There were no video games. No internet. No iPhones. No club programs, combines, or camps to allow a kid to stay in the same sport all year.
For Danny White, growing up in Mesa in the 1960s and going to Westwood High School, it was football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball and track in the spring.
“It sure kept me out of trouble,” said White, who, in 1999 was named by The Arizona Republic as the Arizona Athlete of the Century. “My dad would drive me from the baseball field to the track just to long jump and high jump and back, while I changed uniforms in the back seat.
“The good ol’ days.”
While, three-sport athletes still exist, there are not as many in this age of specialization, which began in the late 1990s. Finding those who are elite in three sports might be lost.
Guys like Nathan LaDuke, Jon Volpe, Rodney Peete, Randall McDaniel led a 1980s explosion of athletes who were the best of the best in three sports in Arizona.
Maybe not since Mike Nixon graduated from Sunnyslope (Phoenix) in 2002 and Prince Amukamara left Apollo (Glendale) in 2007, has there been an exceptional male three-sport athlete.
Nixon was the state’s Football Player of the Year as a two-way player at quarterback and safety, a center on the state championship basketball team and an All-Arizona catcher in baseball, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers out of high school.
Amukamara was an incredible two-way football player who was the state’s Player of the Year his senior season, who led the Hawks to three straight basketball titles and was a sprints state champion in track, before taking off as a Nebraska cornerback, launching him to the NFL.
For girls, it’s hard to find a three-sport athlete who excelled the way Nicole Powell did at Mountain Pointe (Phoenix) and Jacquelyn Johnson at Yuma.
A 2000 graduate, Powell was arguably the greatest female basketball player in state history and was a three-time state badminton singles champion, a state discus champion in track and a state doubles runner-up in tennis.
She went on to enjoy a 10-year WNBA career before going into coaching. She is now the women’s head basketball coach at Grand Canyon University.
Johnson was a volleyball, basketball and track and field sensation, breaking state records in the 100-meter hurdles and the high jump in 2003, before she became an NCAA heptathlon champion at Arizona State.
Where have athletes like these gone?
“We don’t have what you call three-sport stars, but we do have some good athletes that are stars in football and maybe one other sport,” said former Buckeye football coach Bobby Barnes, now an assistant coach at Goodyear Estrella Foothills. “They really do three sports to just keep busy and in shape.
Barnes said he personally doesn’t recommend three sports.
“I believe there needs to be a real down time from competition,” he said. “Football now extends into most of the summer so that really isn’t down time like it used to be. Plus the more sports a young man plays, the more coaches there are pulling on him.”
When Gilbert Mesquite athletic director and football coach Scott Hare graduated from high school in 1995, he said there were only two athletes, including himself, who played three sports.
The best athletes, he said, played two sports. He liked seeing his football players participate in other sports. But now, especially with the Arizona Interscholastic Association saying it’s OK for coaches to work with their athletes year-round, it is more difficult for athletes to shift from sport to sport to sport.
“The coaches want to win but not just during the sport of season,” Hare said. “The coaches want to win during the club season also.
“A coach does not want to go to a summer league game and have four of the best athletes missing. Even me, who believes in the multiple-sport athlete, if we have a voluntary workout and a player misses the next day, I ask where they were. Now my reaction tells that kid whether I am disappointed or not. The kid feels the pressure not to disappoint the coach.”
Hare said his dad used to say that he would rather have a football player compete every day in a different sport than to have a player merely going through drills.
“Learning how to work with different personalities and learning how to win and lose helps develop an athlete,” Hare said. “I will support a kid who only wants to do one sport but if any athlete or parent asks me, I will always say there are four years of high school and the kids should get as much out of it as possible.”
Tyson Grubbs follows dad’s path
Phoenix Desert Vista junior Tyson Grubbs is hoping to medal in a few weeks at the state track and field championships in the sprints and jumps. He is also gearing up for what he hopes to be a breakout senior football season after missing half of his junior year with an injury. Wrestling helped him shift gears and keep his competitive battery charged.
“It’s trying to become the better overall athlete,” Grubbs said. “Coaches tend to look at guys who are multiple-sport athletes.”
Elliott Grubbs, Tyson’s father, grew up in Phoenix, played multiple sports at Alhambra, where that was the norm.
Elliott Grubbs said his son started running when he was 7.
“We felt that track was a building block for almost every other sport and you can never be too fast,” said Elliott Grubbs, whose younger son Devon is a freshman running back and sprinter who last week picked up his first Division I college football offer from Arizona State. “He began playing football at the age of 9. He loved watching it on TV. It was a great way to teach him how to be a good teammate and accountability.”
Tyson Grubbs played Little League and middle school baseball and considered playing in high school, but the sport conflicted with the spring track son.
“As he entered high school, football became his primary sport and track his secondary,” Elliott Grubbs said. “I encouraged him to try wrestling to develop better balance and increase his overall strength. He finally picked it up during his sophomore year. I’ve never really pushed him to try a sport except for wrestling. I felt pretty strongly about that one. He was up for almost anything new to try.”
Grubbs said he was most concerned that by specializing his son would burn out — physically and mentally.
Pushed out of her comfort zone
Before she committed to Michigan to play softball her freshman year at Phoenix Country Day School, Audrey LeClair, now a senior, said the college coach encouraged her to play as many sports as she could.
This spring, she decided to add track and field to softball. She has excelled in both. While dominating at the 2A level in softball, LeClair, in her first year doing track, has won the titles at meets in the long jump and high jump and finishing as high as third in the 100-meter dash. This followed a basketball season in which she made all-region for a third consecutive year, averaging 12 points.
“Doing both (softball and track) has been hard on the schedule aspect of it all, but it has been a lot of fun, and a lot more than I have expected,” LeClair said. “I really enjoy doing both for a number of reasons. I really love pushing myself out of my comfort zone and since I’ve never done track besides in middle school and P.E., and I didn’t realize the major details that are included in it, I just thought, ‘Hey, I’m fast and athletic, why not?’”
LeClair said combing the sports has helped her hunger to win more. She has automatically qualified for state in the long and high jumps and the 100 meters. The same week she did that, she went 9-for-9 with five walks and 13 runs scored, getting a win in the circle, on the softball field.
“I stay in shape and that’s always a good benefit,” she said. “But most of all they are both fun and a good way to be with my friends and teammates before I graduate.”
Different way of life
Tim Salmon, who enjoyed a long, successful Major League Baseball career with the Angels, was a three-sport star at Phoenix Greenway in the 1980s. But he may have not been the best athlete in his home. His younger brother Mike was The Republic’s Athlete of the Year in 1989, when he starred at multiple positions in football, in basketball and in baseball.
Playing different sports was just the way it was growing up in the ’80s, Salmon said.
“It’s an awesome experience to represent your school in multiple sports,” said Salmon, now the head baseball coach at Scottsdale Christian. “It refined my athleticism both physically and mentally in different ways that benefited me in the big leagues.”