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Midwest Recruiting: Multi-sport Athletes see pros and cons of single versus multi-sport college path

By: Steve Vedder, October 29, 2017, 11:00 am

Grand Rapids – Dividing his time while participating in three sports was never the issue with Jake Heilman. It was more about the Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central senior assigning priorities and eventually landing where he believed he belonged.

The history behind Heilman’s athletic career is typical of today’s multi-sport athlete. He began playing T-ball as a 4-year-old, added flag football by the time he was in kindergarten and dipped his toe into basketball in grade school.

Heilman enjoyed success in all sports, becoming particularly adept in football where he started on varsity as a sophomore, and in baseball, where he became an all-conference catcher that same school year.

By the end of his sophomore year, Heilman decided to pare his list of sporting interest to one. Not because he’d lost any desire for two of the sports or because he didn’t have the time to divide himself between all three. But because one, baseball, had become his passion.

"Baseball reared its head," Heilman said. "Baseball had gripped me when I was young and then I started playing travel ball. I remember having two conversations about what to do, one with my dad and another with an assistant football coach. Obviously it was a tough decision because I loved both sports."

Heilman’s decision mirrors a sweeping trend among high school athletes in the sports of baseball and football. The era between the only two Michigan natives to play in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball – Lansing’s Dean Look, who played in the NFL and the major leagues in 1960-61, and Drew Henson, who played for the New York Yankees and later the Dallas Cowboys and Lions in the late 90s – was bulging with high school athletes who played both sports.

That was particularly true at smaller schools that don’t have the enrollments to fill out two rosters without the overlapping of numerous players. Basketball certainly was a popular choice during that time, but in terms of a combination, baseball and football was king.

That, however, is no longer the case. Youth football numbers are down 12 percent over the last five years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The National Federation of State High Schools says participation at that level is down four percent since 2013. Little League Baseball numbers are also in decline.

Most experts point to specialization as at least being partially responsible. But according to Heilman, there is another common explanation which is overlooked. At some point youngsters are simply overtaken by a passion for a single sport. Not because of time or because they’ve lost interest in a sport, or whether they realize picking one over another improves their ticket to college.

It’s no more complicated than naturally settling upon a favorite sport, Heilman said.

"You find that you like one sport, but love another," he said. "I liked football as a freshman, but I loved playing travel baseball. That’s an experience that’s overlooked. It’s about finding the sport you excel at that you also have a natural love for."

That assessment is on the mark, say athletes who are either facing that choice or who made their decision and wound up excelling in college.

Jenison three-sport star Kyle Nott said he’s played football and baseball since the third grade. He’s been the Jenison’s starting quarterback the past two seasons and is considered one of the top catchers in the Grand Rapids area.

Nott, who accounted for more than 1,300 total yards this past season, said he is putting off any decisions on picking one sport over another. Finding time for all three isn’t a particular problem, he said. For instance, he’ll participate in a couple 7-on-7 football camps in the summer, spend another two weeks with the basketball team from June to August and still have time for travel baseball.

"I love both right now and wouldn’t consider quitting either one," he said of football and baseball. "I guess I’ll probably eventually have to make a decision, but that’s the future. I haven’t got to that yet. I do what I can to make all of them work now.

"I definitely have the time for all three. I’m in high school and I like a social life. I’m busy but I can do all three."

While Heilman has made his decision and Nott hasn’t, there are also athletes who pick their sports and move on with their decisions. Former Holland West Ottawa three-sport star C.J. Van Wieren was a member of the Panthers’ state champion baseball team in 2003, holds the single-season school record with 29 touchdown passes and went on to play football and basketball at Ferris State.

Van Wieren said he heard people who believed he should have narrowed his sports to a single choice. But that was never part of the plan, Van Wieren said.

"People said I would have been better at one sport, but I don’t honestly believe it," he said. "I loved playing multiple sports. I think I became a better athlete because I did play three. People say you can fall behind (by playing multiple sports), but I never believed that."

Van Wieren said it’s shortsighted to force an athlete to pick one sport.

"I wouldn’t have changed anything I did in my athletic career," he said. "It was always a no-brainer for me. I encourage kids to play every sport because it makes them a better athlete, teammate and person. It’s an absolute shame if they don’t and I share that with kids. Play every sport you can is what I tell them.

"There are a lot of benefits to that, including making you a better athlete and person, too. I would turn blue in the face arguing for that."