Byron Cowart, the No. 1 high school football recruit in the nation according to Rivals.com, had never been on an airplane before Friday.
The rising-senior defensive end from Armwood High School in Seffner, Fla., compared it to a roller coaster he rode days earlier at Busch Gardens. Cowart's head hurt during the plane's ascension, but he remained calm by focusing on his destination — Baltimore.
Cornerback Frank Buncom IV had a long, but relatively relaxing flight from his hometown of San Diego to Baltimore. It wasn't his first trip to the city, as the rising senior at St. Augustine High School and nation's 18th-ranked player visited with his family during President Barack Obama's inauguration.
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Cowart and Buncom IV, were among the 109 top high school football players who arrived at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel on Friday to get set for this weekend's Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge, presented by Under Armour and hosted at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It's a blessing for me to be here," Buncom IV said. "For us to say we're one of the best players in the nation, it's just an honor. Especially, to be around the other guys that are considered the best, too."
Rahshaun Smith, a St. Frances defensive lineman, is the lone local player taking part this weekend.
Rivals.com, a top website for high school football and basketball recruiting acquired by Yahoo in 2007, began the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge in 2012. Though Rivals had been covering similar high school prospect camps since the website's inception in 1998, a change in the market a few years ago forced the Rivals team to rethink things.
"The only real branded camps out there were the Nike camps. We had a deal with Nike, then they were purchased by ESPN," said Mike Farrell, Rivals director of national recruiting. "So, it started off as a little idea that I had way back when: Let's do our own camps."
After brainstorming with Farrell, Head of Rivals.com Eric Winter announced in the spring of 2012 that the website would host the first Rivals100 Five-Star Recruit Challenge. Shortly after the announcement, a competing camp stripped Rivals' credentials.
"They said, 'If you're going to be in the camp business, you're not allowed to be in our camps anymore,'" Winter said. "I'm not joking."
But it didn't stop Winter, who then created the Rivals250 Underclassmen Challenge, as a way to showcase the nation's younger talent after the Five-Star Challenge in the same summer.
Rivals started with two national camps and no sponsors in 2012, hosting the events in Atlanta's 10,000-seat Lakewood Stadium. This year, 16 regional camps led up to the this weekend's Five-Star Challenge, for which the location was a no-brainer in Winter's eyes. Last year, the challenge was held at Soldier Field in Chicago.
"M&T Bank Stadium. It's [Baltimore] the home of Under Armour," Winter said. "It's a privilege, it's an honor to be here."
The challenge begins Saturday with one-on-one drills, followed by Sunday's 7-on-7 showdown between skill players drafted Wednesday by Rivals analysts to four teams — Team Blur, Team Clutch, Team Highlight and Team Renegade. The Big-Man Challenge, consisting of various lineman drills, is also on Sunday.
"The on-the-field stuff, that's the stuff I love," said Farrell, the head of Team Clutch. "Saturday and Sunday, I'm in heaven. I wish it could be three weeks. Everyday going out there and watching these kids compete."
Different players had different paths to Baltimore. Cowart received an invitation after being named an MVP at the Orlando regional camp March 22. Buncom IV can't remember when he got invited, but knew it was before the Southern California regional camp March 1, which he attended to prepare for this weekend.
Some players, like running back Kendall Bussey, had to fight to get to Baltimore. The New Orleans native went to the Hattiesburg, Miss., camp on March 15, where he was named the running back MVP but didn't get an invitation. Busey decided at the last minute to attend the last regional camp before the challenge in Chicago, where he was named the MVP for his position again. This time, he got what he came for.
"It was definitely in the back in my mind," Bussey said. "I wasn't disappointed, but I knew if I went and put on another show, I could get it. So I was like, 'Alright. Chicago is the perfect time to do it. If I perform well there, I have to get an invite, right?' Went up there and I did it."
Bussey, who is already committed to play at Nebraska, soaked in the entire experience of the all-expense-paid trip Friday. After arriving at the Hilton, he relaxed by playing Xbox in the player's lounge, which featured a corner where players were fit for Under Armour shoes, coolers full of Gatorade and big screen TVs displaying a live feed of tweets from players.
Buncom IV said he's just happy to be done with school so he can finally focus more on football. On Saturday, he plans to announce a list of 10 schools he'll consider attending.
Then there's Cowart. His list currently sits at six schools — Clemson, Oregon, Auburn, Alabama, Florida and USC — but he wants to get it up to 10. He's not focused on that now, though. As the No. 1 player in the nation, he knows there's a target on his back and this camp means business.
"Being the No. 1 player, it doesn't change anything. If anything, it's going to make me work harder," Cowart said. "It's going to make me prove everybody else wrong, who say I don't deserve it. I like the pressure and the spotlight."
Regardless of their different paths to Baltimore, their rankings and whether they're committed or uncommitted, Farrell sees one specific similarity in all 109 players in the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge.
"Most of these kids, I think, would play in the McDonald's parking lot because they are just competitors," he said, "and they want to prove that they deserve their ranking."