ORLANDO, Fla. — One of the biggest life challenges for professional athletes is figuring out their next move when their playing days are over.
For former Florida and NFL cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, getting involved with high school football players through the 7-on-7 circuit was something that allowed him to stay involved in football. He started his own team — Rat Pak — in 2014.
“Guss Scott, my old teammate at Florida, he introduced me to it and I just fell in love with it from there,” Ratliff said. “I was blessed with a great team that first year. Guys like [former Florida safeties] Keanu Neal and Marcell Harris. We won our very first tournament and I’ve never looked back.”
In the last two years, Rat Pak has made noise on the 7-on-7 circuit with its tournament performances and some high-profile recruits on the roster. Earlier this month, adidas held its East Coast Invitational in South Florida, an event that included teams from Chicago, Louisiana and Texas.
Rat Pak had its opening game against Midwest Boom, a juggernaut on the 7-on-7 circuit.
“They’re what most teams want to be,” Ratliff said of Midwest Boom. “They’re national champs back to back, the top adidas-sponsored team. So our boys had a chip on their shoulder and beat Boom that first game. You could just see the look in their eyes the rest of the day — they felt that was their tournament.”
Rat Pak didn’t lose a game that day and won the East Coast Invitational championship with a 16-15 victory over South Florida Express, another top 7-on-7 team. Ratliff named running back Tyrone Davis (Winter Park, Fla.), athlete Willie Gaines (Cocoa, Fla.) and wide receiver Nate Jefferson (Longwood, Fla.) as some players who stepped up in the tournament.
He also singled out Alabama safety commit Brendan Gant (Lakeland, Fla.) for going into “lock-down mode” on defense. After an early ejection for fighting with Georgia 5-star wide receiver commit Jadon Haselwood, Gant responded with stellar play in the secondary.
“We came in there with a point to prove, so I had to set the example,” Gant said. “We played Jadon’s team later in the tournament and we just locked him up completely. He didn’t do anything.
“I was just bringing the energy and being a leader on defense. I know how to do that. I’ve been in those situations before, so I just had to keep the guys together. It paid off in the end.”
Gant is the latest elite defensive back to play for Ratliff, who also has coached Neal, Florida State safety Derwin James and Florida cornerback Duke Dawson. James encouraged Gant to join the Rat Pak during his sophomore year.
“He’s a great dude to be around,” Gant said of Ratliff. “He teaches me the game and he’s a great influence. He keeps it real with us and he never tells us anything wrong. I was blessed to have him in my life. I wouldn’t rather be with another team.”
Rat Pak is 20-3 this season and will compete in the adidas National Championship on April 1 in Los Angeles. Ratliff said some of his coaches disagree, but he believes this roster is his most talented 7-on-7 team.
“They tell me I’m just biased toward the new kids,” Ratliff said with a laugh. “I will say, Rat Pak means more to me than it did back then. I just wasn’t as emotionally tied to it as I am now. I was just getting done playing. I was still transitioning.
“In the back of my mind, I thought I still had a couple years in me. Now I’m 100-percent invested. It’s become my passion, my baby. I’m doing something Rat Pak related every day. I just want to give these kids something I never had growing up.”
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