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THE VANISHING THREE-SPORT STAR
Alexander Wolff
November 18, 2002
Bucking a powerful trend toward specialization, two athletes in Louisville are excelling in multiple sports—and savoring the challenge
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November 18, 2002

The Vanishing Three-sport Star

Bucking a powerful trend toward specialization, two athletes in Louisville are excelling in multiple sports—and savoring the challenge

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ROLL CALL
From 1980-81 through 2000-01 participation in high school sports grew by 16.2%, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Here is a breakdown of student involvement for each sport (minimum total of 2,500 boy and girl participants), showing the percentage increase or decrease over that 20-year span.

SPORT

1980-81

2000-01

CHANGE

BOYS' BADMINTON

444

4,184

+842.3%

GIRLS' BADMINTON

9,808

9,907

+1.0%

BOYS' BASEBALL

422,310

451,674

+7.0%

BOYS' BASKETBALL

553,702

540,597

-2.4%

GIRLS' BASKETBALL

423,568

456,169

+7.8%

BOYS' BOWLING

6,761

12,597

+86.3%

GIRLS' BOWLING

8,272

13,029

+57.5%

COMPETITIVE SPIRIT SQUADS

Not listed

97,216

BOYS' CREW

430

2,058

+378.6%

GIRLS' CREW

120

2,508

+1,990.0%

BOYS' CROSS-COUNTRY

172,270

190,993

+10.9%

GIRLS' CROSS-COUNTRY

90,224

160,178

+77.5%

GIRLS' FIELD HOCKEY

55,656

60,737

+9.1%

BOYS' FOOTBALL

937,901

1,023,712

+9.1%

GIRLS' FOOTBALL

Not listed

2,870

BOYS' GOLF

118,390

163,299

+37.9%

GIRLS' GOLF

32,828

59,901

+82.5%

BOYS' GYMNASTICS

13,293

2,223

-83.3%

GIRLS' GYMNASTICS

64,815

21,034

-67.6%

BOYS' ICE HOCKEY

25,925

34,652

+33.7%

GIRLS' ICE HOCKEY

56

6,442

+11,403.5%

BOYS' LACROSSE

13,501

46,206

+242.2%

GIRLS' LACROSSE

4,942

35,186

+612.0%

BOYS' RIFLERY

2,991

2,401

-19.7%

GIRLS' RIFLERY

795

1,249

+57.1%

BOYS' SKIING (cross-country)

2,575

4,878

+89.4%

GIRLS' SKIING (cross-country)

2,434

4,982

+104.7%

BOYS' SKIING (Alpine)

6,895

6,353

-7.9%

GIRLS' SKIING (Alpine)

5,136

4,591

-10.6%

BOYS' SOCCER

149,376

339,101

+127.0%

GIRLS' SOCCER

41,119

295,265

+618.0%

BOYS' SOFTBALL

1,027

2,019

+96.6%

GIRLS' SOFTBALL

206,351

373,214

+67.3%

BOYS' SWIMMING

90,941

90,698

-0.3%

GIRLS' SWIMMING

86,853

141,218

+62.6%

BOYS' TENNIS

130,048

139,483

+7.3%

GIRLS' TENNIS

118,889

160,114

+34.7%

BOYS' TRACK (indoor)

33,275

52,000

+56.3%

GIRLS' TRACK (indoor)

15,464

46,415

+200.1%

BOYS' TRACK (outdoor)

507,791

494,022

-2.7%

GIRLS' TRACK (outdoor)

377,995

415,667

+10.0%

BOYS' VOLLEYBALL

11,732

40,567

+245.8%

GIRLS' VOLLEYBALL

297,786

395,124

+32.7%

BOYS' WATER POLO

26,869

13,735

-48.9%

GIRLS' WATER POLO

282

14,792

+5,145.4%

BOYS' WEIGHTLIFTING

7,199

14,293

+98.5%

GIRLS' WEIGHTLIFTING

385

3,545

+820.8%

BOYS' WRESTLING

245,029

244,637

-0.2%

GIRLS' WRESTLING

Not listed

3,405

It's a bit disorienting to hear an 18-year-old speak of his youth as if it were in the misty past, but that's how Michael Bush, a 6'3", 225-pound senior at Male High in Louisville, sounds when he talks of his baseball career. Game balls from Little League and Babe Ruth League sit randomly on top of his bedroom dresser, mushrooms in a forest of football and basketball trophies. Every now and then Michael picks up one of the balls and, fixing his outsized fingers on the seams, wonders if he can still bring it the way he did between the ages of eight and 14, when umpires would stop games because parents complained he was throwing too hard.

Though he says he likes pitching more than any other act in sports, Michael hasn't thrown an inning in high school. He has been too busy with football, then basketball, then spring football, then the summer basketball circuit that includes the Nike camp and sundry AAU tournaments, all the while making as many seven-on-seven June football festivals as he can—at least until formal football practice begins in early July. He has attracted plenty of attention as a result of how he decided to spend his time: The University of Kentucky promised him a football scholarship before he played his first high school game, and last year Michael was the leading vote-getter at wide receiver in balloting for the Louisville Courier-Journal's all-state team. (He also received votes for running back, defensive back and linebacker.) He's certain to win Kentucky's Mr. Football award this fall; if he has the kind of basketball season he did a year ago, when he averaged 15.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and was voted MVP of the prestigious King of the Bluegrass tournament, he could become the first Kentucky Mr. Football to win Mr. Basketball, too.

Yet if Michael were to follow his heart and play baseball this spring, he'd also likely be the sole male three-sport varsity athlete among the 1,631 students at his school. "The Saturday after our second basketball game last year, he played in the state football championship game," says Bob Stewart, Male's athletic director. "The Tuesday night after that game, he played in our biggest basketball game of the season, against Ballard High. We reached the state semifinals in basketball, and he wanted to pitch for the baseball team. But he'd already missed a month of baseball preseason. Besides, the Monday after our last basketball game, spring football began. He was going to be our quarterback this year, so Michael had to play spring football.

"That's why kids don't play three sports anymore."

That Michael even plays two at such a high level makes him rare enough. That he squeezes in up to 12 hours a week working in the physical therapy unit of Caritas Medical Center makes him rarer still. "The baseball coach has been trying to get me to go out since freshman year," Michael says. "But I didn't want to interfere with the team's chemistry—being there one week, not being there the next. I've sneaked a peek at a few of their games, though, during basketball practice, looking out from the gym."

There's no better all-around high school athlete in Louisville, but if Michael has an equal it's Brian Brohm, a 6'4", 200-pound junior at Trinity High who plays baseball along with football and basketball. Male and Trinity faced each other in the last two Kentucky Class 4A football tide games. Each school has won once, and with both unbeaten through the first round of the playoffs last Friday, it's likely they'll meet yet again, on Dec. 7 Or as Michael and Brian might put it, 54 days into basketball season.

Michael is sculpted and black. Brian is rangy and white. Yet the two have in common an even temper, unstinting family support and an acute awareness that they will transit the halls of their high schools only once in life, so they'd best make the most of it If all that they've taken on is a burden, neither carries it that way.

"I love them all," Brian says of the sports he plays. "It's all about competing." Press him, though, and he'll admit that it's at least partly about scheduling and stamina, too. One day in June, Brian spent the morning with football teammates lifting weights and running through seven-on-seven passing drills. At 2 p.m. he joined the Trinity basketball varsity for an AAU game. At six he played in a Babe Ruth League game. Twice, on very hot days, Brian was sent to a hospital to get hooked up to an IV. "There've been a few times I've asked myself, Why am I doing this?" Brian says. "But that's usually during practices. Then the games come, and I realize how much I love to compete."

Kids who want to play several sports today eagerly look for some sign of support from their coaches. If they don't get it, they'll choose the path of least resistance. "Coaches can sometimes become very selfish," says Trinity football coach Bob Beatty. "If a kid's not spending enough time in his program, not creating that 'family atmosphere,' the coach is opposed [to the kid's playing another sport]. At Trinity, if you're not out for another sport, we expect you to be in our off-season program."

Brian's family believes in a well-rounded high school sports experience, too, if only because the Brohms know nothing else. Both of Brian's older brothers, Greg, 33, and Jeff, 31, played football, basketball and baseball at Trinity before going on to the University of Louisville. There Jeff threw passes to Greg, then played two seasons in the Cleveland Indians' system before kicking around the NFL as a backup quarterback for seven seasons. Their dad, Oscar, himself a quarterback at Louisville, played three sports in high school, while their mom, Donna, played field hockey, basketball, volleyball and softball in pre-Title IX days. Brian's sister, Kim, 22, played volleyball, basketball and softball at Mercy Academy and Spalding University, where her textbook-low stance, whether returning a serve, guarding a dribbler or fielding a grounder, earned her the nickname the Table.

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