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Multi-sport athletes become rarities in college, frustrating some coaches

  • Chris Peters
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Khiry Cooper was a rare specimen at Nebraska.

At 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, running a 4.5 second 40-yard dash, he was an ideal athlete. The Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him to play center field, drafting him in the fifth round. Coach Bo Pelini wanted him to play wide receiver, sculpting him to be a starter by his second season.

He knew what he was getting into when he chose Nebraska. Seasons would overlap, his body would try to break down, and his teachers would try to keep him afloat through it all.

Cooper was one of a shrinking number of multi-sport college athletes during his time at Nebraska, which ended in May. He represents the exception, not the rule.

“It’s awful difficult in this day and age (to play two sports) with year-round conditioning that everyone’s got to do,” said Nebraska football recruiting coordinator Ross Els. “Certainly if you get a talented guy that is going to play at a great level in the other sport, then that’s fine. If he’s just going to be another player, then he probably needs to pick one or the other.”

Cooper wasn’t just another player. He was a 1,000 yard receiver and a .330 batter in high school. Elite programs around the nation – LSU, Florida, Arkansas – clambered for him. He chose Nebraska because he thought he could excel in Lincoln.

“You get the same look everywhere,” Cooper said. “Schools tell you that they’ll let you play both, but you never really know until you get there.”

Andy Janovich faced a similar decision as Cooper. He won back-to-back Nebraska state championships as a wrestler and was named All-Nebraska as a linebacker.

Nebraska-Kearney pushed him hard, offering him a scholarship to wrestle and play football. Janovich wanted to play football for Nebraska-Lincoln, though no scholarship offer came. Wrestling coach Mark Manning offered him a wrestling scholarship, but Janovich ultimately turned it down and focused on football, taking a chance by walking on to the team as a fullback.

“Realistically, I think one (sport) would be enough,” Janovich said. “You have so much time consumed by that one sport, it would be tough to go back and forth.”

Els, who is in his first season as Nebraska’s recruiting coordinator, said the strain extends past just physical wear and tear.

“If you’re in season, both fall and spring, how good are you going to do in the classroom?” Els said. “That’s very, very demanding, so you’ve got to make sure that it’s a kid who can handle it academically in both sports, too.”

Track and field coach Gary Pepin said playing two sports is not as difficult as it is often advertised. After spending 10 years at Kansas and 33 years at Nebraska, producing nearly 500 All-Americans and 42 Academic All-Americans for the Huskers, he sees the task as an achievable one, given the right program.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that a guy can be a successful track and field athlete and compete in multiple sports in college,” Pepin said. “No question about it. Boy or girl.”

Pepin said that while it can be difficult to juggle multiple sports, that’s not the biggest reason the numbers are in decline at Nebraska. He said it has to do with how programs interact and share recruits.

“We haven’t had anybody that has made a significant contribution in our track and field program from football, I would say, for 10 or 15 years,” Pepin said. “If there is somebody, I can’t remember.

“In the past, we have gone and asked a football coach ‘Hey, can this guy come out for track?’ and the majority of the time, the answer is yes. But internally, a strength coach or a position coach will tell a guy ‘Hey, you’re only third team, how in the hell are you going to go and run track in the spring and maintain your position or move up the depth chart?’ or something.”

Enter Tyler Wullenwaber. Standing above six foot and running a zippy 4.4 second 40-yard dash, the home-grown wide receiver claimed state championships in the 200 meter dash, the long jump and the high jump in track and field.

Pepin pulled him toward track. Pelini’s staff pulled him toward football.

Just like with Janovich and wrestling, the small sports failed, even when offering the scholarship that football didn’t. Wullenwaber joined the football team where he and Janovich both earned playing time this season.

Pepin can remember back to Kansas, when a trio of shot putters placed 1-2-3 in the NCAA Championships just months after all three started on the Jayhawks Orange Bowl offensive line.

Now, as the casualties of sport specialization pile up, the frustration grows for coaches such as Pepin. He wonders whether football coaches are discouraging it or if athletes are simply bypassing the opportunity.

“We just haven’t been able to get any of those people for whatever the reason is,” Pepin said.

Four years ago, Pepin thought he had locked in a solid multi-sport star. Brett Maher, a pole vaulter from Kearney, ran track for his freshman year, even winning the Ward Haylett Invitational. But one year later, he dropped track to kick and punt for the Husker football team. Now a senior, Maher is All-Big Ten for the second consecutive year.

The last two-way player in Pepin’s memory who played a significant role in track is Riley Washington, who played on the Huskers’ 1994 and 1995 national championship teams as a receiver.

“He was a tremendous prospect in track and field,” Pepin said. “But he wasn’t allowed to run track and field until spring ball was over, so he was practically outdoor only.

“We didn’t practically get to use the guy at all.”

That’s where the biggest conflict comes in: spring football.

Fall sports and spring sports are mostly separate in terms of scheduling games, but coaches are putting a greater emphasis on year-round training. Spring football has become a necessity for most players to work their way up the depth chart.

“We want them full time in our sport,” Els said.

Athletes such as Cooper are the only exceptions.

Even so, Cooper still had to participate in spring 7-on-7 football drills until the first game of the baseball season.

“If that’s the only way to get a top-notch kid, then you’ve got to let them do it,” Els said. “It just doesn’t happen very often anymore.”

When Cooper left Nebraska in May, degree in hand, he had completed the rare four-year multi-sport road. Still, the years of double-dipping took their toll on Cooper’s body, leaving him with a serious foot injury that ended his NU sports career prematurely.

One year removed from his injury, Cooper has signed a contract to play baseball for the Boston Red Sox system. Saturday, he played what might be his second-to-last football game, this time wearing a Tulsa uniform, representing the school he transferred to post-graduation.

His multi-sport career is nearing its end. This spring, he will double up on the field for perhaps the last time, as he prepares for rookie league baseball and pro days for the NFL. In the fall, once he knows where he stands in both sports, he’ll have to decide.

Teams haven’t given him an ultimatum; he has given himself one.

“I kind of make the decision myself,” Cooper said. “I’m not going to pursue both professionally.”

When he looks back on his Nebraska career, he sees the long nights doing homework on the bus back from baseball games and he sees the nights rehabbing injuries, but he also sees the growth he made along the way.

“Throughout your time doing it, it helps you grow and mature faster,” Cooper said.

“There was a point where I thought ‘man this is really harder than I thought it would be.’ It really kind of hit all at once. The older I got and the more I did it, it became easier.”

Toward the end of his freshman year, Cooper began to feel like he could balance it all out. Home runs against Louisiana-Lafayette and Cal-State Bakersfield and a touchdown catch against Texas Tech let him know that it was beginning to come together. His goal was achievable.

“Both of those moments really showed me that I had made it, that I could be successful at that level,” Cooper said. “I never questioned my talent or anything, but that just reassured my decision.

“If I could do it over again, I would.”

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