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Coaching Girls on the Gridiron

Former Stanford QB John Paye brings pro plays to California’s newest high school sport.

December 2023

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John Paye surrounded by flag football players

OLD SCHOOL: Paye, a Menlo grad himself, says this first season is about playing “for the fun of it.”

Photography by Glenn Matsumura

When John Paye, ’87, attended a meeting at Menlo School last spring to gauge interest in California’s newly sanctioned high school sport of girls’ flag football, he noted the excitement and high turnout—30 girls, from a pool of about 200—and knew he wanted to coach the team. The former Cardinal quarterback and point guard also knew who should be at his side: his former San Francisco 49ers teammate Steve Young. 

In the fall of 1987, when Paye was a 49ers rookie, NFL players went on strike. That left him and fellow backup quarterback Young with a lot of free time. When the two stopped by Paye’s sister Kate’s basketball practice at Menlo one day, they got talked into coaching the team. Young went on to become a Hall of Fame quarterback, a broadcaster, and a private equity investor. Paye left the NFL after two years and his fourth shoulder surgery but continued coaching the Menlo Knights, leading Kate, ’95, JD/MBA ’03 (now the associate head coach for Stanford women’s basketball), and her teammates to three straight state division titles between 1989 and 1991. After stepping down in 1994 to start a family and build a real estate career, Paye returned to Menlo in 2008 and won another basketball title in 2019. 

Steve Young standing next to John PayeTEAMMATES: Young and Paye have played—and coached—together before.

Flag football crowns may be in the future, but this year Paye and Young, whose two daughters are on the team, are focused on teaching gridiron newbies how to shake defenders and connect with receivers in stride. The two have modified past 49er plays for flag football, which has seven players to a side and allows no blocking, tackling, or contact—a play ends when a flagged belt is yanked off the ball carrier. This year, it also has no leagues or standings. “It’s like old-school athletics where you play for the fun of it,” says Paye. “So many sports today are considered stepping stones to college scholarships, which puts stress on kids.” 

Even with 34 athletes crowding his sideline, Paye plays everyone. “He does a good job keeping a balance between firing us up and not being too intense,” says Paige Miller, a senior at Menlo. “He has a high bar, but he’s engaging and fun.”

Players aren’t the only ones fired up by this new sport. “I love teaching,” Paye says, “and I think it’s pretty neat that girls now have an opportunity to play football for their school.”


Kelli Anderson, ’84, is a writer in Sonoma, Calif. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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