘like me.’ Basically, sporty gays outside the stereotype that I was shown. After college, I sought to play gay flag football wherever I landed.”

    Upon his return from the mainland, Law founded the Hawaii Gay Flag Football League (HIGFFL) and an annual fun and social tournament, The Aloha Classic, drawing LGBTQ players from as far as New York City and Toronto. Law and his enthusiastic team of leaders, players, and volunteers rallied tremendous support from not just the Honolulu LGBTQ+ community and businesses, but the city and state governing bodies as well.

    After several successful years of running and hosting the Aloha Classic, Law and his fellow HIGFFL leaders decided it was time to bring the biggest and the most prestigious gay flag football tournament, the Gay Bowl, to Hawaii. Law intimated, “[Our leadership] thought we were ready to host a Gay Bowl and do it well. Aside from the tournament itself, we also wanted to focus on the social and player connection aspect of the tournament. Logistically, the host hotel and LGBTQ+ businesses are located within a few blocks of the playing fields [Kapi’olani Park with Diamond Head Volcano in the backdrop], and world-renowned Waikiki, which would be amazing for all the players and guests.”

    Law continued, “While I’m the driver behind the logistics of the tournament, the success of the [championships] really rested on an amazing and tireless team of leaders and volunteers. Together, we raised approximately $125K to cover all the expenses. My best friend, John Ledwith, the Creative Director (and Co-Chair), was the driving force behind the vision and branding of Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii and elevated [the tournament] with a level of professionalism that took the experience for players from a good one to a great one!”

    “Darrin Kaneshiro, a connected producer, was huge in getting all our contracts together and enabling [our leadership] to smoothly do business on Oahu,” he added. “Butch Merideth managed our finances and helped us with sponsorships. He’s been great in keeping our books in line and making sure things are accounted for.”

    “Our local LGBTQ+ community is small, but very tightly knit and highly motivated to take on tasks to ensure we welcome players and guests with our legendary Hawaiian hospitality. [Gay Bowl XXII] was a unique event and experience here on the island. Although not everyone’s a player, our community, including businesses (too many to mention) were eager to partake in what we hope to be the first of many major LGBTQ+ sports events.”

    He added, “Our Volunteer Coordinators, Wendy Jackson and Corey George, did an amazing job managing and assigning tasks to well over 100 volunteers. We kept our volunteers engaged because all of their tasks mattered. They were instrumental and monumental to running a seamless major sporting event. I am proud to say that several long-time tournament players told me that Hawaii had more volunteers than the past several Gay bowls combined.”

    “In addition to all the peoplepower, the Community Enrichment Program of Hawaii Tourism Authority granted Gay Bowl XXII $25,000 because they strongly believed in what we were doing for our LGBTQ+ community and tourism. Furthermore, Waikiki Health also stepped up as a sponsor with financial assistance and essential first aid. Finally, the city of Honolulu also contributed greatly to the success of Gay Bowl XXII. For example, Mayor Blangiardi reduced the cost of security provided by the Honolulu Police Department as well as any additional park and recreation fees.”

    The Gay Bowl XXII and Hawaii Experience

    Day 1: Arrival in Honolulu

    5:30 pm My flight finally arrived at Honolulu International Airport, and I was greeted immediately with joy, excitement, and “Alohas.” Heading to my Waikiki Airbnb in a rental car, I chuckled at the dirt cheap, compared to California (near $7), $5 per gallon gas stations and wondered why Hawaii even has an Interstate Highway. Think about that! Since Day 1 is all about settling in, I headed to the “one on every block” ABC Convenient Store and got drinks, snacks, sundries, and reef safe sunblock. I also got musubi, a must in Hawaii, to-go for a late dinner. Don’t forget, Honolulu is three hours behind California, so by 8:30 pm I am essentially having a midnight meal.

    Day 2: Gay Bowl Registration and Kickoff Party

    I woke up to a magnificent sunrise as I walked onto my 28th floor balcony overlooking crystal blue Waikiki Beach to my left, skyscrapers just ahead, and lush green Ko’olau Mountain Range on the right. Hawaii is indeed stunning!

    Since Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii registration at the host hotel, Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach, began at 9 am, I meticulously embarked on all necessary preparation for the long journey to the host hotel one block away. As the area was decorated with tournament posters and banners, it was evident that this was the Gay Bowl epic center. At 9:15 am, the hotel lobby was already buzzing with hundreds of excited players and enthusiastic volunteers ready to greet and assist us.

    According to Law, the tournament Chair, there were 50 teams, 1,000+ players, and guests from 23 cities participating in Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii. Immediately, I ran into several San Francisco teammates and old football friends from the first Gay Bowls, many of whom had been in town for a couple of days already taking advantage of everything Oahu has to offer. After 10 years away from the nationals, I was glad to see a few of the original players still competing. The best thing other than seeing fabulous, friendly, and familiar faces at registration was all the free giveaways and coupons from and for local LGBTQ businesses.

    In the evening, the tournament Kickoff Party was the first major social gathering of all the players and guests. Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii instituted an ingenious and fun social game for players to meet competitors from other cities: exchange jerseys. But not simply handing jerseys to another. Players were asked to wear their team jersey and when meeting and connecting with an unfamiliar player from another league, take off the jersey, give it to that player to wear, and vice versa.

    Touring Oahu North Shore

    In between the early morning registration and the evening Kickoff Party, I took my buddy and teammate, Scott Kennon, who had never been to Hawaii, on a power tour of Oahu’s famous North Shore. Our first stop was the Dole Plantation, where once upon a time, pineapples were a major crop on the island. We took an abbreviated whirlwind tour on the history and significance of how crops such as pineapples and sugar cane helped built and shape the economic growth of Hawaii before tourism became the moneymaker.

    Next, we stopped at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck to sample delectable North Shore garlic shrimp featured on many, many TV shows and foodies Tik Toks and Instagram. A little further down Kamehameha Hwy we indulged on Masumoto’s Hawaiian Shaved Ice with condensed milk, mochi, red beans and many other toppings.

    With all that sugar, we smartly utilized our abundance of stored energy and hiked to and swam at the Waimea Valley Waterfall. As far as I know, it is the only waterfall where visitors are allowed and encouraged to swim to and from the base of the fall. On our return hike, we met a Waimea Valley staff member, Asher Alves, who enthusiastically talked about the geographic makeup of Oahu and the indigenous cultures and traditions that are deeply rooted within the true Hawaiians.

    Right across the highway from Waimea Valley is the beautiful Waimea Bay Beach. Since the parking gods opened up a space in the limited parking lot, who were we not to accept and appreciate the gift? My buddy Scott took this opportunity to get started with his tanning regimen and I covered myself with the warmth of the turquoise Pacific Ocean.

    As the sun was starting to set, we decided to find one of the many romantic outdoor waterfront dining experiences as if we were on a honeymoon. Picture it, two buddies enjoying a Hawaiian inspired and locally sourced meal while the sun ever so gently caressed and rested on the edge of infinity until the sky quickly filled with a palette of deep orange, then magenta, followed by purple lavender. Who said you have to hold hands, embrace, kiss, and look into one another’s eyes to romanticize the moment? Not us! Eeewwww! Gag! Barf!

    Day 3: Tournament Pool Play and Official Team Dinner

    The first day of the tournament is always the most exciting. During pool play, teams are placed into small groups where they will play other teams in the same group using a round robin format. At Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii, each team will play three pool play games. At the end of pool play, teams will be seeded and placed into a single elimination bracket tournament where, once the team loses, it is out of the tournament.

    Flag football is different than some of the sports such as softball, volleyball, and tennis, where the national championship tournament format is double elimination. Should the team lose for the first time at any point in the tournament, the team still has the opportunity to compete for the championship if it can win the Loser’s or consolation bracket.

    Both San Francisco teams competed in two physical pool play games on day one, with the Seals winning both of its games against Toronto and host Honolulu, while the Dragons dropped two close heartbreaking contests against South Florida and Austin. Immediately after the games, many of the players headed straight to a Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii sponsored beach party just across the street from the fields to mingle, cool off, and relax in sun-kissed paradise. It just doesn’t get any better than this!

    In the evening, the San Francisco teams got together for an official dinner to celebrate their play, bonding, and camaraderie. The Dragons and the Seals scarfed down Hawaiian fusion delectables such as Kal bi, Kim Chee Fried Rice, and Spicy Garlic Chicken at the Side Street Inn in Ala Moana.

    San Francisco Represented in Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii Officiating Crew

    I’d like to take a moment to recognize a very important part of any sports tournament’s success: the officiating crew. In football, these hard-working mediators are often referred to as zebras due to their distinctive vertical stripe uniforms. Officiating is a very challenging and thankless job. One must possess the ability to make instantaneous and decisive calls based on judgements that are not always popular. One must also endure the constant complaining and whining, and even abusive language and behaviors from coaches and players. I know this all too well. I have officiated enough volleyball matches, softball games, and football leagues.

    Meet Danny Tyrrell, a current San Francisco Gay Flag Football League (SFGFFL) member, who officiated numerous games at Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii and was just recently inducted into the NGFFL Hall of Fame as a player, an official, and a local leader.

    Tyrrell shared his road to officiating at Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii: “I first learned about [officiating] as a player in Boston’s local gay flag football league and was able to learn the art of officiating at the local level. Officiating is both fun and intense and enables you to see the whole field from a more objective perspective.”

    He added, “The number one challenge of being an official is making sure to keep your cool when some of the more competitive players as well as [overzealous fans] yell in your ear making you question yourself. Also, the last thing you ever want to do is make a questionable call that may change the outcome of a game knowing how hard all the players worked to do well and win [the Gay Bowl]. The officials not only uphold the integrity of the game, but also have a responsibility to the players to be fair, impartial, and accurate.”

    Tyrrell is not just a gay football player and a national championship tournament caliber zebra; he is an accomplished LGBTQ+ community leader and a NGFFL Hall of Fame Inductee. Tyrrell had been either coaching and competing or officiating at every Gay Bowl since 2010.  He was an integral leader on the Board of FLAG (Friends, Lesbians, and Gays) Flag Football Boston that created a college scholarship for LGBTQ+ athletes, hosted the Gay Bowl 17 in Boston, and negotiated a lead sponsor, The New England Patriots.

    Day 4: Tournament Pool Play and Single Elimination Championships

    The fourth day of Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii began with final pool play games for both the Dragons and the Seals. Although the Dragons succumbed to a talented team from San Diego, the Seals continued their determined play and came back from a half time deficit to edge Minnesota.

    After the completion of all pool play games, based on results, teams were placed in their respective divisional bracket to compete for the coveted title of gay flag football national champion or Gay Bowl XXII Champion. The Seals received a bye into the second round due their stellar pool play and got the rest of the day off. The Dragons in the first round, engaged in a hard-fought battle against the eventual divisional champion from Utah, but ultimately fell in the face of their more experienced opponent. Disappointed with their results, the Dragons vowed to return to next year’s Gay Bowl in Seattle more ready to compete!

    Arturo Spell, a member of the Dragons, concluded his first ever Gay Bowl experience with a universal glowing sentiment. “Gay Bowl Hawaii was incredible and the best way to describe it is that the experience was indescribable! I was immediately impressed by the level of competition, the beauty of the venue, and how organized and energized the event was. My best buddy Noah [Zepponi] and I are football nerds. We love to play. We love to watch. We love to stat. And we do Madden. He brought me into the San Francisco gay league and the people are just so great, like the ones here in Hawaii! We were having so much fun in the league, we had to come play the Gay Bowl! We are already planning to play the next Gay Bowl in Seattle because we wanted to again experience that special indescribable feeling!”

    Given the rest of the day and evening off, San Francisco players got to enjoy Waikiki, dined out at a highly rated and LGBTQ+ supportive Hawaiian fusion restaurant, Uncle Bo’s, and partied like it’s 1999 at Upstairs Waikiki, a Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii sponsored event.

    Day 5: Gay Flag Football National Champions Crowned and Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii Closing Celebration

    The San Francisco Seals began the day challenging the Washington, D.C., team for a spot in the national semi-finals. Despite their best efforts, the Seals could not seize the momentum gained from pool play and were eliminated from contention. No matter the result, both San Francisco teams competed hard, had a blast, and represented our city with great class and sportsmanship.

    After the final whistle, all the divisional champions were crowned, and wild celebrations took place, a large contingent of players naturally gravitated to the beach, especially after a long day of flag pulling, jousting, and rolling in the grass and dirt. Some of the San Francisco players, who shall remain nameless, lingered at the beach and frolicked in the water a little too long and were a tad late to the Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii Closing Ceremony at the Hawaii Convention Center.

    The open-air Closing Ceremony with downtown Honolulu in the backdrop, was a festive affair where players, friends both new and old, and foes gathered for an evening commemorating the great success of Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii. The evening was highlighted by Tihati Productions telling the story of various Pacific Island nations through beautiful and interpretive native dances and rituals.

    For most, the celebration poured over to Scarlet Honolulu for a final hurrah where midnight celebrations appropriately ended Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii.

    Day 6: Touring East Oahu

    After a whirlwind three days of tournament play, activities, and parties, it was time to wind down, pack up, and head home. Since my flight wasn’t until the late afternoon, I went for a scenic coastal drive on Kalaniana’ole Highway from East Honolulu to East Oahu before heading to the airport. My first stop was China Walls, a more “recent” green lava formation ending with a cliff or wall-like drop into the Pacific Ocean. China Walls is famous for unsurpassed colorful sunsets, and adventure thrillseekers cliff jumping into the vast waves of blue water.

    Next, just down the highway, I turned into the stunning Hanauma Bay, home to some of the best snorkeling on the island. Before heading down to the bay, I savored the breathtaking view from above at the Lookout. I didn’t have time to get in the water, but should you get the chance to snorkel here on a calm sunny day, you will be rewarded with scores of bright and colorful tropical fish swimming carefreely in and around the corrals.

    Further down Kalaniana’Ole Highway, I made several scenic view pitstops such as the Lana’i, the Halona Blowhole, and the Makapu’u Lookouts. The Halona Blowhole is a natural marine geyser drawing force and strength from the waves crashing into porous geological lava formations connecting to the Pacific. Near the Makapu’u Lookout, there are several short hiking trails that take you to several viewpoints, natural tidepools, and the Makapu’u Lighthouse.

    Alas, my brief but action-packed stay in Hawaii had come to an end. After a few hundred photos, I headed to the airport looking forward to going home.

    Final Thoughts

    Attending an LGBTQ+ sports national championship such as Gay Bowl XXII Hawaii was an amazing and “indescribable” experience as Spell so eloquently stated earlier. Joey Wittlake, another first-time San Francisco competitor at a Gay Bowl, offered great compliments and praise: “Everyone at the gay football nationals was so proud and dedicated and passionate about competing. It didn’t matter if they were LGBTQ+ or an ally like me, we all had the same common goals, to do well as a team, to compete well as an individual, to have fun, and to support, build, and grow the gay football community as a whole. Plus, [the tournament] was in Hawaii!”

    At the end of the trip, the competitive friendships and camaraderie formed can’t be understated. The excitement of being one of hundreds and thousands of passionate LGBTQ+ athletes evoked a great sense of pride and validation. The sportsmanship displayed outweighed any wins or losses, and the memories, the bond, the shared smiles and laughter last a lifetime.

    In the words of Davis, “Being a team captain and representing San Francisco on a national stage was so rewarding! It was amazing and fun to see so many gay athletes come together forging friendships and building a community. The Gay Bowl experience was truly magical! I can’t wait to do it all over again next year!”

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball, and football teams.

    Published on November 16, 2022