A new industry: How 7-on-7 football in Chicago area was part of national boom over last decade

Many of area’s top talent competes in sport during offseason

St. Francis' Alessio Milivojevic (11) looks for a receiver during a 2023 playoff game at Nazareth in La Grange Park. But by the time Milivojevic was in fifth grade, 7-on-7 had become a well-known answer for Illinois athletes to even the playing field with the rest of the country.

About a decade ago, some of the Chicago area’s top high school football players converged once a week during the offseason at a suburban park or indoor sports complex. Some of them were future NFL veterans. Almost all of them went on to play at Division I college programs.

Every week they competed in practices that turned into impromptu all-star games. Each practice became some of the most competitive and stress-free football they played in their careers.

Those practices offered a solution to a void many top players faced since Illinois doesn’t offer spring football like other states. They took a chance on a niche version of football that had taken off in parts of the country but had not yet fully reached Illinois: 7-on-7.

“It was important,” said Nazareth alumnus Julian Love, who was an All-American at Notre Dame and was named to the NFL Pro Bowl last year with the Seattle Seahawks. “I felt like if you took football seriously, you want to be training and doing something in the offseason and that was the only way I could compete in the game that I love in the offseason.”

At first, 7-on-7 in Illinois was mostly relegated to those recreational leagues after starting almost out of nowhere. Then some teams started traveling to other Midwest cities a couple of times. Sometimes they went to Florida.

Once word spread that top prospects competed in the niche sport, everyone wanted to get involved.

“It was more so I’ve seen all the top guys that are doing it,” said Providence alumnus Miles Boykin, who plays for the New York Giants. “If I’m one of the top guys in the class, why am I not doing it?”

Fast-forward 10 years and those weekly practices and competitions have turned into a national phenomenon. Athletes now play for club teams that travel to a new city almost every other week while some games are broadcast on TV.

The Chicago area has been a major part of the boom. NFL players such as Love, Boykin, Crete-Monee’s Laquon Treadwell and Nazareth’s J.J. McCarthy all played. Now most of the area’s current top prospects such as Lincoln-Way East’s Jonas Williams, Geneva’s Tayln Taylor and Carmel’s Trae Taylor all play hoping to follow in their footsteps.

Coaches have tried to stay true to the sport’s mission of being an avenue to develop over the offseason. But what started as a way to play football during off months has transformed into a whole new game.

“Right now it’s a whole industry,” Love said. “It’s taken off really years since I was a part of it. Now it’s a national, global thing.”

Understanding the difference

Alessio Milivojevic also wanted to find a solution to Illinois’ offseason football void. By the time he was in fifth grade, 7-on-7 had become a well-known answer for Illinois athletes to even the playing field with the rest of the country.

Milivojevic started playing in fifth grade and recently competed with Naperville-based Midwest BOOM.

“This is a bridge, in my opinion, to bridge Illinois to being as competitive to Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, playing all throughout the spring and summer right after your season,” said Milivojevic, a recent St. Francis alumnus and Michigan State enrollee. “I think it’s been a great way to stay ready for the tackle season when it really matters.”

But how much does it really help?

The sport is a non-tackle game in which players are ruled down when touched by an opponent. The offense has a quarterback, someone who snaps the ball and five wide receivers while the defense has seven defenders. A quarterback has four seconds to get rid of the ball before a play is over.

Rules vary per venue but each game is 21 minutes, possessions start at the 40-yard line going in and first downs are earned by crossing the 25- and 10-yard lines. A team scores six points by scoring a touchdown, three for an interception, two for a turnover on downs and one on a point-after attempt.

7-on-7 presented a new way to look at the sport for Milivojevic. With more defenders than receivers, Milivojevic had to find small windows and quickly decide when to make passes.

“It really helps you slow the game down and get your reads down,” Milivojevic said. “I know you’re not getting the pressure like you would in a real game, but this is a time to hone in on your reads and hone in on your accuracy. You have to take what they give you. You can’t go deep every time.”

It also pits the best against one another. Love, Boykin and Lemont alumnus Flynn Nagel all said they developed their skills by playing 7-on-7, which translated over to 11-on-11 football.

Many of those moments came as a result of playing some of the area’s and nation’s best. Boykin felt there was something different about lining up across the line of scrimmage from a five-star recruit going to a national powerhouse.

“Just being around those guys and being at a higher level than just playing at your local high school, it’s a big difference,” Boykin said. “I was going to Notre Dame, and at Notre Dame, everyone’s one of the best in the country. So in that way it gave me a head start from that standpoint.”

Nazareth Head Coach Tim Racki celebrates his team stopping Joliet Catholic on a 4th down near the goal line Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, during their IHSA Class 5A state championship game in Hancock Stadium at Illinois State University in Normal.

Many of St. Francis coach Bob McMillen’s and Nazareth coach Tim Racki’s players have been part of the local surge. McMillen said 7-on-7 coaches do a good job developing quarterbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and defensive backs and many return improved for the tackle season.

While Racki overall believes 7-on-7 is a good supplement to tackle football, he warned of picking up bad habits and bringing them to the fall season. Racki echoed Milivojevic’s belief that quarterbacks don’t face the same pressure. There’s also much more contact between wide receivers and defenders than would be allowed in tackle.

“I think the purpose of it, the main purpose of it should be, yeah, go out and compete,” Racki said. “But let’s make sure that they’re being taught the skills that they’re going to need when they play real football, not just football in shorts and T-shirts.”

Recognizing that difference is important. College coaches aren’t going to offer a player a scholarship after only looking at his 7-on-7 film.

7-on-7 helped Love reach his dreams of the NFL. It served as a supplement, though, not the reason.

“They need to understand that there is a difference,” Love said. “They need to have that mindset of ‘I’m doing this to improve certain fundamentals, but I can’t get sloppy.’ Because when you put on pads and helmets come on, that’s when it gets real.”

Unimaginable growth

Midwest BOOM’s origin had a humble beginning. When J.R. Niklos opened a sports performance center in 2008, the most football he and the athletes would play were pickup games in Naperville’s Brush Hill Park on Saturdays.

But those games in the park ultimately became the catalyst for 7-on-7 football in the Chicago area.

The motivation already was there. Niklos, an Ohio native who competed for five NFL teams from 2002 to 2007 as an undrafted rookie, felt Illinois football players were overlooked by college coaches. He wanted to showcase Illinois’ talent and founded Midwest BOOM in 2013.

“We had to make a huge impact, a huge explosion if we were going to get the respect these athletes deserve,” Niklos said. “We had to make a big boom, big loud noise. That’s what we seek to do.”

BOOM wasn’t the first. Deerfield-based Core 6 set the stage and attracted many of the area’s top talent before suddenly closing in 2015. Other clubs also participated in some national tournaments, but the sport hadn’t really caught on in the area.

It was important. I felt like if you took football seriously, you want to be training and doing something in the offseason, and that was the only way I could compete in the game that I love in the offseason.”

—  Julian Love, Nazareth alumnus

Niklos quickly realized he had entered into a 7-on-7 world that can be compared with the Wild West. There’s no single governing body for national teams and there are multiple national championships hosted by different brands. Teams don’t earn money for winning championships, but they earn clout with the more they win.

BOOM tried to make noise with whomever it could get. Anyone who tried out made the initial team. BOOM started playing in national tournaments, happy to take third whenever it could.

Things changed once Niklos’ underdog mentality spread to his players. Wins followed and Adidas became the club’s sponsor in 2015, featuring the club in a commercial with NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

They weren’t overlooked anymore.

“I never would’ve imagined it growing the way it is,” Niklos said. “It’s almost overwhelming because we did this as a hobby. … This was our way of having fun and this has completely blown up.”

Scott Hoffman has watched that boom since his Schaumburg-based Top Gun added 7-on-7 to his quarterback performance center in 2012 as a way to give back to players on both sides of the passing attack. More athletes became interested and what started as a few local teams turned into a dozen a decade later, competing regionally and nationally.

Hoffman believes competition breeds success. Although 7-on-7 hasn’t reached the level of AAU basketball or club volleyball, Hoffman said it’s heading down the same path.

“Hopefully the teams that do come around are legitimate with some legitimate coaching going on,” Hoffman said. “If that’s the case, that’s a good thing.”

Niklos’ vision has grown into a national powerhouse. The club had more than 1,000 athletes try out for this year’s teams compared to the 57 that tried out more than a decade ago. It now has 32 local teams competing nationally and regionally. The organization started its first girls team this past season.

BOOM has won 17 national championships and 108 total championships during that time. But the focus for Niklos always goes back to those Saturdays in the park playing pickup.

“It was just an opportunity for exposure, to draw attention back to their 11-on-11 film,” Niklos said. “But now it’s like, ‘OK, it’s bigger than I ever imagined it would be.’”

Doing it the right way

While young athletes fell in love with 7-on-7, Greg Holcomb noticed his son grew distant from it.

Quarterbacks at his Carol Stream-based Next Level Athletix Quarterback Training had good experiences with 7-on-7. But his son and his friends didn’t. Holcomb quickly realized that some teams in the area were undisciplined and didn’t do a good job of supporting sportsmanship.

He decided to jump into the 7-on-7 waters to give his son and others an alternative option. Holcomb added a team to his program two years ago, calling it Supreme. There he built a program focused on developing players for the fall and competing with grace and class.

“I knew if I did some things the right way it would just organically come over,” Holcomb said. “I knew when I started Supreme that parents would see we’re doing things the right way.”

Holcomb has tried to provide some steadiness in a game that he believes has progressed away from its original purpose. He fears players became too worried about winning at all costs, boosting their recruiting stock and creating social media content.

Money also became a major factor in the era of Name, Image and Likeness. Both Holcomb and Niklos confirmed that national teams are paying some of the best athletes in the nation to play for them.

Niklos said some programs pay 50% to 75% of their players up to $2,000 a tournament. Some teams are associated with an agency that requires families to sign with players agents and in return they get everything provided to them, including travel and hotels stays. There are instances when a percentage of players’ NIL deals go back to the program.

Neither Niklos nor Holcomb said they’d pay players to compete for their teams. Niklos said that BOOM is a zero-profit organization that charges $600 to play for the national teams and $350 for the regional teams. Supreme charges $750 for its national teams and $500 for its regional team, which does not include tournament fees.

With some support from their sponsors, those fees cover field rentals, jerseys and other expenses.

“I’m going to stay true to what we do,” Niklos said. “If it ever gets to that point where it’s not about homegrown kids anymore, developing, then you won’t see me around anymore. But I have faith that we’re always going to be that type of organization.”

Recent Kenwood alumnus I’Marion Stewart, who competed with Midwest BOOM, doesn’t have a problem with players earning money for their talents. Many of the athletes can promote their own sponsorships while competing in tournaments that will be televised on the NFL Network.

But there are times he wishes the game would go back to what it was when his older brother participated.

“I have no problem with it now, but I do wish it was more natural and kids played on the 7-on-7 team they’re supposed to play for, but I have no problem with it now,” Stewart said. “I’m having fun and loving the exposure.”

Having fun is what Holcomb has tried to bring back to the sport. Supreme found successful quickly after competing well in national tournaments. Parents noticed the winning. The organization now has 180 athletes and nine national and regional teams.

Holcomb has tried to stay true to his original mission. Winning tournaments and social media posts are nice, but that’s not his ultimate drive.

“I want to treat this as a training environment so that kids become better 11-man football players. That’s low-hanging fruit for me,” Holcomb said. “That’s exactly what you should be doing.”