BRADENTON — Two-hand touch football.
For decades, it’s been a pastime enjoyed by youths and adults on playgrounds, neighborhood streets and even indoors in gymnasiums.
No pads or helmets required. Just run, turn around and catch.
How times have changed.
Now, it’s a recognized sport with its own governing body, officiating and a nationally televised championship game.
On June 22, IMG Academy hosted the fourth National 7v7 Football Association National Championships, an invite-only tournament with more than 50 teams from 13 states as well as Canada.
This year, Miami-based Florida Fire was crowned the national champion, defeating Unsigned Preps, a team from Tampa, with the game aired on Fox College Sports.
“You don’t have to have a 50-man roster and all the equipment that comes with that,” said Blake Ulrich, director of events for NFA7v7 and IMG Performance. “In some degree, here’s an aspect of a pickup game so kids around the country can play them very easily, not too dissimilar to a basketball court. That’s one element of it.
“The other element is the excitement of it. You can get 25, 30 or 40 points in a 25-minute game and that’s pretty exciting.”
While some play with their high school 7-on-7 teams at camps or state and regional tournaments, such as the Sling N’ Shoot hosted by the University of South Florida, through the NFA7v7, athletes can join a city-wide, county-wide or state-wide team to compete at the national level.
“Look at the South Florida Express,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. “They have a tryout. I was down there in January and there were 300 kids trying to make it on the two South Florida Express teams. It’s unbelievable.”
Camps, combines and showcases offer a chance to display and perfect skills. Where 7v7 differs is its platform of simulating the closest competitive atmosphere to tackle football.
In Bradenton, national and regional scouting services were in attendance to report on the top talent.
“The more legitimate events, the more opportunities you’re going to create for kids,” Newberg said. “7-on-7, I wouldn’t say it has been overnight, but its happening pretty quickly. For our industry and these kids, it gives them, and IMG in particular, a platform to showcase their skills and we write about what we see.
“It gives them exposure. Obviously (college) coaches can’t be here, which is unfortunate, but a lot of the stuff is shot in terms of video and writing about it. Thirty-six teams and 20 to 25 kids per team, that’s a lot of football players you get to see over the course of a weekend.”
Because the sport is relatively inexpensive to play and does not require a large number of athletes per team, Ulrich thinks it can go global.
“When you go into international countries that are looking to develop American football, they’re looking to get in on a grassroots level before they can build a 50- or 60-man roster. For them to start with 7v7 will only introduce American football further into other countries,” Ulrich said.
The National 7v7 Football Association also offers a national championship for middle schoolers under age 15. For the second straight year, NFA 7v7 offered a Future STARS division, which included 20 teams from four states and Washington D.C.
“As a mom, I like this better than pad ball because I feel like I don’t have to worry about the concussion aspect of football,” said Julie Worthy, whose son Joshua plays for the Blue Heat, a Future STARS 7v7 team from Jacksonville.
“My second-born got a concussion in a spring football game this year, so it’s been brought very close to home,” Worthy said. “I like this because it’s aggressive. I call it two-hand shove even though they call it two-hand touch because of all the boys and testosterone flowing. This is my favorite, as a mom.”
Team Tampa, comprised of some of the top players from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, played in the first three national championship games, winning titles in 2012 and 2013.
Team Tampa founder Woodrow Grady, whose son Josh starred at Armwood High as quarterback, assembled a 7-on-7 team four years ago that included Ramik Wilson and Andre Davis from Jefferson. Davis has become one of USF’s top receivers. Wilson, a linebacker at Georgia, is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.
Since then, Team Tampa rosters have included Tampa Bay products such as Nelson Agholor, now a receiver at USC, and Dante Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III and Matt Jones, all currently at Florida.
This year’s team features Armwood’s Byron Cowart, the No. 1-rated defensive end in the nation.
“The growth has been rapid,” Grady said. “It’s kind of taken a path of its own. For us, that means we don’t need to necessarily play in additional tournaments, but we need to validate the quality of tournaments we’re playing in.’’