Two-sport athletes face tall order
Coaches try to work together but also want attempts to be worth it for all parties
ATHENS, Ga. -- Ray Drew was walking off Georgia's football practice field recently when he noticed Don Babbitt working with a Bulldogs discus thrower nearby.
Drew wandered up to Babbitt, who has coached 11 NCAA throws champions at Georgia and dozens of Olympic and world championship competitors, and asked whether he could try out the college-sized 2 kg discus, which is slightly larger than the one Drew used to become a state champion discus thrower in high school.
It's rare enough for an athlete to possess the physical ability and drive to excel in one collegiate sport. Drew and fellow true freshman Nick Marshall hope to join the increasingly rare group of athletes who make their mark in two.
Marshall, ESPN.com's No. 21 basketball prospect in Georgia last spring, still intends to join Mark Fox's Georgia basketball team after the football season and chip in at shooting guard if possible.
"It's still the goal," Marshall said. "I've been talking to Coach Fox a little bit. He just told me that whenever the season's over to just get ready. He asked me if I've been shooting around, but I really haven't had time because I've been focused on football."
Therein lies the problem.
The time commitments for college football players are greater today than at any point in the sport's history. Aside from the mandatory academic appointments and tutoring sessions scheduled for all of Georgia's freshman athletes, playing football requires year-round dedication to workouts, practices and other team-related obligations.
There are exceptions to the trend -- Chad Jones was an All-SEC safety at LSU and helped pitch the Tigers to victory in the 2009 College World Series -- but the days when athletes could seamlessly transition between college sports have largely vanished.
"It's so hard," football coach Mark Richt said. "Guys, to really be the best they can be, you do need to put the time in, you need to train, and your body needs rest, too, in the offseason."
Few Georgia players have successfully juggled multiple sports in Richt's 10-plus seasons in Athens. Perhaps the most visible athlete to make the attempt was receiver Fred Gibson, who scored 4.9 points per game for Georgia's basketball team in 2001-02 and played briefly the following season.
More recently, receiver Demiko Goodman was a standout sprinter for Georgia's track team, and defensive tackle Geno Atkins -- now with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals -- was an accomplished shot putter.
It's far more common, however, for players to arrive at Georgia harboring two-sport aspirations only to realize they shouldn't jeopardize their football future by focusing on another sport.
"If I was an All-American, All-SEC football player, I'm sure the coaches would be like, 'Well, you've already proven yourself enough. Go over there and do it,' " said safety Sanders Commings, who briefly worked out with Georgia's baseball team last year. "But I haven't achieved any of those accolades yet, so I've just got to do what I came here to do, and that's play football."
Receiver Israel Troupe shared a similar experience. Troupe participated in some of the baseball program's 2010 preseason practices as an outfielder before spring football practice started, but he did not return to the baseball team afterward.
"You're trying to compete for a job in each sport," Troupe said. "That was really tough. When you're not there, somebody's already taking your reps for you, so that was real hard."
Pro baseball clubs identified enough potential in Troupe and Commings to select each in the MLB draft. The Colorado Rockies picked Troupe in the 31st round of the 2007 draft, and the Arizona Diamondbacks grabbed Commings in the 37th round the following year.
But when it came time to juggle two sports in college, they realized -- and were occasionally reminded by their coaches -- that they might not have enough time to excel in their chosen sport if their focus strayed.
"I thought it was going be like high school, where I could go through one sport in one part of the year and do the other sport the other half. But it's a year-round thing with both sports," Troupe said. "They're over there doing fall ball right now for baseball, so it was kind of tough going back and forth like that, and it was a major difference between high school and college."
Marshall came to Georgia with a comparable pedigree, as a player who used exceptional athletic ability to excel in multiple sports. He led Wilcox County to a state football title and also set school scoring records in basketball.
So Georgia's coaches told him during recruiting that he could make the two-sport attempt if he stayed on top of his academic and athletic obligations.
"Coach Richt and Coach Fox, they said they talked and they were going to work around where I can do both," Marshall said. "I'm just going to handle it like a man and take responsibility."
It is somewhat easier for a football player to participate in spring practice and dabble in track, as Drew said he learned from talking to former Clemson football and track All-American C.J. Spiller while on a recruiting visit.
As an athlete who began to refine his discus-throwing skills only about a year ago, Drew made enormous strides in his final year of high school. Not only did he cruise to a state title, he began threatening the state discus record by the end of the year -- posting a throw of 201 feet, 2 inches, which was the top distance in the Southeast at the time -- and was thoroughly disappointed when he injured his foot at the state meet and fell short of former Georgia football player Hiawatha Berry's 1985 state discus record of 204-2.
Nonetheless, Drew's potential in the sport has him excited to make the most of any time he can devote to track.
"I was joking around back with people at home, telling people I want to be the first person from Thomasville to go to the NFL and the Olympics," Drew said. "Even though I said that jokingly, it's a possibility."
If you're just on life support academically, it's just not in your best interest to [play two sports], or you're not going be around for very long.” -- Football coach Mark Richt
If Drew does possess that kind of potential, his competing on Georgia's track team is a no-brainer.
Richt said he will support players' two-sport aspirations as long as they keep their grades up, and if their opportunity is worth the trouble. He tells prospects as much on the recruiting trail.
"The message is that myself and Coach Fox and [baseball coach David] Perno are willing to work with each other on that situation," Richt said. "The other two things that are important [are], No. 1, that you get your grades in position where you can do that. If you're just on life support academically, it's just not in your best interest to do that, or you're not going be around for very long. And then you also want to be where you can make some kind of positive contribution to that team."
But the attempt must make sense or Richt won't be so supportive.
Naturally, it helps if the player hasn't gotten rusty by failing to compete in the second sport for a number of years. Asked whether he had any advice for a player such as Marshall, who tries to juggle two sports, Commings said it can be done, but the player should make the attempt early in his career.
"I think the mistake I made is I waited until my third year here to really try out with baseball and work out with the team," Commings said. "If I would've tried my freshman year, maybe I would be able to play both sports. My advice to him is if he really wants to do it, then go do it now."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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