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“This event is for you guys in the trenches,” shouted Arizona State head strength coach Ben Hilgart to a gathering of about 150 offensive and defensive linemen from 17 high school football teams around the Valley. “You are here to compete and work hard, but also have some fun.”
Most people don’t know this, but the Arizona high school football season started in early May. High school teams are allowed three weeks of non-contact practice without pads before school lets out. June is the month for passing leagues, which are low-contact, no-pads games with seven players on a side. There is no blocking, no tackling and no running plays. These are controlled scrimmages in which each team gets to run 15 or 20 passing plays at a time.
Many Valley high school teams will play four to six passing league games against other schools and also participate in one or more of the passing league tournaments put on by ASU, UofA and NAU. The tournaments attract teams from around the state and allow the coaches for the universities sponsoring the tournament to walk around and evaluate some of the top football talent in the state. At ASU’s tournament on June 9, ASU head football coach Dennis Erickson spent a couple of hours walking around the fields.
Because offensive and defensive linemen are left out of passing league games, the tournaments came up with the idea of “Big Man” competitions, or what ASU strength coach Hilgart calls the “Trench League.” These competitions resemble a mixture of football strength and agility training and a Scottish Highland Games.
At ASU’s Farmington Stadium softball field, the linemen for 17 high school teams participated in five drills: the Farmer’s Walk, a relay race involving dragging 180 pounds of iron chains behind you; a clean-and-press weight lift:, an agility running drill; the Tire Flip, a relay race in which a player flips a 160 pound tire in front of him as he races back and forth; and the Backward Sledge, a relay race in which player run backwards while pulling several plates of dead weight across the field.
The 17 teams accumulated points for each of the five drills, which seeded them for the final competition — the tug of war. Chandler triumphed in the tug of war finals against St. Mary’s, while Liberty High School won the overall competition for the evening, followed by Chandler, Chaparral and Pinnacle.
My father’s high school football coach had a saying that is just as true today as it was 70 years ago, when players wore leather helmets: “If the offensive line does its job, the backs should have to pay admission.”
This fall, their teammates who play the “skill” positions, such as quarterback and running back, will undoubtably get far more attention than these players do. But on a summer night in June, the big guys had some fun.
The next major passing league tournament will be the Fiesta Bowl 7-on-7 Passing Tournament, which will take place next Friday and Saturday, June 25 and 26, at the Brophy Sports Complex at 4800 N. 7th Street. Spectators are welcome and there is no admission. — Story and photos by Dan Barr | Video by Robert Balint