NAPLES — Could Naples become the center of the ever-expanding youth football universe?
Two of the nation's most prominent youth gridiron organizations — Football University and Junior Rank — held events here on Saturday with plans on returning.
The Chicago-based Junior Rank wrapped up its three-day Prodigy Camp at North Collier Regional Park on Saturday. The camp brought in nearly 400 players representing some of the top talent from across the country. Shaon Berry, Junior Rank's founder and CEO, said Naples will continue to serve as the elite camp's host for the foreseeable future.
At Community School, FBU held tryouts for incoming sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for Southwest Florida all-star teams that will compete in a 64-team national tournament that will begin play Thanksgiving weekend.
Eight area players were able to earn roster spots on the FBU teams. Tristan Perry, Tirone Jordan, Demarcus Townsend, E'Quan Dorris, Kaden Frost, Rich Gibson, Tristan Sonthanax, and Reggie Pierre all will suit up for SWFL teams in the FBU tournament. The players represent various area leagues such as the Naples Hurricane, Naples Gators and Fort Myers Firecats.
The Prodigy Camp was invitation-only for players in grades six through 12. It was the culmination of 25 flight clinics across the United States Junior Rank held during the year. The clinics are designed to identify and select talent for the organization's Semper Fi Bowl — a high school all-star game held in Los Angeles each January.
"I think it's really cool," said Robert Green, who will play for Naples High in the fall as a freshman. Green, a linebacker who graduated from Pine Ridge Middle School in June, played in Junior Rank's Junior Academic All-American Game in January. That game is designated for youth players who have yet to enter high school.
"It's just a good experience to get to know all these guys and compete with some of the best players in the nation," Green said.
Asked what impressed him most about the camp, Green said the speed of the players.
"They're just fast," he said. "The kids from Texas and California, they just have quickness and speed we don't see here. It will get me ready for the speed of the game in high school.
"I also learned a lot about hand positions and hand skills when you're dealing with man coverage."
Green was one of the few local players who participated in the Prodigy Camp, which had numerous former NFL coaches and players, like Philadelphia Eagle Byron Evans and John Fontes of the Detroit Lions, leading drills.
"This is a fundamental and technique camp," said Ray Trujillo of Naples who is Junior Rank's Florida regional director. "No helmets, no pads.
"There is a lot of talent here that local kids don't get to see often."
Despite the emphasis on football, Berry, who played running back for Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, said Junior Rank's goals stretch longer than 100 yards.
"We look for elite athleticism," he said. "But we teach character, discipline, academic excellence."