There’s a craze sweeping across the gridirons of America that combines the speed and precision of basketball with the pulse-pounding excitement of regulation football.
Dubbed 7-on-7 football, it’s an all-passing, minimal contact offshoot of the traditional game squeezed into a 40-yard playing surface (50 if you include a 10-yard end zone.)
The sport’s ability to combine the thrill of quarterbacks threading passes through tight spaces and receivers fighting for space, with a plethora of points on the scoreboard, has made 7-on-7 a can’t-miss spectacle, particularly on the high school circuit.
There are various versions of the game, ranging from summer passing leagues to club competitions.
The club circuit has taken off of-late nationwide. Leading the way is Pylon 7-on-7 Football, a training and development organization that hosts, among other things, national tournaments.
The chasm between club squads and traditional football teams has grown, with each competing for their players’ time.
Few know more about 7-on-7 football than Marana resident Toby Bourguet, who coaches Tucson Turf’s 15U and high school division club teams.
Bourguet has helped orchestrate his team’s meteoric rise at both age levels, winning 30 state, 16 regional and 31 national championships, as well as three NFL Flag Football titles and a Pylon National 7-on-7 Championship just last season.
Bourguet knows how stigmatized portions of the sport’s community are thanks to unrelenting streams of fistfights and bad behavior by teams far and wide on social media. He said it’s important for high school athletes to have the opportunity to showcase their talents against the best players nationwide, and that 7-on-7 provides a unique opportunity to do just that. The Pylon season begins in January, with national championships in June.
“The value for me is the fact that kids are doing extra in the offseason to hone their skills,” Bourguet said. “It’s a great way to work on route-running. It’s a great way to work for quarterbacks to work on everything as far as going through your progressions, your reads, your throws, your timing. I mean all these little variables that are involved in a team sport like football.”
Bourguet said that playing against teams from football hotbeds like California, Texas, Georgia and Florida gives players an opportunity to better themselves, all while representing Marana and the rest of Southern Arizona.
Despite what he sees as benefits to the program, Bourguet said he’s aware of the apprehension some high school and college coaches feel about the club scene. To prevent any tension between coaches, Bourguet said he makes sure to work with his players’ high school coaches to ensure they attend summer workouts and team activities.
“That’s the way we run it now, but we’re not every club in America,” he said. “These clubs in Texas and Florida, they’re practicing four or five times a week… we practiced once every couple of weeks. It’s just getting familiar with each other.”
High school coaches, like Canyon del Oro’s Dustin Peace, see the benefits that 7-on-7 can provide an athlete. For Peace, the issue revolves around the perils that come with an unregulated youth sports organization.
“My personal belief is you either got on board, or you’re not going to be around—it’s kind of like the old school has got to meet the new school to a degree,” he said. “Any time you involve money with parenthood, with coaches, with athletes in lieu of trying to get recognition for the next level, that’s just the recipe for bad things.”
Peace believes that 7-on-7 teams can coexist with traditional high school football, in similar fashion to how volleyball and beach volleyball operate. It’s basically the same sport at a different location with different rules.
“[7-on-7] is already kind of its own sport, but people try to connect it to football, but it really can’t be connected in any form or fashion,” Peace said.
According to Peace, the sport hasn’t been receiving widespread support from college coaches, with some even writing it off as a waste of time.
Pima Community College Assistant Coach John Carabajal feels that 7-on-7 serves a purpose in training players during the offseason, but that team members and their parents misunderstand its potential.
“I personally like 7-on-7 in the summer to develop kids, but don’t necessarily think recruits realize it’s not the type of film coaches want to see,” Carabajal said. “We want game film, preferably against quality opponents.”
Bourguet said he doesn’t enter his team into tournaments with the goal of getting them college offers or scholarships, but argues that their participation certainly helps them, both on and off the field.
“For people that say it doesn’t make sense to do this, that it doesn’t convert to tackle, they need to just watch game film,” Bourguet said. “I mean, it absolutely translates to tackle. Whether you’re the greatest, fastest, best kid on the field or you’re an average kid that just is using what you have, it converts, it helps you succeed.”
Perhaps no college coach has been a bigger critic of 7-on-7 than Stanford University’s David Shaw, who had harsh words for portions of the sport at a Nike coaches conference in 2016.
“7-on-7 is not football,” he said. “This is going to be my sixth year as a head coach, my 10th year at Stanford, and I’ve never watched a 7-on-7 film. I think it’s good, it’s good for guys to do it, especially if they do it with their teams. You know the other stuff, the travel teams, that’s fine, I guess. I like when they do it with their own teams, running their offense and getting used to each other.”
Bourguet takes exception to Shaw’s view of the club scene, arguing that playing the sport at any level during the offseason helps prepare you for the gauntlet of the regular season.
“They need to realize that 99 percent of skill players have played 7-on-7,” he said.“I’m not sitting here telling you that these kids or any kids are going to get recruited from 7-on-7, but to tell me that you think 7-on-7 is a negative thing or it’s just T-shirts and shorts and all that other garbage. That, to me, is ludicrous.”
The sport’s reputation locally wasn’t helped by an investigation by the Arizona Daily Star into Marana resident Steve Marshall last month for stealing money from the Marana Broncos youth football and Team 520 7-on-7 football teams.
Marshall, who operated the club team on a for-profit basis, whose facing claims of twice stealing money from the two organizations but has not been charged with a crime.
Some local athletes, like rising senior quarterback at Canyon del Oro Zach Eidenschink, see the sport as a possible distraction.
Eidenschink, who played for Marshall’s Team 520 squad in the past, believes 7-on-7 is great in theory, so long as it doesn’t distract from high school competition.
“I personally care about my high school team more than the club teams full of kids from a bunch of other schools,” Eidenschink said. “I think the club aspect is really cool, because I get to have relationships with other coaches and other players from other schools. You know, when we see each other on the field it’s nice to say ‘Hi,’ and ask how they’re doing and stuff like that. But, you’ve got have your priorities set.”
Bourguet said his operation is different from Marshall’s, charging $50 a month for the team’s “speed sessions,” or weekly practices, as well as uniforms and renting practice fields.
The players are responsible for covering nominal tournament fees, which are set by whoever hosts the event, as well as travel expenses. Bourguet also operates the team as a nonprofit under his Life Athletix banner, reporting a total revenue of $25,000 in the organization’s 2017 Nonprofit Report. No expenses or assets and liabilities are listed in the report.
The longtime club coach said the team’s revenues aren’t simple to calculate, depending on the distances traveled and the cost to enter each competition.
“Imagine a family trip when you’re taking 40 kids, and that’s what people have to understand,” he said. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘OK, you know, it’s 20 bucks a month. That covers everything.’ You can’t do that. It doesn’t make sense monetarily.”
Bourguet’s success with Tucson Turf has built a level of respect from players and coaches alike on the circuit, according to his eldest son, Trenton.
“This year we really saw going to nationals that people would come up to my dad and say like, ‘It was an honor playing us,’” Trenton said. “You would never know if we win or lose after a game because we react like we’ve been there before. We shake hands before and after, no matter what happens. And we just try to get better against the best competition we can for sure.”
The rising senior quarterback from Marana High School believes the team’s success stems from a camaraderie built through the sport.
The younger Bourguet was part of the first Tucson Turf youth team five years ago, one which included a cast of seventh and eighth graders that just wanted to play the game they loved.
“We ended up making our own team because there was another team that wouldn’t allow us to play since we were seventh graders,” Trenton said. “We just made our own team…we took nine players, went to Las Vegas and that was the first time we played 7-on-7. It was something we didn’t expect. We didn’t know it was going to be that big, and ever since then, it’s just gotten bigger and kept growing.”