FOXBOROUGH — We have no idea if Kyler Murray will end up playing baseball or football. Maybe the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and first-round Oakland A’s draft pick will try his professional hand at both. We do know Patrick Mahomes could have ended up playing baseball, his rocket arm just as capable of sailing the ball around an infield as it is launching a football down the field for the Kansas City Chiefs. As the second-year pro and presumptive NFL MVP readies for his AFC Championship game Sunday against the Patriots, it’s hard to argue he chose unwisely.
Actually, baseball probably made him a better quarterback.
“Pat, obviously you see his baseball background in some of his delivery. He delivers it from a lot of arm angles. He’s got a lot of whip from his throwing,” none other than Tom Brady was saying Friday, two days before he would lead the Patriots into Arrowhead Stadium to face Mahomes. “That’s a good quality to have as a quarterback, throwing from multiple angles and trying to manipulate the rush and throwing lanes and so forth.”
Brady, like Mahomes once was, like Murray is now, was himself a professional two-sport prospect, drafted in the late rounds of the 1995 major league draft as a lefthanded-hitting catcher. It is that common thread that got me thinking about the value of being a multisport athlete, and how the experiences young athletes gain from different skill sets, diverse teammates, alternative coaching, and varying stakes can shape the adult athletes they become. In an age when specialization has become the rage, when parental dreams can get wrapped up in visions of college scholarships or pro contracts so much that private coaching and elite year-round clinics replace traditional season-to-season local leagues, a small and admittedly unscientific poll of the Patriots locker room confirms the opposite to be true.
“Of all the pro athletes I’ve come across, more than not played multiple sports growing up,” said Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, whose tuition at Memphis was paid for by his baseball scholarship even though it was football that would ultimately pay his salary. “You can learn a lot from playing different sports. I’m a big proponent of it. The more the merrier.”
Such was the prevailing sentiment among athletes on the Patriots, who might not have been able to play two sports professionally (though we know receiver Chris Hogan would have killed it in the professional lacrosse arena, and until rotator cuff issues was a lefthanded-hitting center fielder) but many of whom could have, or did, play two college sports. Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon was a discus thrower and shot-putter for Texas Christian. Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer intended to play both baseball and football at Michigan State until time and arm troubles pushed him to football. Stephon Gilmore fielded college opportunities in track and basketball before starting as a true freshman cornerback at South Carolina.
“Football obviously is a hard grind every day, and stopping football and going to basketball you got to be in different shape,” Gilmore said. “I was more tired when I played basketball, and then when I ran track, it was totally different again. It’s a straight sprint, you do different things. I think playing multiple sports gets you in overall better shape. Your body moves different angles in different sports. I know it’s helped me out a lot.”
Professionals would agree. The American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine published a consensus statement in 2016 concluding that “no evidence is available to show that youth athletes will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports and that early multisport participation will not be detrimental to future athletic success.”
But as any parent who raised a well-rounded athletic child knows, there are benefits beyond the physical.
“I’ve learned so much whether it was, I played a lot of team sports, so being part of a team, learning how to be a leader on different teams, and how to deal with the ebb and flow of different games,” Hogan said. “Playing all these different sports, you learn so much from the people you get coached by. I’ve been very grateful to have a lot of people in my life that taught me a lot about being an athlete, being a competitor, all the stuff that I’ve carried over with me to this point in my career.”
“I think playing multiple sports is by far the best way to go,” Hoyer said. “You’re talking about different teammates, different skill sets, different mentalities. In baseball I was very singularly focused. If I was pitching it was me versus the hitter. You hope you get some backup when the ball gets hit or when you’re hitting. But football is the ultimate team sport and the more I play it the more I realize that you literally can’t run a good play unless the other 10 guys do it. That’s a valuable thing in life.”
Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. “I did it for a social thing because in football, got your helmet on, nobody really knows that you’re doing good, but in basketball, they get to see your face and all,” said defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who even followed his sisters’ lead and played a season of high school soccer. “I tried it out. I can’t say I was the best athlete in soccer, but I went out there. I was running — it was a lot of running. Basketball, too. It definitely helped me in shape, a different kind of physicality. It was helpful.”
For Mahomes, the obvious evidence is in his throws, the sidearm completions, no-look passes, and even that unexpected lefthanded toss for another reception. But as any multisport athlete can attest, the value goes beyond the surface.
“I always enjoyed playing all the sports. I still do,” Brady said. “I think playing all the multiple sports was so great. I played a lot of basketball, a lot of baseball, a lot of football, a lot of dodgeball, kickball — wasn’t very good in English or math or any of those things, but pretty good with the ball in my hands. That was great, and that was a different time growing up where you could really focus on a lot of those things. Now, I think so many people are into these intense sports at such young ages, and I think the burnout factor for a lot of people and a lot of kids starting at a young age, that definitely happens.”