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Last Sunday, like most Sundays, Adam Cook made sure to get in front of a television so he could watch Patrick Mahomes drop magic on the NFL.
The sidearm throws. The no-look passes. The weaving scrambles. The never-blink comeback victories. This time it was Mahomes delivering 294 yards passing, 53 yards rushing and four touchdowns altogether to lead Kansas City to its first Super Bowl in half a century. The Chiefs will play San Francisco on Feb. 2.
When Cook watches Mahomes though, he doesn’t necessarily see what everyone else does, namely a 24-year-old quarterback who might be the best football player on the planet. Instead he sees an athlete who stubbornly refused to settle on any single sport, let alone position on the field. As a result, Mahomes is now reaping the benefits of being among a dying species in a world obsessed with specialization at the youth sports level.
“Patrick is the poster child for the multisport athlete,” Cook said.
Cook was Mahomes’ football coach at Whitehouse (Texas) High School. He now serves as the school’s athletic director. He knows not just what Mahomes is capable of, but how he became capable of it.
The sidearm throws? Cook sees Mahomes on a Whitehouse High pitcher’s mound, working on release points and firing fastballs in the mid-90s.
“There are times he throws it 50 yards with what looks like a flick of the wrist,” Cook said.
The no-look passes or the hip shakes past defenders into open space? That’s Mahomes in the open court as the school’s starting point guard.
“He’d come down on the break, look a defender off and pass it for an easy basket,” Cook said.
The ability to read defenses and sense the tendencies of defensive backs? That’s the Mahomes who was willing to play safety his sophomore season as a more experienced quarterback started.
“He had a knack for knowing where the ball was going to be,” Cook said.
And that poise and competitiveness in the face of adversity? Well, that’s just a kid who never stopped competing in game after game after game (regardless of the sport) and learned how to win.
“Because he played multiple sports, the overlay of all of those experiences and skills are there in the NFL,” Cook said on Monday. “It’s all just one game for Patrick. It’s always been just one big game, just on different playing surfaces. In high school football you are guaranteed just 10 games. Instead Patrick was always playing something and learning how to win along the way.”
Specialization is the trend in youth sports these days, even to a frightening degree. Forget three-sport high school athletes. It can be a challenge to find three-sport fifth grade athletes. The average youth athlete age 6-12 played 1.87 team sports in 2018, according to the Aspen Institute State of Play’s 2019 report. That was down from 2.11 sports as recently as 2011.
Critics contend that isn’t healthy and often leads to injuries or burnout. Parents, of course, often feel overwhelmed by the business of youth sports and the fear of their young athlete falling behind.
“The goal is to make them athletes for life, not create the best 12-year-old athlete,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program. “Patrick Mahomes is a good example of how cross-training can help in the long-term.”
It’s not just single sports that are focused on these days, but single positions within single sports. He’s just a QB. She just plays shortstop.
Mahomes was different. The son of a Major League Baseball player (Pat Mahomes Sr.), he was a starter as a freshman at Whitehouse High in baseball and basketball. He made varsity football as a sophomore, just not as the starting QB.
Mahomes wanted to be on the field and agreed to do whatever was best for the team. He became the starting safety “even though he wasn’t very defensive-minded,” Cook said, noting it showed his unselfishness. It was similar in baseball, where at one point or another he started at every position but catcher.
As a senior in football he passed for 50 touchdowns and rushed for 15 more. In basketball, he averaged 19 points and eight rebounds a game. And in baseball, he batted nearly .500 for his career, and when his fastball hit the mid-90s, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
Instead he headed to Texas Tech on a football scholarship, and he also spent one year on the Red Raider baseball team.
It wasn’t until spring of his sophomore season of college that he concentrated solely on football. He continued to play pick-up hoops until February of 2019, when a viral video of him playing outed him to the Chiefs. They promptly banned him from the court due to injury concerns.
The lesson for Mahomes is simple: playing three sports wasn’t a detriment to his development, it was an integral part of it. He was named the NFL’s MVP at just 23 years old due to his unique, multi-skill style of play.
“The mindset shouldn’t be, ‘I can do it,’” Cook said. “It should be, ‘I need to be doing it. I need to be playing all these games and getting all the experiences I can gain.’”
Patrick Mahomes will compete for a football championship in a couple weeks. If you look close enough, you can see a lot more than that getting played.
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