When former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson started the 1925 Productions 7-on-7 team last year, he had a vision of helping student-athletes who were not being recognized by college scouts.
One year later, aided by a couple of late high-profile additions, Johnson's group of what were initially low-profile players won the New Level Athletics 7on7 national championship.
With the loss of three players just before heading to Dallas for the championship, Johnson knew he had to add some major talent to compete for the trophy. Adding ESPNU150 defensive backs Shaq Thompson (Sacramento, Calif./Grant) and Tee Shepard (Fresno, Calif./Central) as well as Notre Dame commit Deontay Greenberry (Fresno, Calif./Washington Union), Johnson had a starting group that could play with anybody in the country.
"We were going to do the New York Yankee and Dallas Cowboy thing," said Johnson, aluding to getting the best talent available in the area. "We are an all-dtar team that is pretty good and can learn some technique under Brian Kelly, an 11-year veteran and Super Bowl champion in the NFL."
The leadership Johnson and Kelly showed on the field throughout the tournament carries through off the field for team 1925 as each of them adds interest from more schools.
"Whatever advice they need or their parents need, me and Brian try to give them the proper advice when it comes down to these schools and these universities to make," Johnson said. "Hopefully they take that information, they process it, and they become better people behind that and they can now ask the right question of the college coaches."
For Johnson and his 1925 staff, the championship is a culmination of hard work over the past year, but they understand right now is simply groundwork for the ultimate goal -- a college scholarship and education for each of the 18 members of what is now a championship squad.
Payton's place could be anywhere
A breaking story heading into the event surrounded ESPNU 150 WR Jordan Payton (Westlake Village, Calif./Oaks Christian), who decided to decommit from USC and reopen his recruiting process with what he termed a blank slate.
"They wanted me to come out and say that I'm only USC, but I couldn't do that at the moment," Payton said. "I wanted to explore all of my options and make sure that was the best fit. I know they have a lack of scholarships with only 15 per year."
Payton said he felt that by letting USC know he could not make that full commitment they could also explore their options with so few numbers available to sign after NCAA regulations hit the program.
As a member of 1925, Payton's access to Johnson, a former two-time All-American at USC, actually helped him during the decision to end his six-month commitment to the Trojans.
"I just told him that USC is not for everybody," said Johnson, who added that schools are going through him first so Payton can understand the questions a little better. "I told him that he needs to go where he and his family feel comfortable. If it's not the right fit, then don't do it. "
Looking at how USC did or did not fit him and his family, Payton added that he would be lying if he said the NCAA sanctions limiting scholarships was not an issue when deciding to decommit.
"You want to go to a team that wants to win, and lack of depth in the Pac-12, that's an issue," Payton said. "It wasn't a major issue, but it definitely was an issue."
Now without a leader, Payton said he does have an idea of schools that could be leaders listing Michigan, California, Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma as continders for postseason official visits.
For now, fresh off a victory in the New Level 7on7 national tournament, Payton plans to take a bit of a respite from recruiting as his senior season starts soon at Oaks Christian.
Anything but goons
The stories written about New Level Athletics co-owner Baron Flenory this spring certainly caught the recruiting world ablaze, but ask Flenory about his Goon Squad, the team pieced together by Flenory himself, and the first things he talks about is how his has mandatory volunteer work at each event.
Days before the Alabama passing tournament was to take place in Tuscaloosa, tornados ravaged the college town. Flenory and fellow co-owner Kashaan Simmons acted quickly to move the event to Samford, Ala., and during the tournament, Flenory and his Goon Squad wanted to help pick up some of the damage that hit nearby Pratt City.
"All of our guys, it wasn"t just myself wanting to chip in and Kashaan wanting to chip in, but all of the guys said we have to do this," Flenory said. "We said there was no way we could be somewhere people have been affected and we are playing football and not giving anything back. It has kind of become our thing."
In Dallas, after the first of two days in triple-digit heat, the Goon Squad volunteered their time by helping to pack clothes at a local shelter to aid homeless tornado victims in Joplin, Mo.
"After Tuscaloosa, once we started to put the team together for this event, it was a given. Then Joplin hit and we had an opportunity to bag clothes at the North Texas Volunteer Center," he said. "In two hours-worth of work, our group put together more bags than they had anticipated and they had to get racks and racks and racks. So it was awesome; they got there and went to work for a cause."
That feeling of purpose hit the players as they posed for pictures with staff members and helpers after they finished for the day.
"We feel that as blessed as we are, we should give back to the people around us," said Auburn commit Zeke Pike, the Goon Squad quarterback from Fort Mitchell (Ky.) Dixie Heights. "A lot of young kids and families look up to us, so we just want to give back because we know that this is more than just football."
Dedication to the team must come naturally for all Goon Squad members as Darrion Hutcherson (Dadeville, Ala./Dadeville), all 6-foot-7 of him, rode 12 hours on a Greyhound to play in the two-day event.
"I never flew before and I was afraid a little bit, but I said forget that," he said with a laugh. "It was horrible. I fit in the seat because I had two seats on my side and two seats on the other side of the aisle and I just stretched out. I slept just about the whole way up here."
Hutcherson, an Auburn tight end commit, said he was recognized several times during the many stops on his venture to Texas.
"Some people knew me from somewhere." he said. "I was wearing an Auburn shirt and one dude walked up to me and was like 'Are you Darrion Hutcherson?' And when I got into Mississippi a few people asked me where I was going and why I was going to Dallas, then they said I looked familiar."
The trip took Hutcherson to stops in Arkansas, Mississippi, Memphis. Once in Dallas, he was able to get more time with Pike. The two met on a previous trip to Auburn, but they already have a great relationship.
"It's cool and it's definitely given us some bonding time," said Hutcherson, who added that the two are rooming together for this camp and expect to be roommates at Auburn.
Added Pike: "Darrion and I feel like this 2012 class at Auburn is ours, and we're working to finish this class."
Lewis visits his future home
Living in California, Robert Lewis (South Gate, Calif./Spencer) is certainly used to the heat. However, the first summertime visit to Dallas for the four-star SMU commit opened his eyes on what is to come.
"I've got to get use to it," Lewis said. "It was 90 when I left Los Angeles, but when we stepped off the plane I just felt it."
Playing on the turf field at Gerald Ford Stadium, Lewis knows he has to talk to the SMU coaches soon to get some pointers on how to get around that heat.
"The last game, my feet were just burning up," he said. "But I just love this place. It was my first offer, the academics were great, and the offense fits me perfectly."
After committing to the Mustangs soon after picking up that offer, Lewis earned more scholarships from Oregon and Ole Miss. Though he remains strong in saying he is firm to SMU, Lewis does plan to take all five of his allowed official visits this fall.
"I know I will at least visit SMU, Oregon, Ole Miss Colorado, and I am not sure about where I'll go for that fifth visit," Lewis said.
The Wolverine wants to be a Cardinal
Wearing an X-Men shirt for much of his non-playing time, Trent Corney could easily audition for the part of Wolverine. Corney, a 6-3, 240 pound jumbo athlete, participated in his third New Level event but he is also a national title holder of the javelin in Canada.
Corney, a rising senior at Thousand Islands Secondary School in Ottawa, Canada, started off playing hockey, "much like all other Canadians," he said. "Then I did track and field and kept getting bigger so I realized I could try football."
Growing up watching NFL and college football, Corney fell in love with the game and after playing running back he decided to try to make the jump to America to land a scholarship playing in college. The only problem was that he had nobody to learn from.
"I knew I had to go to camp and learn how to play the game," he said.
Corney stood out at both the Rutgers and Pittsburgh New Level Athletics 7on7 passing camps, but due to his school exams continuing through the end of June, he could not visit any college camps to work out for a scholarship.
"I am still talking with about 10 schools, like Pittsburgh, Stanford, Rutgers, Buffalo, and Boston College a little, but I am not sure how interested they are in me," he said, adding that his dream is to play for the Cardinal.
The potential is obvious as the track numbers show with consistent 10.8 100 meter times, even dipping down to 10.65 seconds. "But that was wind aided," Corney added.
Corney also set the Ottowa record for his age in the javelin throw at 70 meters, continues to work on his team's 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams.
Still, his heart is with football, so Corney plans to put Canada behind him and transfer to Red Line Christian Academy in Delaware this August with hopes to attract any school that has an academic focus first.
"I am not like most players that wants to play at the big-time schools. I wouldn"t survive in the heat and it would not fit my personality," he said. "I prefer a place with stricter academic regimen and where I can be low key."
Youth is served
Many of the younger players at the New Level passing tournament stood out, but few had nearly the impact on his team like that of Jalen Tabor, a rising sophomore cornerback at Collegiate Academy in Washington, D.C., who already holds four verbal offers.
"So far Clemson, Tennessee, NC State, and Maryland offered me, and I think Rutgers is really close," said Tabor, who credited high school teammate Eddie Goldman, who's No. 2 in the ESPNU150, for much of his early success.
"It has been very nice to have so many colleges come through the school and see me on film while watching Eddie," Tabor said. "He was able to get a lot of pressure up front for me to get a lot of easy interceptions."
Tabor is also learning from the accolades and attention received by Goldman to this point and, with the help of his mother, he hopes to have a less adventurous recruitment.
"I just want everything for me to be low key," he said. "Eddie changed his phone number so everybody is trying to hit me up on Facebook to get in touch with him. I just know to keep everything in front of me."
• Jeremy Liggins (Oxford, Miss./Lafayette) is setting up his official visits and lists LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State as his top four. After being recruited as an athlete as a sophomore year, Liggins notes that all four schools are now completely recruiting him as a quarterback.
• Shaq Thompson, a member of the ESPNU 150 and the No. 3 safety in the class of 2012, said that playing in the heat of Dallas reinforced his wish to play closer to home for college. Hoping to stay at most eight hours away from home, a number that does include the Los Angeles schools. Thompson said his top five are Washington, Cal, USC, UCLA, and Notre Dame. Though all five are talking to him about safety, he does hope to play some wide receiver in college.
• After picking up 17 offers, wide receiver Jason Croom (Norcross, Ga./Norcross) is now down to just Tennessee and Misissippi State. "I love the academics and they have good pograms," he said, adding that he plans to major in communications." Croom plans to announce August 18 -- the date of his school's first game of the season.
• Dennis Norfleet (Detroit, Mich./Martin Luther King) was a do-it-all performer at running back, carrying his Max Ex A squad to the semifinals with many impressive performances over the two days. With offers from Michigan State, Tennessee, and Cincinnatti, Norfleet cites his 7on7 coach, Curtis Blackwell, some help with picking up the offers as early as he did. "I think the offers would have come at some point, but he helped a lot," Norfleet said. "After I put on a show at one of the tournaments, I came home and the Tennessee coaches called with an offer."
• Wide receiver Mike Henry (Flint, Mich./Northwestern-Edison), one of the top performers for Michigan Elite, committed to Western Michigan last week.