Tucson Turf Elite won a national championship last year at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

Syndric Steptoe was attending a kickoff dinner before Lance Briggs’ football camp five years ago when he ran into an old friend — and a new calling.

Toby Bourguet ran a 7-on-7 youth football organization and had dreams of playing in national tournaments. Steptoe, a former Arizona Wildcats star, had just hung up his cleats after playing three seasons with the Cleveland Browns and two seasons in the CFL. The longtime wide receiver wanted to coach, but was put off by both college and high school football.

“I just wanted to go back to where the game is pure,” Steptoe said. “When you get to the NFL, you see so much of politics that can happen and how the game truly becomes a business at that level, and the uncertainty of guys being there or their livelihoods are determined by one play or the play of someone else.”

It didn’t take long for Tucson Turf Elite to form. The team, coached by Bourguet and Steptoe and named for Bourguet’s artificial turf business, has become a powerhouse in 7-on-7 football. The organization features 10 teams, with players ranging from 5-year-olds to high-schoolers. Tucson Turf teams have won 30 Arizona tournaments, three NFL Flag Football championship and 16 regional tournaments over the last 12 years.

Tucson Turf Elite — the organization’s highest-level team made up of high-schoolers — won tournaments in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 2017 as part of the Pylon national circuit, and capped off its year with a national championship win at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, home of the Cowboys. Trenton Bourguet, Toby’s son and the starting quarterback at Marana High School, shared most valuable player honors with Salpointe Catholic’s Mario Padilla.

The team will defend its national championship at next month’s Pylon National 7v7 Tournament, held in Atlanta. This time, the homegrown club won’t sneak up on anyone.

“We’re not some small dog anymore,” Trenton Bourguet said.

An alternative to tackle football

Seven-on-seven (also known as passing league) football is a stripped-down, no-pads version of the sport. There are no linemen or running plays; teams consist of a quarterback and receivers squaring off against seven defenders. Proponents of 7-on-7 say its a way to teach both the fundamentals and finer points of football without pads and a helmet. Most of Tucson Turf’s teams play flag football; the elite-level team plays two-hand touch.

Some 7-on-7 players use the fast, free-flowing game as an entry into tackle football. Toby Bourguet conceded the physical nature of 11-on-11 football isn’t for everyone.

“So many adults are so focused on their kid being as tough as a buffalo and they don’t realize that most kids aren’t wired like that. They don’t want to bang their head into people,” he said.

“We focus on having fun, doing great skill-level stuff, getting great memories under their belt and enjoying the game. And when they put pads on, they’re ready. It’s a mature kid whose body hasn’t been beaten down.”

As it grows in popularity, 7-on-7 teams — and their national tournaments — have become hot-button issues among fans of both high school and college football.

College coaches now follow 7-on-7 tournaments, even if they’re more inclined to trust tape from 11-on-11 high school games. UA assistant coach Demetrice Martin calls 7-on-7 “pajama-ball” because of the lack of contact, but nonetheless understands its growing popularity. He, like many college recruiters, has built relationships with many of the nation’s top 7-on-7 coaches.

Travel teams pull talent from across cities, which can rub high school coaches the wrong way.

One of Tucson Turf Elite’s recent opponents, Fast Houston, had “300 Division I scholarship offers” divided between the players, Toby Bourguet said.

Tucson Turf Elite hasn’t reached that level yet, though its players continue to grow in popularity. Arizona-bound quarterback Jamarye Joiner played for Tucson Turf Elite, as did Wildcats receiver Stanley Berryhill. Bijan Robinson, Salpointe Catholic’s four-star running back, has played for Tucson Turf Elite in the past, though he won’t travel to Atlanta. National champion Alabama and LSU both offered scholarships to Robinson last week.

Robinson’s Salpointe teammate, Lathan Ransom, will travel with Tucson Turf Elite for the national tournament. So will Terrell Hayward, a cornerback and wide receiver heading into his senior season at Cienega High School. Hayward said 7-on-7 football helps skill-position players work on their game without as great of a threat of injury. Hayward has scholarship offers from New Mexico, Army, Air Force, Northern Arizona and others. Every play is a chance to fine-tune his game heading into his final year of high school.

“I’m not out there running scared, and I’m not worried about someone killing me on a hit,” Hayward said. “It’s more of the finesse part of the game and understanding the game, understanding defenses. That’s the biggest thing that they bring, is understanding the game of football.”

The result: A simplified, fast-paced style that resembles some of the most successful football teams in the world.

Steptoe says Tucson Turf plays “Patriot-ball.”

“Seven-on-seven is about getting first downs and moving the football,” Steptoe said. “It’s Tom Brady. It’s taking what they’re giving you and excelling at that and defenses get frustrated because they can’t stop it.”

Staying realistic

In January, Tucson Turf’s 14-and-under boys and girls teams both won national flag football championships at the NFL Pro Bowl in Orlando. Players met Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson during their trip to Florida.

The experience of representing Tucson in other cities and playing top competition is why Bourguet formed the Tucson Turf Elite team in the first place. It’s not, he insists, a football factory. Players pay $50 a month to participate.

“We’re not trying to paint an unrealistic future for these kids and their parents and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get your kid to a D-I school.’ That’s not what we’re doing,” Toby Bourguet said. “They’re going to be around good kids, we’re going to compete against the best in the nation and we’re going to represent our community and our family, period.”

Increasingly, others are taking notice.

“They ask us where do you guys go and we tell them ‘We’re from Tucson.’ ‘You mean Tuscan?’,” Trenton Bourguet said. “Everyone used to always tease us and we were known as Tuscan Turf, but they know who Tucson Turf is now.”

Sports producer

Justin Spears is an award-winning sports journalist and Tucson native. He can be reached at jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter @justinesports.