BYU's Bronco Mendenhall doesn't like it when his guys play other sports. His aversion to track and field is especially concerning for advocates of cougar athletes playing in other sports. Of course, his aversion stems from the fact that he's worried his guys will injure themselves, like Adam Hine did high jumping back in 2012. According to Jamaal Williams, it took quite a bit of time for Mendenhall to come around to the idea of him running track this season:
"I wanted to do it since before I even came here," Williams said. "I wanted to keep on running if I could. But Coach Mendenhall didn't really like track because Adam Hine did it and he hurt himself." That's right- two years ago, Hine, a running back/kick return specialist, suffered an injury as a high jumper. Because of that, "I think (Mendenhall) just put a big ‘X' on football players running track again," Williams said. "I'm glad that he gave me an opportunity to do it, especially when it comes to grades, too." More than anything, Williams views being a member of the track team as a reward for his hard work in the classroom. "One thing about Coach Mendenhall is, he'll let you do it, but have to have responsibility for other stuff, such as grades," Williams said. "If he didn't care about grades, then a lot of us would be out here. It would be easy. This is like a reward for having good grades and working hard in the classroom. He really rewards you for doing things he tells you to do and staying at the expectations he wants you to be at, then he gives you the opportunity to do what you want to do. "There are a couple of dudes (on the football team) who should be running track, and I'm trying to help them with it. I keep telling them if they get the grades right, ‘You can do whatever you want, and you'll enjoy every minute of it.' ... I feel more accomplished and grateful being out here just because I'm out here with good grades, not just being out here because I'm fast and talented." (Jeff Call, Deseret News, 4/26/2014)
Despite Mendenhall's reticence in allowing his players to run, history shows that many of the players who can play multiple sports may be better served by being able to. The University of Oregon, a team that has been successful in producing a national brand, has made liberal use of their football stars on the track. Every Oregon running back since Jonathan Stewart has taken their turn on the track, and LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas have all contributed admirably to the success of their football and track programs through their multi sport initiative. I find it hard to believe that BYU could not benefit from a similar integration. At least one former multi sport Cougar (Football, Track), Cody Fonnesbeck, agrees, and chose to share his experiences:
"When I was recruited in high school, I wanted to be able to play both sports. That was very important to me. I was only going to go to a school that would allow me to compete in both sports. It came down to BYU and South Carolina and both programs agreed to let me participate in both sports. Lavell Edwards was still the coach when I got recruited in High school and Lou Holtz was the coach at South Carolina. Ultimately BYU and Lavell won out in my recruitment. I was only going to go to a school that allowed me to participate in both sports, so if BYU wouldn't have allowed that, then they would have been dropped from my list of schools.
Lavell was great to work with before my mission with allowing me to do both sports. He understood the value that speed brought to the football team. He knew that by participating in track it would only make me a better football player. Football still came first, but they allowed me to practice and participate in the track meets as much as I could. The only exception was that during spring football practice I was only focused on football and didn't participate with the track team. So Lavell was great to work with for football and track and the Head track coach at that time Willard Hirschi loved the fact that he got sprinter on this track team that he didn't have to give a scholarship to because I was on football scholarship, so the track team thought it was great.
When I got home from my mission there was a coaching change and Coach Gary Crowton was the head coach. He assured me during my mission that I would be able to play football and run track when I returned home. If that wasn't the case then upon returning from my mission I would have taken my talents elsewhere, but fortunately Coach Crowton was on board to let me play football and run track. Coach Crowton was much the same as Coach Edwards in that he thought it was great to have me running track on the track team because he saw the value in what it can do for you as an athlete. He had the same rule as Coach Edwards in that we could participate and practice with track during the offseason but during spring football practice it was football only.
One of the major things that helped being a 2 sport athlete at BYU was having someone else on the football team that ran track as well. Nate Soelberg and I both ran track so it was good to have someone else in the same boat as me, so that we could do our football and track workouts together.
There were plenty of times that we have to go get our football lifting in and it was nice that Nate and I could work out together. It worked out really well and I believe that Nate and I were both very successful handling both football and track.
I think the BYU football program could do a better job of letting some of their athletes participate in track. I think it would help the athletes experience more at BYU and it will help them increase their speed which is something BYU needs right now. I would like to see more BYU football players running track because there are a few players that could be really successful in both sports." (Fonnesbeck, 2014)
Track and football pretty much go hand in hand. It's hard for me to imagine two sports that better complement the development of participants in both. Football prizes speed and the development of the explosion that sprinters and jumpers need to develop in order to excel in their respective events. Track and field athletes also often have either the requisite foot speed or the raw strength to succeed on the football field. Throws often provides a way for linemen to work on their overall athleticism as well, making it one of the few sports where both skill position players and the linemen can equally participate and reap the benefits of conditioning and strength training. There's a laundry list of great football players who had success in athletics: Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, OJ Simpson, Jackie Robinson, Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Percy Harvin, Reggie Bush, Jeff Demps, Odell Beckham and Trindon Holliday to name but a few. BYU's all time roster has several examples as well, including brothers Brian and Patrick Mitchell, who both excelled on the football field and on the track. All of these athletes found ways to maximize their success in their respective specialties by competing in either track or football during their primary sport's offseason.
Double sport athletes aren't limited to track and field, however, several great football players also excelled at America's Favorite Pastime. Aside from Robinson, Jackson, and Sanders, notable athletes who played both baseball and football include Russell Wilson, John Elway, Jameis Winston, Tyler Gaffney and Toby Gerhart.
Let's not forget BYU's own Danny Ainge, who played both basketball and baseball collegiately and professionally, and was a three sport all-America athlete in Oregon. Ainge was not only the architect of BYU's deepest NCAA tournament run, he is also the youngest player in the history of the Toronto Blue Jays with a home run. Even Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. played a little football in high school. In my dad's time, playing three sports was almost a requirement. He and his four brothers all played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and either track or baseball in spring. They all ended up playing some sport at the collegiate level. My uncles Duke, Greg and Cameron Mitchell played defensive back for Air Force, University of Puget Sound and Washington State (Where he would play against BYU in the 1981 Holiday Bowl) respectively. My father, Nestor Mitchell played baseball for WSU and my uncle Robin cheered collegiately for Washington. In their day, it was expected that all athletes play multiple sports, and develop multiple skill sets. These days, it's more common to see athletes specialize in one sport at the high school level and beyond, but there are always athletes who make the transition. BYU has several great ones in our history as a school, and I had the honor of running with a few during my stint as a walk on with the BYU track and field team. Let's take a look at a few of our more recent double sport cougars.
Williams really needs no introduction to Cougar football fans. The running back has been the bell cow and workhorse for the Cougar offense for the past two years, gaining over 2,000 yards on nearly 400 carries and 19 touchdowns. On the track for the Cougars he's posted times of 11.10 in the 100m, 22.33 in the 200m, and ran a leg of a 400m relay team that posted a 41.13 time. If he's permitted to continue to run track and field for the Cougars, those times should definitely improve, and track and field could definitely help his professional prospects.
Paul Lasike is a rugby center from New Zealand, who, when he's not demolishing collegiate rugby players in a manner reminiscent of Jonah Lomu on the way to a national championship, is proving to be a remarkably successful short yardage back for the cougars. He carries the ball at nearly six yards a clip, and offered a tantalizing glimpse of his potential in the loss against Notre Dame, where he totaled over a hundred yards on only four carries for a 25 ypc average.
Nate Soelberg was one of the players I had the good fortune to run with during my brief stint with the Cougar track and field squad. Not only did Nate start for two years at cornerback for the Cougars, he also ranks 10th on the BYU all time track and field list in the 100 meters with a time of 10.34. Soelberg had some of the best closing speed I've ever had the pleasure of personally watching on defense. He ran a 4.2 40 yard dash as well, so speed was definitely his forte.
There's not really any reason for coach Mendenhall's intransigence with regard to allowing his players to showcase their individual skills outside of football in other athletic pursuits. Contrary to the thought that they might be injured, switching up their workouts may actually prevent injury and help them to further develop their special recognition, which will ultimately help them become better football players. And that's definitely an idea that any BYU football fan can get on board with.
Along with Bronson Kaufusi, who else do you remember as multi-sport athletes? Let us know in the comments below.