In 1965, the first All-Star game for high school athletes took place in Pittsburgh, of all places. It was called the Dapper Dan Classic, and its organizer feared a spectacular failure after the nation's no. 1 recruit that year, Lew Alcindor, refused to play headliner. But then, when the curtains went up on game night, the man walked around Civic Arena in disbelief. A packed house.
Later, that man pitched a bad shoe to a new shoe company, and the rest is shoe history. Phil Knight told Sonny Vaccaro that he didn't care for his shoe—a sandal/sneaker hybrid—but that he liked his enthusiasm, and needed someone to help his company, Nike, break into basketball.
Overnight, Sonny brought Nike products all over the country, supplying college teams with free gear in exchange for exposure. Later, Sonny brought Michael Jordan back to Nike and staked his career on the kid from North Carolina.
But despite all that, Vaccaro's most enduring legacy isn't Michael Jordan and college teams wearing Nike or the Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh; it's the fusion of all those things.
In 1984, Vaccaro started a basketball tradition that would come to transform high school, college, and even pro basketball. Using his own connections on the recruiting trail and Nike's brand as a lure for talent, he birthed Nike's ABCD Camp, a showcase for the best high school basketball players in the country that ultimately served as a pipeline into the biggest college programs in the country, and later, the NBA.
And of course, they all wore Nike's newest basketball products, marrying Vaccaro's marketing interests with those of America's brightest basketball stars. Nike gave stars a chance to promote themselves, and Nike promoted itself to the amateur stars who would later be marketing juggernauts. It's a concept that made Vaccaro's career, and makes his name polarizing to this day.
Now, more than 25 years later, Nike's spending millions to recreate the model with football.
I arrived at Nike headquarters on Thursday. When the lady at the front desk of the Tiger Woods building asked me, "How can I help you?" I mumbled. "I'm here for... Uh... I'm media?" I wasn't sure exactly why I was there. I'd been lured out to Beaverton, Oregon with the promise of expenses paid (courtesy of Nike), and some interview time with a handful of NFL stars. Apparently there was also some sort of high school football tournament going on, as well.
Mostly, this was an opportunity to see Nike's empire up close. On that front, when the lady at desk dispatched me to a room upstairs, I wandered around the Tiger Woods building with the look of a fifth grader on a school trip to New York City. Everything at Nike is named after athletes. You have the Tiger Woods building here, the Mia Hamm building there. Next to Mia, the Ken Griffey building. Way off in the distance, the Bo Jackson building. And then Lance Armstrong. And so on.
Everywhere you walk, there is a reminder the company's insanely healthy. In a literal sense—everyone's thin and athletic, nobody smokes—and the economic sense. No corporation that looks this perfect could ever be struggling financially. The National Mall isn't this well manicured.
Anyway, after the shock wore off and my meandering journey around Nike concluded, it was back to the Tiger Woods building, where 150 of the best high school football players in the country were being introduced on an auditorium stage. Back in 1984, when Sonny Vaccaro was running his first Nike camp, this part of the process was probably pretty mundane.
But in 2011, Nike has the money to make anything into a spectacle. So instead of a few guys splitting up names and positions in a back room, there was a booming intro video starring an NFL superstar, a DJ booth on stage and a thumping bassline underlining the announcements. Instead of randomly breaking up names and positions, NFL players and big-name high school coaches drafted the players based on the previous two days' of training. This is when the scale of the camp became clear, and my crash course in the future of amateur football got started.
Much like the NFL Draft has evolved from a humdrum NFL procedure into a spectacle all its own, the show on Thursday night seemed more like a concert than a football camp.
For Team "Vapor Carbon," top-five 2011 draft pick Patrick Peterson spotted the best cornerbacks while George Whitfield, the QB guru credited with training Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton, took the best quaterback at the camp, BYU-bound Tanner Magnum.
The team names felt like a throwback to Nickelodeon's Legends of the Hidden Temple, only instead of the Red Jaguars, Blue Barracudas, Green Monkeys, and Orange Iguanas, we had Team Land Sharks, Team Field Generals, Team Alpha Speed, Team Alpha Talon, and more.
Everybody wore different colors of Nike's hi-tech football gear, but even so, it was pretty much impossible to tell them apart. The players didn't help much, either. For instance, there was a Deon, a Deontay, and a Deon-Tay, a De'van, a De'vante, a Devante, a Davonte', and a Devontre'.
To recruiting experts on hand, the differences between the teams and players must have been obvious. But to a regular football fan, they all merged into this amalgam of speed and strength that left them mostly indistinguishable from the NFL players drafting them. Already, these guys are working with gifts that the rest of us will never even imagine, poised to infiltrate the upper crust of D-1 college football next year. Between team announcements, players were standing up and shouting out their college choices. One player threw up The U, another yelled "BOOMER!", and another did the Gator chomp.
Then the announcements that felt like a concert finally finished, and thanks to Nike, an actual concert broke out, and suddenly rapper Ace Hood asked, "How many of y'all hustle hard on that field?"
All this was before any actual football games were played. The next day, the games began, and I got my first look at the 7-on-7 phenomenon that's rehsaping high school football offseasons, and by extension, college football recruiting. The parallels to hoops are undeniable.
Where the AAU circuit allows individuals to shine on a basketball court away from the constraints of a high school offenses, the 7-on-7 format exaggerates that dynamic. Football inherently downplays the individual even more than high school basketball; a game of 7-on-7 highlights individual skill players even more than AAU basketball. Instead of attending team camps and glorified scouting combines, players actually get to compete.
Earlier this summer, Sports Illustrated wrote, "...it's no longer a question of if youth football will mirror youth basketball. It's a question of when. At some point in the next few years, the experience of an elite skill position player will be almost identical to the experience of an elite point guard or power forward." These days, in addition to their high school teams, players spend their summers traveling with 7-on-7 teams that look a lot like AAU football teams.
If the parallels seem at all tenuous, The Opening erases any doubts. College football's slowly developing its own version of the AAU circuit. During the same week when Nike staged the LeBron James Camp for top high school basketball talent in Akron, Ohio, top high school football talent was flown in from all over the country to showcase their skills in front of ESPNU and reporters like me.
They even included offensive and defensive linemen who, unable to participate in 7-on-7, spent the week battling in the trenches coached by guys like Russell Okung and Ndamukong Suh, young NFL superstars who, five years ago, never would have dreamed of a camp like this.
It's not a bad deal for everyone involved. In exchange for access to the best high school football players in the country, Nike provides a platform that's unlike anything else in high school football. Here, players get exposed to the best talent the country has to offer, they get coaching from paid experts like George Whitfield, and spend their downtime hanging out with pros like Suh, Peterson, and Ravens running back Ray Rice. So, basically, the coolest summer camp of all time.
Nike makes the most of the exposure, too. The players lounge in Beaverton included at least 12 big screen TVs, all equipped with PlayStation 3s and advance copies of EA Sports' NCAA Football 12. They had a smoothie bar, and a station where players could pay to customize t-shirts and sweatshirts. There were two full-time barbers on hand, as well, happy to shave team logos (and Nike logos) into recruits' hair. And of course, there was a duffel bag's worth of state-of-the-art Nike gear provided free of charge, provided it's within the bounds of a player's high school eligibility rules.
A cynic might say Nike's doing its best to buy the loyalty of some of the most talented football players in America. Others would say Nike's camp gives kids the opportunity of a lifetime.
The truth's probably somewhere in between, but if not at Nike, they'd be touring the country running 40-times at school camps, paying their own way for a chance at a college scholarship. Events like The Opening reinvent the process to favor the kids, not the schools courting them.
There's one key difference between basketball and football. Where Sonny Vaccaro's and the summer hoops circuit grew as a slow boil, football's new offseason circuit has emerged almost overnight as a bubbling corporate enterprise. There's nothing "grassroots" about the treatment players got at The Opening. In 1984, Nike provided free shoes and an open gym.
In 2011, Nike has enough money for a perfectly manicured football field, free rap concerts, a state-of-the-art players lounge, gear to outfit stars from head to toe, video games, free haircuts, and, of course, the smoothie bar. The benefits alone might be enough to scare the NCAA into action.
The SEC has already banned 7-on-7 tournaments on their campuses, and Mel Kiper, Jr. landed in hot water earlier this summer when he sponsored a tournament of his own. It seems like only a matter of time until corporate-backed football camps come under fire, too. When the waters are murky, a lot of folks would just as soon close the beach.
On the last day of camp, though, the whole surreal experience came into perspective for me. While two recruits from Florida State and Miami staged a 'Noles-'Canes battle in NCAA 12 behind me, I sat down to play NCAA 12 with a receiver from Baltimore named Deontay.
Nike had paid for both of us to fly out to Oregon from the East Coast. "Better weather than back home," we agreed. Then we laughed about Terrelle Pryor, the suspended Ohio State quarterback I was playing with in NCAA '12. Another reality check. Pryor got knocked out with an injury on my second play.
"That's karma," I said. He laughed, and then went to work on offense with Oregon.
We talked about the other camps he'd attended this summer and the first class treatment he got at Nike. He'd come from Baltimore with a friend. He smiled a lot, and gave short answers to most of my questions. Like any other 17-year-old kid talking to a stranger.
Plenty of folks will see the Nike camp as a breeding ground for corruption, the same way plenty of folks saw Sonny Vaccaro as a predator, exploiting these 17-year-olds for sneaker companies.
But in the end, 7-on-7 promotes players better than summer combines ever could, and camps like The Opening take kids like Deontay out of places like Baltimore to spend a week getting first class treatment from Nike, and getting exposed to some of the best talent—and the best coaching—in the country. For someone like Deontay, it's a pretty great experience. How is that a bad thing?