For young athletes in high school or just coming out of high school, the transition to the next level of football can sometimes be a little jarring, and for some, it can sometimes be a harsh reality check. That's why for three days, the Miami Dolphins did their part to give them some preparation for what lies ahead.
This 8th annual Dolphins Academy tournament presented by Under Armour was an opportunity for high-schoolers from all over South Florida to showcase their abilities and compete to find out who had the best team. But before they could go out onto the field to play football, they attended a symposium that was meant to give them a lesson in what to expect moving on to the college level, and perhaps beyond.
The high-schoolers gathered together in the Carol City High School Auditorium and were treated to stories from many different speakers, including the Sun Sentinel's Dave Brousseau, who has covered high school football for the Newspaper for 33 years. Together with Miami Dolphins Manager of Youth Programs and former Dolphins tight end Troy Drayton, they showed the young athletes exactly how they should and should not interact with the media.
They also made sure to stress the importance of behaving themselves on social media, and to make sure to make good decisions in life. Jim Berry of CBS4 told the athletes his story of how he came to be the weeknight sports anchor, and gave them a rousing on-the-fly rap about the importance of education.
Other speakers included Frank Urrutia of 2Lives Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation, and a trio of Dolphins alumni that included Drayton, Miami Dolphins Senior Director of Community Affairs and former Dolphins linebacker Twan Russell, and former Dolphins fullback Lousaka Polite, who shared their experiences before and during the NFL.
“The symposium is more important to us than the tournament itself,” Drayton said. “Our goal is to give these young men as many tools as we can to be successful. The lessons learned will be huge for them since a lot of these guys will be playing college football in the near future.”
The athletes seemed receptive to the lessons being taught, and the next day, they got to start playing some actual football at Plantation Central Park, and it wasn't long before balls went flying and touchdowns were being scored.
"It's a great feeling to be out here with my teammates," said Owen Levine, a senior who played free safety and quarterback for Spanish River High School, "We worked really hard over the summer, and we just really came out to compete and try to win this thing as a team."
Owen's father Adam stated quite enthusiastically how proud he was of his son, and they both are hoping that he can move forward in his football career. In the meantime, he's enjoying the experience of just playing football.
"Whatever happens, happens." Levine said, "I'm just trying to have fun, have a good senior season with my team, just doing what I gotta do."
Their coach, Mark McGraw, made sure that his team was aware of the level of competition they would be facing in the tournament, and they practiced throughout the week to prepare for it.
"Have a sense of urgency," McGraw said when asked what he told his team to keep focused on in particular. "Because we really started off with a slow start, but today we started off fast and we stayed on top."
While all the players were out showcasing their talent to the people watching, some already established talent was there seeing what the young athletes were made of and reminiscing on their time in these tournaments.
"I see a lot of talent out here," said Dolphins running back Lamar Miller, "This is my second year coming out here, I remember when I was in high school, I was participating in this event ... it was a good experience for me, when I was out here with my high school teammates, just trying to compete, just trying to get better, and getting ready for the upcoming season."
Dolphins linebacker Jelani Jenkins was also present at the tournament, and he explained how the tournament could help the high-schoolers in potentially moving forward in their careers.
"It definitely helps them, just any exposure to competition you can. If you look at the NFL it's becoming a passing league, so these 7-on-7 skills are a lot of what's going on in the top level of competition. Any time to get out here is even better, because it's in the summer and not during the season, getting extra exposure to things early so it's a good thing."
The games went on and teams were slowly eliminated. Of the 42 high school teams and the 30 youth teams that had shown up to play football, there could only be one winner.In the championship game which featured Carol City High School and Dillard High School, Carol City trailed by a score of 21-10 with less than seven minutes remaining. They scored two consecutive touchdowns to take a 24-21 lead with 40 seconds left in the game. Dillard drove the ball down the field and scored with six seconds left to go up 28-24. With only one play left, Carol City quarterback Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert threw a Hail Mary into the end zone, which was caught as time expired to give them a 31-28 victory.
"My whole body shook," Calvert said when asked of his reaction after the play. "It was a great experience, just happy we won, came through with the win."
Carol City coach Aubrey Hill gave props to the Dillard team, who had impressed him with their fighting spirit and had almost taken the championship away from them. For Carol City, this marks the second time in the past three years that Miami Carol City has won the Miami Dolphins 7-on-7. In 2013, they defeated Miami Jackson, 28-21, to advance to the National Tournament.
This is the eighth year the Dolphins have done this tournament, and as time has gone on, the true spirit of the event has come to light, much to the delight of the organization.
"From our first year we did this, it was very challenging on the sidelines, coaches and players were a little bit more aggressive than we wanted," Twan Russell said, "I think over the eight year period you see this transformation where our sidelines have been cleaned up. High school coaches have more respect for the game, the players come into it and have more respect for the game, you have less disrespectful talk. All that stuff translates not just on the football field, but in life."
The Dolphins have been working hard these past few seasons to teach youth and adults what it truly means to be a football player, and of the integrity and honor that lies just beneath the surface of game that at first glance seems utterly barbaric in nature.
Nevertheless, each team, regardless of winning or losing, came out stronger in the end. Carol City may have won this year, but it will be very interesting to see if anyone rises up to challenge them next year, as the Dolphins clearly plan on continuing this tournament for years to come.
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @FLSportDebater