‘THE NEW WAVE’

7-on-7 football is fast-paced, unregulated and growing in popularity. But critics — including many high school coaches — see a game vulnerable to the same problems facing AAU basketball.
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Photos by Edmund D. Fountain

It’s 3 a.m. in Beaumont, Tex., 260 miles from a tournament that starts just eight hours from now, and Fast Houston, a 7-on-7 football team, can’t find one of its players.

The team is traveling in two 15-seat vans and three trailing cars, and inside the first van, tired high schoolers listen to rap music blasting from the speakers, sitting around a pile of pizza and burgers. They had been on the road from Houston for three hours on this early Saturday morning in late April, headed to Mandeville, La., about an hour north of New Orleans. But now they had pulled to a stop, their headlights illuminating an otherwise pitch-black neighborhood.

“We’re here to get T-Brown,” said Ro Simon Jr., the founder, director and head coach of Fast Houston. “Vick, c’mon, you got to get him.”

They were there to pick up four-star recruit Tamauzia Brown, but there was a problem: He hadn’t given them his exact address, only a general neighborhood location, and now, having probably fallen asleep, wasn’t responding to any calls or texts.

That left assistant coach Vick Machado with the task of knocking on doors in the middle of the night, hoping to find the correct home.

“I’m going to get shot if I go out there,” said Machado. “ ‘I’m here to pick up a kid, hopefully this is the right house.’ I’m in an Alabama jacket. It’s 3 a.m. No, I don’t want to go out there!”

He was on his way up to the first house when one of his players, Dwight McGlothern of New Caney, Tex., shouted a warning: “Dog! Vick, dog!”

Machado paused before hearing the teenage boys laughing in the van — relieved it was just a joke and not something more serious.

This late-night scene is an example of life in the often chaotic, largely unregulated and increasingly popular and scrutinized world of 7-on-7 football — an all-passing, noncontact game played during the offseason by all-star teams looking to sharpen skills and gain exposure to college recruiters. The 2018 season unofficially culminates the weekend of June 16 with a pair of national events. Fast Houston will attend the Pylon 7-on-7 national championships, where the final will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

Supporters of 7-on-7 bill it as an opportunity for players to increase their chances of earning scholarship offers. Its critics say it has the potential to be affected by many of the same issues that have plagued AAU basketball, an influential exhibition circuit that has garnered negative publicity in the past year amid an FBI probe into recruits receiving money and other benefits disallowed under NCAA rules.

Fast Houston is representative of 7-on-7’s rise in popularity, which has been most significant in California, South Florida and Texas but has reached most other areas of the country. The team is sponsored by the apparel company Adidas (which has been named in the FBI’s basketball investigation), features several highly rated prospects on its roster and regularly posts professional-quality highlight tapes of players on its Twitter account.

It has also drawn the ire of many of the state’s high school football coaches, most notably after new Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher paid Simon a visit last December in one of his first acts on the job.

Back in Beaumont, Machado guessed right on the first house to retrieve Brown, and finally, as the clock neared 10:30 a.m., Fast Houston pulled into Mandeville’s Pelican Park for a tournament hosted by a local 7-on-7 team, the Louisiana Bootleggers. As Machado parked the van, he turned his head from the driver’s seat to address the team.

“When you walk out, you walk out with a swagger because we are dem boys,” said Machado, finally reaching for the dial to turn down the music. “Let’s run this [expletive] up boys, let’s run this [expletive] up. Let’s show these boys in Louisiana how we get down in Texas.”

Fast Houston players warmed up before the Bootleggers Invitational 7-on-7 football tournament in Mandeville, La.

The rules of 7-on-7 are simple: Games are 20 minutes, with seven players on each side of the ball, starting at each team’s 40-yard line. There is no tackling, there are no linemen, and players dress in skintight shirts and shorts with soft-shell headgear. Quarterbacks have only four seconds to throw to a receiver, while defenders match up with pass-catchers in coverage, putting each athlete to the test in one-on-one scenarios.

“I mean, it is beautiful,” Simon said. “It is all fundamentals, it is all skills. They’re working on skills against good competition. It is football.”

The varying opinions on 7-on-7, however, are more complicated, with critics — often while making the AAU comparison — primarily pointing to two factors as being problematic: a “me-first” culture that promotes individual players far more than high school football’s traditional team-first approach, and an increased influence of some 7-on-7 coaches in the college recruitment of top players.

Another factor that raises eyebrows is the involvement of apparel companies. Adidas, Under Armour and Battle provide equipment to select teams, while Adidas runs some of its own events, such as the Adidas 7-on-7 National Championships. But many say the comparison of apparel companies’ role in 7-on-7 to that in AAU basketball, which has been scrutinized amid the FBI’s investigation, is unfair.

“The basketball side is what is being investigated in terms of money being exchanged and stuff, but there is no money in football. Guys got to go play three or four years in college football to even have a chance [at the NFL], and it is not going to be a smart thing to do,” said Simon, adding that doing so would be against NCAA rules. “I talk to guys with grass roots and Adidas, and they are always like, ‘Let the [players] know whatever they are doing in basketball, they are not doing with the football side.’ It is two different games.”

Ro Simon Jr. is Fast Houston’s founder, director and head coach.
Simon went over plays with his team at the Bootleggers Invitational.
LEFT: Ro Simon Jr. is Fast Houston’s founder, director and head coach. RIGHT: Simon went over plays with his team at the Bootleggers Invitational.

Still, the rise of 7-on-7 from a fringe game to a sport with participation numbers that have skyrocketed in recent years (players as young as middle school age participate) has nonetheless caused consternation. This is particularly true among high school coaches, some of whom stand to lose influence over their players’ offseason regimens and recruitment processes.

“There are too many people out there with ulterior motives, and we are trying to keep that element out,” said Rockwall (Texas) Coach Rodney Webb. “The issue is that college coaches and high school coaches have to work together, and if college coaches are going to give [7-on-7 coaches] a microphone and a platform, then heaven help us.”

That’s what happened last December when Simon received a visit from Fisher, shortly after accepting the Texas A&M job following his eight years at Florida State. The two posed for a photo that was posted to Twitter — four months after Simon was photographed with Texas Coach Tom Herman — to the chagrin of some high school coaches, who viewed it as legitimizing 7-on-7. The executive director of the state’s high school coaches association has referred to 7-on-7 as “the front door to street agents,” and Louisiana’s is voting next January on a proposed ban on all 7-on-7 competitions.

Brice Brown, head coach at Karr High in New Orleans, has a policy that none of his players are allowed to play all-star 7-on-7. He wants his players to have more accountability to their high school teammates during the summer and said that the easy access for college coaches to high school game footage means that players don’t need 7-on-7 to attract recruiting attention.

Jimmy Smith, the head coach of the Bootleggers, said there is another reason behind the negativity: 7-on-7 is predominantly made up of black players and features a majority of black coaches. Moreover, it often puts on display what some refer to as a “me-first” attitude, with tournaments such as the one in Louisiana featuring plenty of trash talk and boisterous celebrations, in a sport that traditionally values the team above the individual.

Smith, who is white, said there are often underlying racial tones to criticism of 7-on-7, reflecting a sentiment frequently cited among those in the sport.

“I think ‘culture’ is what I hear people say,” said Smith. “But I honestly think the ‘culture’ is more of a race divide that I’ve noticed and it’s almost a sly, slick way to say it.

“They also say, ‘Oh, we don’t want it to become AAU basketball, we don’t want it to become like AAU.’ [That’s] another predominantly black circuit. Let’s call it what it is, but nobody wants to.”

For his part, Simon has been able to use his relative young age, 30, as an advantage in relating to his players and recruiting them to his team. His marketing tools, including the elaborate highlight tapes and player promotions he posts to Twitter, have allowed him to gain a bigger reach and create excitement around his team. He has something of a big-brotherly influence over his players, whom he allowed to stay in his apartment playing Madden ’18 and NBA 2K for hours before their trip to Mandeville.

“Playing for Fast Houston is like no other,” said Marques Caldwell, a defensive back committed to Oregon who recently received an offer from Texas. “Everybody on the team bonds, crack jokes, but whenever it’s time for us to get our minds focused and play, we do whatever it takes to win.

“Coach Ro is a class act. He cares about us, goes out his way to put together the best team in the nation, and we expect nothing less.”

Fast Houston’s Robert Turner lost his headgear during a play. There is no tackling in 7-on-7.

Back on the fields at Pelican Park, Fast Houston wide receiver Dee Winters, a three-star prospect out of Burton, Tex., leaped over Bootleggers five-star cornerback Derek Stingley in the end zone, hauling in a touchdown over his outstretched fingertips.

Winters’s teammates rushed the field, their flashy black-and-white Adidas gear and gold-and-silver cleats whizzing past as the sideline emptied to hooting and hollering. Then came the celebratory back flips and back-and-forth trash-talking jabs among the teenage boys.

More than just bragging rights were on the line. Even though his team would go on to lose in the tournament’s semifinals and the NCAA prohibits members of college coaching staffs from attending nonscholastic 7-on-7 competitions, Winters, a 6-foot-1, 192-pound junior who verbally committed to TCU in January, knew that plenty of people, including college coaches, would see his catch later on Twitter.

“There are guys that I’ve watched on 7-on-7 that I go, ‘Wow,’ ” said Todd Graham, Arizona State’s head coach from 2012 to 2017. “Obviously, we want to watch a guy with pads on and playing the game and all of that stuff, but I have had kids that I’ve seen very minimal film on that I’ve watched in a 7-on-7 tournament and no doubt I thought I would offer him off that.”

Three years ago, Graham felt differently. He didn’t like the idea of 7-on-7 coaches invading the “sacred” space of the high school coach, having to build relationships with 7-on-7 directors to recruit players.

A ball was inflated at the Bootleggers Invitational.
Adidas provided shoes for Fast Houston.
LEFT: A ball was inflated at the Bootleggers Invitational. RIGHT: Adidas provided shoes for Fast Houston.

But as 7-on-7 gained momentum, Graham, a former head coach at Texas football powerhouse Allen High, started to understand the shift he needed to make to stay atop the recruiting game.

“If you want to recruit the elite player, you have to be involved in it,” Graham said. “You have to know the powers in all-star 7-on-7, whether you like it or not.”

Stanford’s David Shaw is among the college coaches who have spoken out publicly against it. In 2016, Shaw said a player’s performance in 7-on-7 means nothing to him.

“I will also never ever, ever have a recruiting conversation with a 7-on-7 coach,” Shaw said. “I talk to high school coaches, counselors and parents.”

But the views of Graham, Fisher and other coaches have reaffirmed the growing influence of Simon and his fellow 7-on-7 coaches.

“It is the new wave,” Simon said. “Some don’t like it at all and they never will, but 7-on- 7 won’t go anywhere; 7-on-7 is here to stay.”

With the tournament over, the Fast Houston players made their way to the parking lot, looking unburdened by the high stakes of college football recruiting. They slung backpacks over their shoulders, opened Snapchats and looked through highlight videos posted to Twitter throughout the day. Then they plugged the aux cord into the van’s dashboard, blasted rap music at full volume and settled in for a long drive back to Texas.

Fast Houston’s Xavion Alford (4) and Dee Winters (15) chased a receiver at the Bootleggers Invitational.
Credits: Story by Samantha Pell. Photos by Edmund D. Fountain. Designed by Brianna Schroer.