Marqise Lee did not break any records or set any standards at the prestigious Texas Relays in Austin last weekend. Jumping just over 24 feet to finish 10th in a loaded collegiate field, the USC freshman was 7 inches shy of his career-best, 24-8.
Still, it was worth it for Lee, who has established himself as one of the country’s premier two-sport athletes in 2011-2012. Coming off a football season in which he was the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a Sporting News Freshman All-American, the dynamic receiver turned his attention almost immediately to the Trojans’ track and field team.
When USC was running a spring scrimmage on Saturday, Lee was sprinting down the runway to explode off the board and into the long jump pit. Waste of time for an athlete who could be the best wide receiver in the nation next year?
“He’s a very unique individual,” USC coach Lane Kiffin told reporters.
His quest to be an impactful dual-sport athlete is unique, too, in today’s climate. Perception suggests to dare divert focus from football—voluntary winter workouts, film study, spring practice—is to show a lack of passion and hunger to be the best. Give all or give nothing, essentially.
Tell that to Arik Armstead.
The Oregon freshman, one of the most coveted recruits in the country, has joined the Ducks a semester early to ready himself for the season. He has a chance to be the starting defensive end at Oregon. And when that’s over with, he’ll devote as much energy to playing basketball. He could remind fans of former North Carolina two-sport athlete Julius Peppers. Or he could endure months of major college football and think better of heading to the hardcourt.
His father, Guss Armstead, is the CEO of To The Hoop, which trains young basketball prospects. He believes his son can and will do both.
“He’s an ambitious kid so we don’t see any reason for him to stop doing something because someone is telling you it’s their opinion you should stop doing it,” Guss Armstead told The Oregonian. “You make your own decisions in life.”
For 19- and 20-year-olds with enough athletic gifts to be distributed from court to track to field, and more than enough competitive spirit to make a case for themselves anywhere they step, those decisions aren’t simple.
Bruce Ellington changed his mind—twice. The second leading scorer and starting point guard for the South Carolina basketball team is a decent wide receiver for the Gamecocks, too. When the basketball season concluded, he announced he would focus on the sport exclusively. Days later, he changed his mind.
“He realizes he’s pretty good at football and wants to play both,” football coach Steve Spurrier said.
From Deion Sanders to Charlie Ward to Bo Jackson, the list of outstanding two-sport athletes is lengthy. But that list gets shorter each year. Whether it’s Robert Griffin III abandoning Olympic hurdle ambitions to concentrate on football at Baylor, or Bubba Starling never getting a football career at Nebraska off the ground, instead signing a $7.5 million deal with the Kansas City Royals, the opportunities to see athletes stand out in two arenas are dwindling.
Brandon Weeden, a projected high-round NFL Draft pick, was once the first player chosen (second round) by the New York Yankees in the 2002 Major League Baseball Draft. After four seasons in the minor leagues led nowhere fast, he quit and enrolled at Oklahoma State where he led the Cowboys last season to the Big 12 Championship. He also took the time to be a walk-on for the golf team.
In 2009, Chad Jones was an All-SEC safety at LSU and was in the pitching rotation that led the Tigers to the College World Series title.
Will there be another Chad Jones? North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien wasn’t all too comfortable with his former quarterback, Russell Wilson, playing minor league baseball instead of participating in spring practices. Former Florida running back Jeff Demps, one of the fastest sprinters in the world, felt the urgency from first-year coach Will Muschamp to get back onto the field immediately after Demps finished competing with the U.S. National Team in Italy.
And at Texas, world-class jumper and U.S. champion Marquise Goodwin, is seemingly torn between football and track. Intending, with the support of UT coach Mack Brown, to take a year off from football to focus on preparing for the London Games, Goodwin missed the World Championships finals in South Korea by a centimeter. Upset and disappointed, he returned to the football field.
He caught 33 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns for the Longhorns last season.
“You only get one opportunity to do this,” Goodwin said of doing both sports. “I might as well take it.”
But on Saturday, at the Texas Relays, he withdrew from the field due to an undisclosed injury. He was seen with his knee wrapped in ice. Maybe that’s it. Fear of injury. Or maybe it’s balancing academics under an athletic pressure cooker.
“We’ll have to sit down and discuss all of that and figure it out,” Armstead told The Oregonian.
Or maybe it’s just coaches holding on tight to their most prized commodities. When he has been in practice, Lee has shown growth as a receiver. He is learning all three receiver positions and showcasing the same superior skills that made him a standout in 2011. Cornerback Tony Burnett, a triple jumper for the Trojans, joined him at the meet.
As proud as Kiffin is of their track exploits, there’s a part of him that probably wishes they were giving that time to football. Just think how much better they could be. Instead, he’s letting them chase a dream of another kind.
“He really wanted to do it. He’s a good kid. He does really well in school,” Kiffin said about Lee, then Burnett. “Both of them really wanted to do it and they have worked pretty hard at it.”