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July 16, 2012

Two-sport athletes disappearing in college sports

Brian Adams will never have another day like April 23, 2011.

Adams, then a wide receiver for the Wildcats' football team and an outfielder for the baseball team, woke up at 6:30 a.m. He spent the morning in football meetings before starring in the Blue/White scrimmage that afternoon. He finished with seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

Then he scrambled across the street from the football training building to the baseball diamond. He had just enough time to jump in the batting cage and warm up before starting in centerfield in a 3-1 win over Arkansas.

"I can't say enough about how much fun it was to do that," Adams said. "I wouldn't take it back for anything."

He might be the last athlete to have a day like that at UK. When he signed with the San Diego Padres on June 10, Adams' departure left the university without a single athlete competing in two sports.

Players who competed in multiple sports have existed for decades in college athletics, but their numbers are becoming smaller and smaller. For a variety of reasons, few athletes decide to split their time. Focusing on just one sport has become the norm, even at a young age.

"Even at the youth level, everyone wants them to start specializing," former UK track and field coach Don Weber said. "I think that's a shame. It used to be if you were an athlete, you played whatever sport's season it was right then and there."

A different time

Weber, who retired earlier this summer, used to have several athletes choose to join the track team as a second sport. He coached a fair number of two-sport athletes through his career, though he says it became more unusual in recent years.

There were still a handful. Former running back Derrick Locke, who also sprinted and competed in the long jump, is probably the most notable. Women's basketball star Victoria Dunlap competed in the high jump and the javelin. Eventually, though, they both left track and field behind to focus on the sport they aspired to play professionally.

Cotton Nash didn't have to choose which sport he wanted to play professionally. Nash is best remembered as a star forward on the Wildcats' basketball team in the early 1960s, but baseball was always his passion. He played on the baseball team, the basketball team, and briefly threw the discus while he was at UK.

"Back then, it was fun," Nash said. "It was just a college sport instead of big business."

He was hardly the only one. He had three or four teammates who played baseball and basketball at UK, though he would go on to play both professionally. Nash played parts of three major league seasons with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. He played in the NBA and ABA for the Los Angeles Lakers, San Francisco Warriors and Kentucky Colonels.

The college basketball season ended in March then, giving him enough time to play baseball. From the end of basketball season until the time when basketball practice resumed on Oct. 15, he would hardly see Adolph Rupp. Nash never even had to ask the legendary coach for permission to play a second sport, something that would be unthinkable today.

"These coaches demand more or less permanent training and conditioning for their sport," he said. "Years ago when I played, you just played the sport when it came in season."

Langston Newton, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end joining the football team this fall, is planning on joining the track and field team. He won individual state championships in Indiana for the shot put and discus this spring.

Newton, a brother of UK senior quarterback Morgan Newton, will be on football scholarship for the Cats, but he conferred with track coaches at every school he was considering throughout his recruitment and had scholarship offers from multiple colleges in both sports or one or the other.

"I know it's going to be a little bit of a balancing act, but I think if everybody works together well, and if that means football and track (coaches) need to sit down together and say, 'We need him for this,' and 'We need him for this'" it will work well, Newton said on June 4 before leaving for school.

Weber saw many athletes over the course of his career he thought could help the track and field team. Most were football players, though there were a few from elsewhere.

Sometimes, the athletes weren't interested in splitting their time. Others were asked to put on weight for football that would have diminished their ability to compete in track and field.

There were also coaches who didn't want to share their athletes. Many at UK were helpful, but other athletes were forced to choose one sport before even arriving at college.

"I think the good athletes should be able to do what they want and be able to play all the sports they want," Nash said. "It's getting to be that way in high school as well."

Alternatives for athletes

Megan Broderick isn't a traditional two-sport athlete. She was recruited to play tennis for the Wildcats and had a strong four-year career, often playing as the No. 1 singles player.

As her career was drawing to a close in 2011, she bumped in to Weber in a training room. The coach asked her if she'd be interested in running while finishing up classes in her fifth year on campus. The NCAA allows athletes a fifth year of eligibility in a second sport.

She had run only briefly on her high school cross country team, finding it difficult to stay healthy while training for running and to play tennis. But she decided to try anyway, and quickly made the transition. In her first four cross-country meets, she was never worse than the third runner for the Wildcats.

After that, she ran on the track team in the spring. She was pleased to have the chance to compete at a new sport, but doesn't think it would have been realistic to run and play tennis at the same time.

Balancing the two sports along with class work, a social life and other responsibilities would have been difficult. Beyond that, her risk of injury would have skyrocketed when training for two sports.

"I think that would have definitely taken a toll on my body," Broderick said. "I think doing both would have been really tough."

Like Broderick, there are still athletes who play two sports, but don't do so at the same time. Last week, walk-on quarterback Jacob Russell, an all-state selection in football, basketball and baseball in high school, decided to leave the football team and walk on to the baseball team.

Russell and a handful of other athletes had spoken to Adams about the possibility of playing a second sport. But it's rare that they follow through.

For most, the benefits don't outweigh the risks. Running was a good workout for Broderick and would have helped her build endurance for tennis matches, but it wasn't as effective a training method as alternatives that she would have done if concentrating on one sport.

"If you want to get to the highest level you can," Broderick said, "you need to be focused on one sport."

'There will be other people like me'

Two-sport athletes are becoming rarer. For a multitude of reasons, fewer young athletes are choosing to divide their time among multiple sports. Travel for younger players is increasing, training has become year-round, and coaches demand more.

It's difficult to do, but athletes who are truly committed to playing two sports can make it work, Adams said.

"I know it is something that's dying down," Adams said. "With today's game, whatever sport you're doing even 9- and 10-year-old kids are doing speed training and getting specific coaching at a very young age. For me, I continued to do both because I enjoyed both."

There are probably many athletes who could compete in multiple sports. Adams played in a baseball tournament against former football star Randall Cobb before they were in high school. Former basketball star John Wall probably also had the ability to play a second sport if he chose, Adams said. Nash and Weber both said there will still be other two-sport athletes in the future.

Broderick, who now works as a tennis instructor, still runs. Adams is focusing on baseball after being picked in the eighth round of the MLB draft earlier this summer, but was thrilled to play both at UK.

If he had chosen to play only one sport, he would have regretted it.

"It's starting to die out as people say they should focus on just one," Adams said. "But there will be other people like me. There will be other people that can do two and will want to do both."

CatsIllustrated.com recruiting editor Steve Jones contributed to this story.


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