TAMPA — Greg Windham remembers killing summer doldrums as a kid by throwing the football around with friends and rivals.
“Neighborhood football games,” he calls them.
He played quarterback, and had seven Mississippis or bananas to get rid of the ball. His teammates streaked down the street or a field or a playground, desperate to shed defenders and get open quickly.
He would play all day, for bragging rights.
Windham is now a young man playing high school football for King High and still spending his summers playing touch football — 7-on-7 as the craze is currently known — only now there are trips, trophies, money and maybe even college scholarships on the line.
“When I was younger growing up,” he says, “I never imagined those neighborhood games would become something like this.”
This summer, there has been a notable 7-on-7 tournament every weekend.
Some have featured all-stars from across the state, others have offered trophies to the winner, some have been sponsored by corporations and awarded trips to places like Dallas, Cleveland and Washington for the winners.
And maybe a first: last weekend, the Battle by the Beach 7-on-7 passing tournament doled out $10,000 to its winner, Miami Booker T. Washington, and $5,000 to runnerup Treasure Coast.
A newly-formed booster organization, the Red & Black Sports Club, raised the prize with a golf tournament and organized the football tournament to raise funds for local football programs in New Smyrna Beach. It is most likely the first tournament to offer a cash prize.
“We saw 7-on-7 growing in popularity,” said Mark Pernell, Red & Black’s president, so in the planning stages of the event it was decided a purse — to be awarded to the winner and runnerup booster club — would attract some of the state’s best teams, especially in these times of budget cuts.
“This is really going to help out the kids with shoes and other stuff,” winning coach Tim Harris told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “We’re in a budget situation. It’s tough for everybody right now. This is good for the kids, good for the school and good for the community.”
Plant, which fell one win short of making the final and adding to its ample coffers, and Lakewood participated. Nationally ranked Armwood was originally interested but decided against it, since a hotel stay would be required. Coach Sean Callahan said the whole idea of playing for money was a concern as well.
“That was a big red flag for us,” he said. “It didn’t seem right. Where are we going next with all this stuff?”
In 1998, then-USF offensive coordinator Mike Canales is credited with bringing the competitive 7-on-7 concept to the Southeast when he organized the first Sling-N-Shoot tournament.
He saw it as an opportunity to build a bridge to the local football community, as well as to boost the young program’s recruiting efforts.
The tournament started with eight teams and grew to as many as 72, and as the number of entries grew, so did the number of top players coming to USF’s campus.
“Legally you’re not allowed to offer anyone on the spot, but it helped identify kids you want to evaluate,” Canales said. “And you got to see seniors, but also upcoming juniors and sophomores. It was a great recruiting tool.”
Because college coaches cannot have in-person contact with players during summer’s quiet period unless it takes place on campus it was the ideal setup, and many colleges have followed suit.
Freedom quarterback Jon Economou recently played for an all-star team at IMG.
He led Team Tampa to a runnerup finish and hopes it helps lead to his first college offer, though no colleges were in attendance.
“I feel like when I went to IMG, I was able to talk to a lot of reporters at ESPN and Rivals and 247Sports,” he said. “That helps me, I think, because they are guys on a first-name basis with college coaches.”
That’s true, says ESPN recruiting analyst Corey Long, but the rest is up to Economou.
“I don’t think anyone gets a scholarship as a result of playing well in a 7-on-7 tournament,’’ he said. “However, in quite a few cases it does lead to increased media coverage, which leads to increased visibility.’’
All-star events have come under more intense scrutiny since Baron Flenory and his company, New Level Athletics, were alleged in the spring to have been paid by Oregon for recruiting services.
That wasn’t the only bad press the nonscholastic all-star 7-on-7 circuit, which takes place away from both high school and college coaches, garnered. ESPN did a report that showed hand-selected players partying on a yacht, and fears abound that the all-star setup could take the high school game the route AAU has taken basketball.
Plant coach Robert Weiner won’t let his players compete in all-star settings he is unfamiliar with. Callahan said he too would prefer his players not get caught up in the all-star web.
He made an exception for Team Tampa, which had a handful of his players competing recently at the Badger Sports and IMG events, because he has a good relationship with team organizer Josh Newberg of 247Sports and the team was coached by Woodrow Grady, former quarterback Josh Grady’s father.
“Otherwise,” he says, “our kids are not going to be a part of that.”
The Southeastern Conference recently decided to ban nonscholastic 7-on-7 events from their campuses, and are proposing others follow suit.
Clearly, the popularity of 7-on-7 has exploded to a new level this year. The benefits of that explosion are still under debate.
“It’s like putting together a puzzle,’’ Long said. “7-on-7 is a very small piece. The bigger pieces take place in the camps at Alabama or Florida State or Auburn. That’s when the decisionmakers get an opportunity to get a look at the player and the person.
“But 7-on-7 tournaments are a lot of fun to watch, and they give me a good idea of a player’s competitive spirit and some of his tools as a football player.”
The exposure may be an added benefit for scholarship-hungry players, but the payoff for local coaches is additional practice and competition for their quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs, which they hope pays off in the fall.
For guys like Windham, it beats grinding away in the weight room all summer.
“Recruiting-wise, I guess it helped out a little, getting your name out there,” he said. “But I like it because I’m getting reps with my teammates, traveling, becoming closer as a team. I’m not going to lie, it’s fun hanging out with my buddies every day and working out and throwing the football.”
Just like it was back in the neighborhood.
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