DENVER -- It may have been the first day of summer, but football fever was in full force on Friday at All-City Stadium in Denver.
With the opportunity to play on the same field where NFL icons Peyton Manning and Champ Bailey practice hanging in the balance, high school athletes from schools across Colorado hauled in finger-tip catches, dove through the air to swat away passes, and raced through the sweltering heat to score go-ahead touchdowns for their teams.
The bustling atmosphere and incessant action were part of the third-annual High School 7-on-7 Tournament hosted by the Denver Broncos and sponsored by Nike, Colorado National Guard and Panorama Orthopedic and Spine Center.
The touch football tournament, which began on Wednesday at All-City Stadium and will conclude on Saturday at the Broncos' Dove Valley headquarters, pitted 64 teams from all different high school football classification levels against one another in a fun and competitive environment.
"The great thing about this is that this one is free and we invite every school that plays high school football in the state of Colorado," Broncos Manager of Fan Development Bobby Mestas said. "Every team is invited. We have a lot of 5A and 4A schools, but also some 3A, 2A and 1A schools. It's a chance for everyone to get some practice in and play teams that they've never even seen before."
The 64 teams were broken into four-team pools during preliminary play on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – and with four games ongoing at any given time, there were no shortage of spirals filling the air or high fives being slapped on the sidelines.
One team from each pool will advance to a 16-team, single-elimination tournament on Saturday at the Broncos Training Facility, where a champion will be crowned by the end of day.
Play will begin at 9 a.m. and the public is welcome to attend.
"You can tell that the kids really get excited," Mestas said. "I think that when they're playing their third and final pool play game, and they realize that they get to move onto Dove Valley if they win, you can just tell it's a really big deal to them. It's just exciting. You can tell from their interactions, their excitement, their enthusiasm."
Mestas noted that the winner of the tournament will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to represent the Broncos at the 2013 HSPD National Tournament in Cleveland, Ohio in July, where every NFL franchise will be represented by a high school team.
Last year's champion, Horizon High School, had a strong showing at the national level.
"Horizon competed awesomely at the national finals. I think they finished fourth overall," Mestas said. "They really competed well and they had a great experience. They got to play against some of the best athletes in the country. They had a lot of great character development. It's just a great overall experience on and off the field for a winner."
Ultimately, it's a fun and active environment for high school teams to hone their skills and start bonding early on.
It's also the opportunity for players to run in the footsteps of football superstars and represent an NFL franchise at a national tournament. And for high school football players on summer vacation, it's about as good as it gets.
"It's great practice, there's a lot to play for, and the kids get to see teams that they would never get to play against in the regular football season," Mestas said. "It's just an awesome environment and an awesome tournament."