DALLAS -- As Baron Flenory Jr. handed over the large championship trophy, he couldn't help but have a smile on his face.
Amid hooting and hollering from 15 high school football players, the man some have labeled a street agent, a runner, a mentor and, alternatively, a business man couldn't help but revel in the success of the tournament he had created.
"We work hard at this. You can see our staff working hard. We have family out here helping. It's hands on and we love it," Flenory said. "We want it to continue to grow the right way. People are trying to slow it down but if it's not us running it, then it's someone else running it."
|More on Flenory/Badgers 7-on-7|
The "it" Flenory is referring to is the Badger Sports/New Level Athletics 7-on-7 "National Championship." The event pits seven skill position players on offense against seven defenders in what is the closest thing players can get to football during the offseason. The fifth and final stop of a national tour, the championship drew players from around the country and had every recruiting site braving 100-degree heat to cover it.
Flenory and his partner, Kashann Simmons, co-founded New Level Athletics as a way to give exposure to recruits who either were not doing anything during the offseason or were limited to running 40-yard dashes at various camps across the country. Though his events have come under heavy criticism lately –--most notably from the NCAA -- the company is actively looking to branch out and expand next year.
"Regardless what anybody says, me and Kashann started this to accomplish one thing and that was to change the way kids are recruited and the camp recruiting process," said Flenory. "And we did that. We plan on expanding but if it stays at five, then it's an extreme accomplishment."
A former defensive back at New Hampshire, Flenory has been labeled by some as a football version of Sonny Vaccaro, considered the godfather of modern AAU basketball. Though Flenory is a bit coy about his admiration for him, the two have spoken on occasion and Vaccaro was one people he reached out to for advice when New Level was just getting off the ground.
"People always ask that question. Do you want to be Sonny?" Flenory says. "As somebody who runs camps, he is the epitome of a camp runner, for lack of a better term. He's done it. All-Star games, he's helped kids, parents love him and he did it his way. Though some people disagree with how he did it or the concept that he came up with, he's a business man. If I wanted to own a company, why can't I say I want to be like Warren Buffett?
"Starting out, he was the benchmark."
Count former NFL veteran Keyshawn Johnson as a believer. He began the Big Man on Campus organization and an All-Star traveling team -- 1925, two years ago with former teammate Brian Kelly, mainly focused on some of the top players from across Southern California. 1925 has gone to over six camps this spring and summer and managed to take home the national championship on Sunday. Though there's been plenty of negative things said about Flenory, especially in light of his connections to Oregon, the current ESPN analyst wouldn't be risking his reputation and several thousand dollars worth of his own money taking his team to Dallas if he didn't believe things were all kosher.
|'People are either going to like me or they're going to hate me," Flenory says.|
The NCAA, which objects to third parties inserting themselves into the recruiting process, is just beginning to understand about the 7-on-7 phenomenon. In order to better get a grasp of what was going on at events like the Badger Sports tournaments, members of the enforcement staff traveled around the country to see first-hand just what was happening at these non-scholastic events.
While the organization is still exploring what steps need to be taken with regards to policing the events, the SEC has taken matters into its own hands. The conference recently voted to ban 7-on-7 from their campuses (New Level hosted their first national championship tournament last year at Alabama) and will propose national legislation to the same effect in the upcoming months. Taking a position against the practice as a whole is troubling to Flenory because he feels the college power brokers fail to grasp the positives of what he tries to bring to the table while throwing him into the same lot as those who prey upon star recruits to make a buck.
"All I know is that I feel like we've been demonized and unfairly treated," he said. "They're lumping all of it into one instead of looking at each particular instance and saying this is what it is. This is what this case is; this is what this case is. They're throwing it all into one and that hurts. It already has affected personal life, business. It takes a toll."
As someone who falls into the broad category of a third party because he is not a parent or a recruit's high school coach, Johnson agrees that the perception people have of him and others is often far from reality.
"Everybody thinks [I steer people to] USC but USC isn't for everybody, Notre Dame is not for everybody. It just doesn't work like that," he said. "In my opinion, we've become the college coaches' worst nightmare. Take Jordan Payton. A lot of the schools have to call me because he wants them to talk to me so he can understand the information. Well, it becomes a nightmare for a school because they don't want to talk to me. 'Keyshawn knows too much. He's going to ask the right questions.' All I'm trying to do is sift through the B.S. to give to the kid. That's it."
Johnson has talked briefly with the NCAA about holding 7-on-7 competitions during the spring evaluation period and adjusting rules so that college coaches can attend and evaluate players in person. Though his ideas have so far been rebuffed, he is interested in seeing how the NCAA treats other 7-on-7 events differently.
"They need to get educated on what people are trying to do, like us, before they start making assumptions about what's going on. I can't say everybody is straight by the book because I don't know everybody. But I know the people I deal with are straight by the book," Johnson says before adding, "Let's see what they do to IMG. Let's take a snapshot and really see about that."
A world-renown sports marketing agency, IMG recently dived into the world of recruiting and staged their own 7-on-7 tournament last month, with plans to field an actual high school football team in 2012. With other major companies such as Nike and Under Armour already ramping up their efforts, Flenory knows the niche his business currently occupies will start to heat up.
Looking out at a deserted stadium long after the trophy was raised, Flenory flashed another grin before heading home, perhaps thinking of something Vaccaro had told him.
"People are either going to like me or they're going to hate me. They're either going to like this (7on-7) or they're going to hate it," Flenory said. "We can't please anybody. But if the parents that came, if all of them are pleased, then it doesn't matter. We're not doing it for the media. We're not doing it for the coaches. We're doing it for the kids."