Football always has been a sport for every season — training camps in the spring and summer, critical games in the autumn air, playoffs on snow-covered turf.
Now it truly is a year-round event. With the emergence of indoor leagues for the winter and spring and the growing popularity of 7-on-7 passing camps, those passionate about the pigskin can get their fix just about any day of the year.
Participation in local 7-on-7 passing tournaments has increased dramatically over the past few years.
The Utah Youth Passing Championships in Draper has grown from 250 participants in 2010 to more than 1,300 this year. The recent UteShoot at the University of Utah draws approximately 1,800 high-school players every June.
High-school football season officially kicks off with the first day of camp July 29.
"It used to be football didn’t start until camp," said Mark Battaglia, an assistant coach at Jordan High and the coach of the Beetdiggers’ ninth-grade team at last week’s Utah Youth 7-on-7 Passing Championships in Draper. "You had a couple of kids going to the gym with their dads or going to the park. Now it’s nonstop.
"When you’re not practicing, you’re thinking about practicing and analyzing the kids you’ve got."
Added fellow Jordan assistant coach Mike Franz: "Literally, you’re off for six weeks and then it starts all over again."
The Draper City-run tournament was the third over a six-week span that included more than 110 teams of players ranging from fourth to ninth grade at Galena Park.
It’s the fourth year of the event, run by Alta assistant Dave Harrison, who has seen participation jump from about 250 players in 2010 to more than 1,300 this spring.
"It’s a great learning environment," Harrison said. "It’s fun to watch because it’s high intensity, high scoring, and the games are almost always close."
Harrison said the event is about twice the size of the most-participated tournament he has found outside the state, with the exception of Texas. Illinois runs a 7-on-7 with about 50 teams. The University of Utah’s UteShoot, which takes place annually in early June, drew 76 high-school teams in 2012.
The rules are simple — no helmets or pads, just cleats and matching jerseys. One-hand touch ends a play on the 30-yard field. Teams get three downs to move 10 yards and four plays to find the end zone inside the 10-yard line. And every play is a pass.
Rosters vary between groups who have played together for years in youth football — Harrison estimates up to 70 percent of the teams fit that category — and others with 12 to 14 players pulled together to play ball.
Jordan’s ninth-grade team played teams from Pleasant Grove, Bountiful, American Fork and Mountain Crest.
"We just go out and have some fun," said Alec Kener, an incoming freshman running back at Jordan. "But it helps with learning the plays before you get your pads on and play real games. You learn your routes and the quarterback knows where you’re going to be and what’s going to happen."
Battaglia said 7-on-7 tournaments are advantageous on several fronts.
"It gives the kids a chance to go against other teams instead of the same kids over and over again," he said. "It gives them a realistic look as to what they might face. It’s also a good opportunity to identify your depth."
The popularity of the Draper tournament, which might spawn an invitation-only event next year, and that of year-round football in general, could be another step toward wiping out multisport high-school athletes.
"A lot of these kids who do multiple sports are having to choose," Battaglia said. "We’ve got a lot of kids who aren’t here because they are still in baseball. It’s a challenge. You start crossing lines and having to pick what they can do. If you’re not here, you fall behind."
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