As the Purple Hurricanes lined up for a joint practice with the Cam Newton Foundation All-Stars on Tuesday — against top prospects like quarterback Deshaun Watson of Gainesville — what they managed a few weeks ago continues to hold weight.
Only two teams in the state won the Cam Newton Foundation 7-on-7 tournament qualifiers during the first weekend in June, with Cartersville and Grady winning the north and south divisions, respectively.
“It was definitely a big surprise when we won ‘cause when we walked in we weren’t the biggest team there, but I think we had the most heart and that’s the reason we won,” said senior Canes receiver and defensive back Hayes Linn, in regard to his team’s victory over Gainesville.
Cartersville will likely face those same difficult odds when it plays in this weekend’s national tournament, which will feature close to 50 teams. The Canes will not boast the highest profile names, but practicing with the Newton all-stars revealed that the divide may not be that great.
“In my head I was just thinking that these guys are, like, pretty good and it turns out they’re not much better than we are. It’s just an experience that I’m glad I could have,” said Arrick Camps, a running back and linebacker for Cartersville last season as a junior.
Canes coach Frank Barden also was glad his team could practice against guys like Watson, who has verbally committed to Clemson, as well as Evan and Elliott Berry of Creekside — the younger brothers of Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Eric Berry.
“The big thing for us is to see the level of athleticism and the level of competition and the level of excitement and the level of play that this tournament [brings] and [how] these professional athletes that are bringing teams down go about their business,” Barden said. “There’s a way that people go about their business that’s very important for us to learn, and if you can learn that, it’s a big advantage.”
The Canes have continued going about their business since winning Newton’s tournament at Sprayberry High in Marietta to start the month. They have been to a 7-on-7 camp at the University of Georgia as well as one hosted by St. Pius.
“We’ve been going pretty hard the month of June. We’ve played in about four or five of these, and it’s been a lot of wear and tear because our kids are playing basketball, too, in the evenings and other sports. It does push the kids a little bit,” Barden said.
Players like senior linebacker Brandon Wells are hardly complaining, especially with the results Cartersville has accumulated during the offseason.
“It’s taken four years of hard work ‘cause this is our first year really coming out on top, starting the summer off on top. The past couple years haven’t been the years we’ve wanted, coming out like we wanted to, so it’s good starting the summer off right,” Wells said. “We’re close. … [We are going to] use this tournament as momentum to come back and start the season off right, start the season with a trophy ‘cause that’s a big intimidation factor throughout the season, to have this on your back.”
Josh Cooper, a senior receiver and defensive back, noted players couldn’t have seen this level of success coming this summer, but they knew the potential was there.
“… I don’t think we envisioned that [winning Newton’s tournament], but we had a good, like, mindset that we [were] gonna be pretty good this year, due to the quarterback this year and all the skill guys and defensive players coming back. So, we had a good mind that, like, our team was gonna be pretty good this year,” said Cooper, referencing junior quarterback Brooks Barden.
Of the left-handed signal-caller, who was named MVP at the north division tournament, Cooper added, “He played like a rising senior that’s been playing for four years, honestly. … He’s been real good.”
Barden has looked leaps and bounds beyond a player that was a part-time starter as a sophomore, and he gives the Canes a real chance to make noise in Florida. So while Cartersville is sure to enjoy the all-expenses paid trip provided by the Carolina Panther quarterback and his foundation, the team isn’t merely vacationing.
“We’re not just going down there to just play and just show out. We’re going down there to play and actually win, so this is gonna be a business trip for us but also a fun trip,” Camps said.
“I just think we just need to polish up our game and just get ready to play our game and not really worry about what everybody else is doing, just focus on us,” Linn added. “And I think just going down there is gonna be a great team experience for us as a team to grow closer and just figure out us and not worry about anybody else.”
The Canes, as well as the Cam Newton all-stars and Grady, are scheduled to fly out from Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Thursday morning.
“They’re very anxious and excited about going,” Frank Barden said of his players. “We’re grateful to the Cam Newton Foundation for allowing us to be a part of that … It’s an awful big thing that they do for young people and it’s been fun. It’s been fun to be around these guys, it’s been fun to be around the other players, the all-star team and the other athletes. You got a lot of great athletes across the Atlanta area and the state. It’s been good all the way around for our kids to be exposed to everything … and [we are] excited about what’s coming up this weekend.”
Byron Kellam, director of operations for the Cam Newton Foundation, said that Newton is “very, very committed to giving back.”
“… He was taught by his parents … the concept to whom much is given, much is required, so that’s a very, very important facet of his existence, of his being,” Kellam added. “He loves the kids. … When we were planning this, he just kept calling, kept calling with things that he wanted to incorporate. He didn’t just want it to be just a regular 7-on-7. He wanted it to be something that the kids would enjoy, something that they could remember, something they could look forward to. … That’s why he had the DJ there. That’s why he was there all three days. It was a three-day tournament between two sites, and he was gone taking care of his commitments in Carolina, flying back and forth, just because he wanted to be a part of it.”
Cecil Newton recalls his son attending many of the same type camps when he was a quarterback at Westlake High in Atlanta, but highlighted the community aspect as the foundation’s desire to get involved with IMG Academies — a partnership that includes the Cam Newton Skills Challenge this weekend.
“Well, I think it does [remind me of Cam’s high school days], and I think it also gives us an opportunity to reach back to the community and have an impact on kids that are coming up … so that’s part of what our whole family regimen has been about, going back to give back,” Cecil Newton said. “Cam was a product, from a sophomore all the way through a senior, with the H.S.P.D. [NFL High School Player Development program] and a lot of various other camps, so that kind of helped him focus. It motivated him to stay on track going through school.”
Likewise, the elder Newton encouraged players Tuesday to refrain from the sort of activities that can pull them off track, something he reiterated during a break in practice.
“Some of these guys have promising futures, but what we want to warn them of is that they don’t get distracted or sidetracked with people that they shouldn’t necessarily be with. Because we could take the example that happened at Auburn where there were three kids — 20, 21 years old — who were senselessly murdered. Society is not like it was when I was coming through, or even in the last four or five years. So much has happened and athletes are the targets off a whole lot of issues, I guess you can say, off the field,” he continued. “They have a lot of people gravitating to ‘em, of course, because they’re renowned. They’re always hearing their names either in the newspaper, on the Internet or throughout the community. Obviously people are gonna want to gravitate to them — that’s girls, females, as well as other guys who might be trying to live that dream through being with these particular athletes. So, making good decisions, managing your business in the classroom, in the community, those are important aspects.
“These guys are speedsters, they can play several different positions. That’s not gonna be the problem for them. The problem is gonna be being focused, staying focused — ‘cause it’s a long road going from high school to college and from college to beyond.”