Before his junior year of high school, Cam Newton traveled with an all-star team from Atlanta to New York, where Newton played in a 7-on-7 touch-football tournament and met former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason.
The games at Hofstra University put Newton on a national stage for the first time and the Panthers third-year quarterback has never really left.
That was my first sense of I thought I was pretty good at football, but at the same time it really opened my eyes to that football could take me many different places, Newton said.
Now Newton wants to give Charlotte-area players the same chance.
Newton will host a 7-on-7 tournament June 28-29 at Hough High in Cornelius. Newton and his father, Cecil, have staged a tournament the past two years in Atlanta, but this is their first one here.
A total of $5,000 in prize money will be distributed, including $2,500 for the winning team to use for football equipment. But Newton said that is not the emphasis.
Its not to take up monies for parents, coaches and schools, Newton said last week. Its to create an opportunity so these kids can come out and have an experience of a lifetime and say, I remember when I was in high school, I used to look forward to 7-on-7 tournaments and Cam Newtons 7-on-7 tournament.
The popularity of 7-on-7 tournaments which feature predominantly pass plays and include no linemen except a center snapping the ball has taken off in recent years. The spring and summer events are viewed as valuable practice vehicles for coaches and recruiting exposure opportunities for athletes.
They also have caught the eye of NCAA officials, who last year banned 7-on-7 tournaments on college campuses so that host schools Texas A&M and Alabama were among the biggest would not have an unfair recruiting advantage.
Schools can still host 7-on-7 camps, but tournaments staged by third-party organizers or scouting services must be held elsewhere.
Miller Safrit, a South Carolina-based recruiting editor for ESPN.com, said there is a distinction between 7-on-7 events involving high school teams and those involving all-star or travel squads.
I think the NCAA is a little leery of the all-star teams because it could very easily and were already seeing it turn into the football version of the AAU (basketball) circuit, where the coaches become handlers, Safrit said.
Its supposed to be about growth in football, Safrit added. I think people are worried about the people that are trying to grab on to these guys.
It is a class act
Hough athletics director Masanori Toguchi attended the two tournaments Newton held in Atlanta this month and came away impressed with the organization and Newtons involvement.
It is a class act. The focus is about kids. Giving kids an opportunity to compete and learn from Cams life lessons, Toguchi said. For Cam to be out there for four days meeting and greeting the kids, you cant expect more than that from a professional athlete.
During his two high school 7-on-7 events in Atlanta, Newton kept the clock, took pictures with the teams, helped pick an all-star team and talked with players about topics such as social media, gangs and bullying.
For the Charlotte tournament, Newton also has played the role of promoter. There were 13 teams registered as of Monday, including Charlotte Catholic and its Notre Dame-bound tailback Elijah Hood, Forestview from Gaston County and Nation Ford from Fort Mill, S.C.
Newton would like to have 18 or 20 teams, and issued a challenge for schools to sign up.
I know theres more than 13 schools in the Mecklenburg County system. Im trying to get each and every school that is considered a good school, Newton said in a phone interview. I want to see what Charlotte has to offer. To host an event of this magnitude, I need good participation.
Equipment money attractive
Part of the issue is an already-crowded 7-on-7 schedule. The Panthers will host their annual NFL-sponsored event Friday, and there is a big tournament this weekend at Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C.
Newton initially planned to send the winner of his event to a national tournament in Florida hosted by IMG, Newtons marketing agency. When scheduling conflicts prevented that, Newton dropped the entry fee from $650 to $350 per team.
The cost includes $70 worth of Under Armour gear for 20 players and four coaches.
Davidson Day was originally scheduled to play in Newtons tournament, but bowed out when its quarterback, Will Grier, was invited to the prestigious Elite Eleven quarterback camp in Oregon the same weekend.
Davidson Day coach Chad Grier, the players father, said the prize money at Newtons event could make things interesting.
All these high school coaches are looking for money for equipment and gear, Grier said. I imagine you get in those tournament games you might not be looking to play your sophomore and get him some reps. Youll probably keep your stud in the game.
That competitive aspect gets Newton excited.
My father used to always speak on not shying away from competition because competition brings out the best in everybody and it tells you a lot about a person, he said. Whether youre going to fold up tents and say, Nah, this aint for me, or are you going to grit your teeth and say, Lets get after it?