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Orange County Prep Wednesday : Disappearing Act : Once, the Ampus Hero Wore a Sweater Covered With Letters From Different Sports, But . . . In This Age of Specialization, the Multisport Athlete is Fast Becoming Part of Prep Nostalgia

September 23, 1987|MIKE CORNWELL | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in the future an obscure documentary called Athleticus Multisportius will probably turn up in a dusty, spider-webbed basement.

And some museum will probably send over a gang of critics who will screen the film, watch the same actor catch a touchdown pass, dunk a basketball, then hit a home run. They will proclaim it a fantasy, a marvel of pre-1988 special effects.

If professor Harry Edwards' theory that sport is a mirror of society holds up, those critics just might be right.

"Sports always reflects society, and as society becomes more specialized, sports become more specialized," said Edwards, who teaches sociology at the University of California. "It's characteristic of almost every profession."

Edwards' point has been so well accepted over the years among his peers that it's now about as profound as noting that grass grows out of the ground. These days, when general practice doctors have become neurosurgeons, mechanics have transformed into fuel-injector experts who don't do crankshafts and even body boarders can shove aside Sports Illustrated for their own specialty magazine, it isn't surprising that yesterday's three-sport letterman now plays strictly defense for the his college team and enters the game only on passing downs. And that he started specializing in high school.

"I think specialization is the name of the game in the country, in college sports, in everything we do," said Vince Dooley, Georgia football coach. "I think high schools are following that trend. In one way that's too bad as far as high school athletics is concerned. In my generation, you just went from one sport to the next."

High school athletes used to be more flexible. Burt Call, a former quarterback, point guard and center fielder at Capistrano Valley High School, played in three practice games in three different sports in the space of five hours one day in 1983.

Only last spring, Tommy Adams, then a junior at Capistrano Valley, participated in two sports in the same season. He would sprint in a track meet one day and play baseball the next. Athletes such as Adams, though, seem rapidly becoming part of high school nostalgia.

Tom White, Capistrano Valley track coach, said, "The history books are full of examples of three-sport athletes. But not the recent history books."

Brian Mayfield, a Big Spring, Tex. athlete, decided to specialize in basketball even though he made the 4-A all-state team as a defensive back and a punter. In Orange County, Saddleback's Craig Marshall abandoned football to concentrate in basketball.

Thomas Byrnes, California Interscholastic Federation commissioner, says that while he hasn't seen any studies, he is noticing fewer three-sport athletes these days at the state's larger schools--which isn't surprising. As high school sports get more competitive, coaches run year-round programs and parents see specialization as being synonymous with scholarships.

"Coaches put pressure on kids to make decisions," said Mike Gillespie, USC baseball coach. "Kids are made to feel if they don't make the decision, they will not make it with a particular sport, especially those (with seasons) back-to-back. The combination football/basketball player is one you see less and less."

At Pacifica High, Derek Hickman says he trains all year in football because the competition is so intense. That's especially true for a defensive lineman who stands only 5-foot 9-inches and weighs 207 pounds. By comparison, Esperanza High School's offensive line averages 242 pounds from tackle to tackle.

"The guys I play against, some of them are 6-3 and weigh 10 pounds or more than I do," Hickman said. "They pretty much scare me. I have to be strong to go against them."

Hickman said he started lifting weights in eighth grade and was one of the strongest kids in ninth grade because he began training before everyone else. But he continues training year-round, even though he has bench pressed 340 pounds and done squats with 465.

"This way I can compensate," he said. "If I stopped, I would also lose my mental edge."

Sometimes, starters must train all year just to keep ahead of their understudies. That's especially true at larger schools, where sheer numbers mean better competition. Soon, the understudies begin to specialize as well.

Gary McKnight, Mater Dei basketball coach, said, "I think guys look around and say, 'Hey, I'm losing my edge because I'm having to compete against kids who play just one sport.' "

Chris Patton, who once played baseball and basketball at Mater Dei and now plays for Chapman College, decided to specialize in basketball so he could be a starter.

"That's the thing," he said. "I wanted to start really bad. I wanted to make sure."

Other athletes are pressured by coaches to specialize. Marginal players are told they must work year-round if they are to make the team. Some coaches demand an athlete play only one sport.

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