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Globe Magazine

These Boston athletes reached great heights without great height

Mookie Betts, Julian Edelman, Brad Marchand, and Isaiah Thomas on the challenges of being a small sports star.

The Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas has always sought out bigger competition. He is 5 foot 9; the average player height in the NBA is 6 foot 7.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas has always sought out bigger competition. He is 5 foot 9; the average player height in the NBA is 6 foot 7.

If you’ve ever wondered what an athletic-gifts jackpot winner might look like in fledgling form, there’s a YouTube video that could be Rob Gronkowski’s first scouting film.

In the clip, unearthed by CBS and aired on its NFL pregame show last October, a 5-year-old Gronk enthusiastically and efficiently clobbers a pinata during a classroom party. Appearing to be a foot taller than his peers, he uses his height advantage to haul in what appears to be every last piece of candy falling from the sky. Nary a Tootsie Roll hits the floor, and the other kids get an early taste of how NFL defensive backs feel, 20-plus years later, after the 6-foot-6-inch All-Pro tight end catches yet another football.

Gronk’s early pinata domination — he tweeted “Beast!” after he saw the clip — is a reminder that the chosen ones often reveal their supreme talents early. And Boston loves its players big: There’s Gronk, of course. David Ortiz, the Red Sox’ larger-than-life slugger, who’s 6 foot 3. And Zdeno Chara, the Bruins’ skyscraper defenseman, who stands 6 foot 9 without skates. The Celtics’ recent first-round pick, Jaylen Brown, is an NBA tweener at 6 foot 7, but he’s a mere 19 years old. Heck, he may have another growth spurt in him yet.

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But a recently discovered video of a different Boston star foreshadows a counter-current in Boston sports — the rise of dominant athletes sized like the rest of us genetic lottery losers. Titled simply “isaiah thomas 6th grade highlights,’’ it’s a 14-minute, 5-second reel of the Celtics guard’s sixth-grade basketball team in Tacoma, Washington.

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Thomas stands out among his classmates for his skill and polish — the video is not a minute old before he makes a nifty move, wrapping the ball around his waist and finishing with his left hand, a trick still prominent in his repertoire. But watching him did not inspire the immediate belief that the kid would someday become an NBA All-Star. Yes, he was the best player. But he was not the biggest, and size — or a lack of it — is what so often culls even promising prospects. In sports, as in life, it’s the Gronks who usually end up with all the candy.

But not in Boston, not right now. Our sports-mad city has always been a place willing to embrace the smaller athlete, the undersized underdog. The modern patron saint is Boston College football legend Doug Flutie, who has his own statue in Chestnut Hill. Dustin Pedroia has been a Red Sox star for a decade. Brock Holt and Andrew Benintendi are popular among the Fenway Faithful. Pedroia is 5 foot 9, the rest are listed, generously, at 5 feet 10 inches. Torey Krug, meanwhile, is a skillful offensive defenseman for the Bruins despite being only 5 foot 9, small for an NHL defenseman.

And they aren’t even the best of the current Boston professional athletes who have reached great heights without great height, who never let vertical challenges cloud their horizons. Remarkably, there is at least one small superstar on all four of Boston’s most prominent teams. Isaiah Thomas (5 foot 9) led the Celtics in scoring last season and tied former Houston Rocket Calvin Murphy as the shortest player ever to make an All-Star team. Brad Marchand (5 foot 9) led the Bruins with a career-high 37 goals. Mookie Betts (5 foot 9) emerged as one of the most charismatic and promising young players in baseball, earning MVP votes in 2015, his first full season, and ascending even higher with the Sox this season. And Julian Edelman (5 foot 10), who caught the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX, added 61 catches last year while proving as important to the Patriots offense as Gronkowski.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press
Bruins left wing Brad Marchand is 5 foot 9 while the average NHL player height is 6 foot 1.

Thomas, Marchand, Betts, and Edelman are all average height off the field, but play sports where average means being 6 foot 1 (baseball, hockey), 6 foot 2 (football), or 6 foot 7 (basketball). Every one of them has overcome preconceived notions based on their lack of height to become a genuine star in his particular sport. They all were told at some point that a pro career probably wouldn’t happen, that it might be best to find another dream. Thomas was the 60th and last player chosen in the 2011 NBA Draft, by the Sacramento Kings. Marchand did not score a single goal in 20 games during his first NHL season, 2009-10, and wondered if he’d ever get another chance. Betts was the 172d player chosen in the 2011 amateur draft by the Red Sox and was considered a talented but raw prospect. Edelman, after a record-setting career as a quarterback at Kent State, was not even invited to the annual NFL Combine, where approximately 330 college players audition for NFL scouts.

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It’s no wonder the four players, all in their 20s except Edelman, who turned 30 this year, share something of a growing kinship. Betts favored basketball as a multi-sport standout growing up in Brentwood, Tennessee, and says he enjoys watching Thomas play. Thomas says he loves how Betts has become a home-run hitter, his power transcending his size. Edelman and Marchand are friends who work out together from time to time.

“I have a lot of respect for those guys,’’ says Marchand, one of the feistiest players in the NHL. He also cites Dustin Pedroia as someone he admires. “In professional sports, there are very few guys who are small and really excel. They’re all great players. If you look at all of them — all of us — they’re all workhorses,” Marchand says. “Boston loves people that work hard and lay their heart on the line. That’s the fire in each one of us. You can’t be intimidated by anyone. We all kind of have that fight in us. We might not be the tallest guys or the biggest, but we’re going to stand up for ourselves,” says the man dubbed “the little ball of hate.”

Thomas says he would not be here, living his dream, had he not fought his own battles. “Not a thing was given to me. I had to overcome disappointment. When I was kid, my mom used to ask the doctor not to answer me when I’d ask how tall I would be,’’ he says. “I was hoping for 6 feet, 6-1 [the height of former Celtic Nate “Tiny” Archibald]. It used to make me upset sometimes when I was little, learning I wasn’t going to be as tall as I thought basketball players were supposed to be. I had a growth spurt in ninth grade, but I never had another one. But I learned to take whatever I did get. I learned to battle. If it’s a fair competition, I feel like I’m going to win. That’s how it had to be.”

As Celtics fans can attest, Thomas learned to use his size to his advantage — or turn his opponents’ size into their weakness. He is a master of basketball geometry, and his supreme body control allows him to bounce off taller opponents and make seemingly difficult shots look routine. It’s something he learned going up against older players in the Seattle-area basketball hotbed (future NBA players Martell Webster and Spencer Hawes were his peers) — even when he should not have been.

Boston, MA - 03/11/16 - (4th quarter) Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) can't fight his way through a wall of Red jersey defenders as he tried to penetrate the Rocket's defense during the fourth quarter. The Boston Celtics take on the Houston Rockets at TD Garden. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Sports, Reporter: Adam Himmelsbach, Topic: 12Celtics-Rockets, LOID: 8.2.2102723202.
photo-illustration by ryan huddle/globe staff

Thomas’s father, James, says his son had a ferocious determination to become a great basketball player as early as fourth grade. “I worked at the school, and I’d get the message, ‘Isaiah’s refusing to come in again.’ I’d ask where he was, but I knew,’’ says James Thomas, who admits with a chuckle that he’s only 5 foot 6 himself. “He’d be on the basketball court on the sixth-graders’ lunch break. He refused to go back in. I mean, refused. I’d tell him, ‘This is not your basketball time. Your basketball time is with all the other guys [your age]. This is school time.’ But he wanted to stay out and play with the older kids. He thought it was the only way he was going to get better.”

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That dogged work ethic is a shared characteristic among these four. So, too, is the acknowledgment that they are setting an example of hope for smaller youths who are willing to work hard. “Kids look at me,’’ says Thomas, “and they think they’ve got a chance.”

It’s not just about whom they inspire, but whom they’ve been inspired by. All four have parents who simultaneously pushed them and encouraged them. When Thomas was still in grade school, his dad would bring him to play pickup games with his adult friends. “He’d bring his really nice NBA ball,’’ says James Thomas, “but we could use it only if he was allowed to play. That was his deal. Then he’d light everyone up.”

Marchand’s father, Kevin, encouraged young Brad and his friends to use an unfinished basement as a makeshift rink; it’s where Marchand honed his deadly snapshot. “I did that little extra bit that maybe other guys don’t do because they’re a little more comfortable with their status, even when I was 7 or 8,’’ says Marchand, who sheepishly admits that his routine of push-ups at that age might have been “a little premature, but it’s what my dad did himself growing up.”

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is 5 foot 10. The average player height in the NFL is 6 foot 2.

Edelman’s experience was similar to Marchand’s — but with more than one sport, and perhaps with more intensity. His dad, Frank, was a mechanic, but he coached his son in football from Pop Warner through high school in Redwood City, California. “We did football drills every day during football season,’’ says Julian Edelman, who was 5 foot 2 as a high school freshman and, perhaps not surprisingly, idolized Doug Flutie. “In basketball season, I’d take a million shots a night after he got home,” Edelman says of practicing with his dad. “Baseball, he hit grounders, threw batting practice, taught me everything he knew.” Once, Frank brushed Julian back with a pitch, leading to his son charging him on the mound. “We were intense,’’ says Edelman. “But it’s meant everything. He had to work as a kid and didn’t get to play sports. He made it possible for us to live our dreams. I wouldn’t be anywhere near here without him.”

Of course, it helps to have a realist around in the circle of trust, a supporter who has thought out what’s best and does not hesitate to say it, even if  it means redirecting a dream along a slightly different longitude. For the affable Betts, that was his mother, Diana Benedict. She realized her son’s athletic passion was not a wise pursuit in the long run.

“My dad [Willie Betts] was always encouraging, saying, ‘You can go play Division 1 basketball [the highest level in collegiate athletics] just like anyone else can,’ ’’ says Betts, who’s sitting in the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park before an August game. “But my mom was like’’ — he lowers his voice and makes a serious face — “no, you can’t.” He leans back and laughs. “I was like 5-7 in high school, and she said, ‘You need to figure out what you’re gonna do, young man, because basketball ain’t gonna be it.’ ’’

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 28: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox takes the field before the start of a game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 28, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
At 5 foot 9, Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts is a little shorter than some fellow Major Leaguers; the league’s average height is 6 foot 1.

He smiles when he’s asked if he ever battled her on her assessment. “Nah, I figured out at a pretty young age that when she tells me something, it’s going to be what’s best for me, because she’s my mom.” Betts, a first-time All-Star this summer, gestures toward the Green Monster. “I’m in a pretty good spot,’’ he says. “Just look around. She got this one right.”

With that, he shakes hands with a reporter and pops out of the dugout. A swarm of kids, most clutching a pen and a pristine baseball and wearing some variation of a Red Sox jersey, immediately begin serenading him with “Please!” come over and sign autographs. “Mookie! Mookie! . . . Mr. Betts! . . . I play as you on MLB The Show! . . . You’re my favorite player!”

Betts smiles, as if this routine is actually a surprise, nods their way, and glides toward the cacophony. Then he stops. “But, you know,’’ he says, looking back, “I am taller than Isaiah.”

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