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Adidas held what is considered the first 7-on-7 national football championship in 2007, and the sport has grown exponentially since. Over the last 10 years, scores of big-time corporate players got into the act, including every major athletic shoe company.
While 7-on-7 has become a common part of the high school football landscape, all-star 7-on-7 events still cause friction among high school coaches, players and event organizers. High school coaches don't want their sport to become like basketball, where AAU events hold more sway with elite recruits than their regular high school seasons and outside parties involved with spring and summer basketball have a major impact on recruiting.
This month, five players from St. Augustine (San Diego) were dismissed from the school's football team because they broke team rules by participating in all-star 7-on-7 events. After two team meetings, the players were allowed to return, but with penalties, including a suspension from the team's first fall game. Then, after discussions with parents, principal James Horne intervened and the penalties were lifted.
One of the four players initially dismissed was wide receiver-defensive back D.J. Justice, the son of former Major League Baseball All-Star David Justice.
"OK, they broke a team rule," David Justice said. "I played professional sports. I understand team rules. Make them clean your office, make them get a trash bag and clean up around the school. Make them run extra. But if you're saying, if they play 7-on-7, they won't be able to play their senior year, you put us in a predicament, because these schools could take away a son's future. The punishment doesn't fit the crime."
St. Augustine coach Richard Sanchez said his rule was there to prevent injury and the influence of outsiders who might not have his players' best interests at heart.
"I allow kids to do camps if it makes sense," Sanchez said. "But with these 7-on-7 teams, you're just letting people into the program to influence kids, and some of these people don't have an educational background. You want to protect your kids, and it's hard to protect them if you don't control the situation."
Sanchez said the scholarship opportunities for 7-on-7 are overblown.
"In the past, these guys who are playing 7-on-7 and get offers already have offers," he said. "These coaches don't look at film in 7-on-7."
College football coaches, per NCAA rules, are not allowed to attend 7-on-7 events. That does not prevent players from sending video to coaches, and the events are well attended by recruiting services.
St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) coach Roger Harriott said the all-star 7-on-7 teams can be divisive and effective.
"The truth is participants are procuring actual attention from college coaches by way of various media and recruiting sources that give detailed reports on individual performances," Harriott said via text message.
Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) coach Bruce Rollinson, initially against 7-on-7 all-star events, has changed his mind, with reservations.
"I was in that other camp for years," Rollinson said. "I would say, 'Don't do it. I'm against it. You'll get hurt and then you're going to want us to rehab you because your club coach doesn't have those facilities. You're spending money.' All those things that are still semi-wrong with it."
Then, about four years ago, Rollinson asked his players why they were going against his advice to play in the 7-on-7 events.
"The first answer every kid gave is, 'Coach, we get to play football on the weekends.' I thought about that, and I thought about myself. When I was in high school, I would play football, any day, any night, on the beach, on the street, if someone wanted to play. ... The No.2 reason was, maybe we could get some additional exposure, and No.3, they liked the gear they got. In essence, I couldn't fight this battle."
Two years ago, Rollinson began coaching his players in 7-on-7 events as a club team not affiliated with Mater Dei so they could compete as a unit against all-star teams.
"I became part of the parade," Rollinson said. "I've seen everything that's bad about it, but I'm just not going to fight that battle. Why should I be against a kid going out and playing football?"
The Midwest Boom, a 7-on-7 organization that operates in Chicago and St. Louis, won last year's NFA national championship at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) and the Pylon national title in Dallas. J.R. Niklos, a former NFL fullback and general manager of the Midwest Boom, said the group usually can win over high school coaches to the advantages of having their players play for an elite 7-on-7 team.
"We've invited coaches to come to our practice," Niklos said. "All of our coaches have coached in the pros or college, so there's a good résumé underneath us. Coaches may have their feelings prior, but then they see our practice, which is highly organized, with stations and individual and group periods. They see how structured it is and the elite level that is at our practices.
"It's not like AAU basketball or club soccer that can fully replace high school sports. We could never do that. It's 7-on-7 -- it's never going to replace high school football. We're a supplement."
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