A mess of crossing routes, curls and deep posts clogged Field No. 2 at IMG Academy on Sunday. Team Elite’s offense may have been organized, but it was chaotic and it was working.
Jason Spicer flipped passes around the field, focusing on Tarique Milton, to move Elite up and down the field against a more talented opponent. A deep voice boomed from the opposing sideline
“They’re playing NFL Blitz,” it said, and then the owner of the voice smiled his signature, $100-million smile.
Cam Newton, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player and former Heisman Trophy winner, stalked the sideline of one of his two teams in the field at the IMG 7v7 National Championship while his Cam Newton All Star Black team battled with some of the best from Manatee County. He couldn’t comprehend how his secondary full of three- and four-star prospects couldn’t slow down an offense he derisively compared to the disorganized, arcade-style football of the video game series.
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Milton, a rising senior wide receiver for Manatee, lined up along the left sideline on the next play with Team Elite at the goal line. Newton sent a pair of defensive backs to drape him this time while Spicer, a rising junior quarterback and wide receiver for Palmetto, took a step back and surveyed the field. Milton broke toward the middle of the field and Spicer fired a dart into his hands for the duo’s second touchdown connection of the game. Elite celebrated as its defense prepared to take the field, led by Chase Balliette.
“NFL Blitz,” the recent Braden River graduate shouted at Newton. “It works.”
The Newton All Star team from Georgia, regarded as one of the favorites in Bradenton, eventually rallied to beat Team Elite, 23-21, after a protracted trash-talk competition disguised as a 7-on-7 football game. Head coach Mike Barrett went back and forth with Newton, and Elite’s high school players didn’t shy from getting a barb or two in, either.
It was a surreal experience for some of the area’s most talented skill-position players to go up against one of the most famous athletes in the world in an intimate, competitive environment. He went through the postgame handshake line with Team Elite, posed for a picture and even shared longer conversations on occasion.
“He’s a competitor. I love it,” Spicer said. “I got to talk to him a lot. I kind of buttoned it because that’s my favorite player. ... Star-struck.”
The Spicer-Milton connection carried Elite to the brink of an upset against Newton’s team after a win earlier in the day and then faded during a tournament-ending loss to the Flatlinerz from Jacksonville in play-back bracket.
Milton hauled in three touchdowns against Newton All Star Black to help Team Elite take a 21-16 lead and draw Newton’s eye.
“It was lights out,” Barrett said. “When you’ve got Cam Newton asking who the kid is who keeps catching on his five-star corner over there, you’re doing something.”
Elite ultimately suffered one too many breakdowns against Newton All Star and narrowly missed the opportunity to forever claim a victory against one of the great modern quarterbacks.
But Team Elite posted a 4-3 record during the two-day event and spent one 30-minute game jawing with Newton.
After the final whistle blew and the two teams went through the handshake lines, the Panthers quarterback recognized Balliette and went to greet him personally.
“I saw you mocking me out there,” Newton said to Balliette while shaking his hand. He asked the All-Area Defensive Player of the Year what sort of offers he had and Balliette told him he was going to play linebacker at Divisison II Augustana University in South Dakota next year.
Balliette said the two spoke for a couple minutes, and Newton left him with an inspirational message.
“Play with a chip on your shoulder,” Newton told him. “I know you’re undersized. Just fight through. That should be your chip.”