Tony Jones was a multi-sport standout before settling down and running full time in high school
With all this talk about kids playing multiple sports I figured I would give my take on things. And I want to preference to say that I may come off a little braggidocio, but the main intent is to share experiences and hopefully inspire a soul or two along the way!
In the beginning-
I grew up playing a variety of sports as a youngster in the late 1970s. I believe I was in 5th grade when my elementary school hosted an Olympics style set of games near the end of the year. Among the events were a softball toss, broad jump, and half-mile run. I did fairly well. The main thing in my mind was competing to the best of my ability.
Competition was a big deal among peers of my era. I can recall playing outside all day and evening during the summer months. This is what we did until the street lights would come on. I never attend any sports camps or specialty activities to hone any skills that I might have had. It was all neighborhood born and bred. When you come from a neighborhood with a lot of kids like I did, you learned how to play whatever sport that was available. In the fall season, we played football or some type of army combat games in the woods, during the winter we played basketball, football; the spring was baseball, basketball, and the summer it was any game that came to mind.
It was these assortment of informal games and sports that would eventually lead to organized sports. One of my childhood friends was the first to play Little League baseball. Don O'Neal played catcher for one of the locally sponsored teams in the Terre Haute, Indiana, summer leagues. When O'Neal made the all-star team that encouraged me to beg my mother to let me play organized sports. In my mind I was just as good as O'Neal if not better. I needed an opportunity to showcase my talent and skills.
The first official sport that I got involved in was soccer. Through the local boys club they offered a spring youth soccer league called Vigo County Youth Soccer Association (VCYSA). My mother signed me up at the age of 12. Keep in mind that I never really played soccer growing up, but it is a skill sport and something that I would appreciate years later. Our team was as a whole terrible. I think we only scored three goals all season. But as you know soccer isn't about scoring, the game is all around the field. In a good soccer match you will see the endurance, speed, agility, agressiveness, and footwork. I had all of that and at the end of the season I was invited to join the age 12 travel team.
Building into at a multi-sport athlete-
But my first love was baseball. It is a sport that I fell in love with before I knew what it was. Back then I used to play card baseball with friends and even by myself before actually entertaining the physical side of the game. In my neighborhood we had two playing fields that we converted from football to baseball depending on the season. One of our fields was between a set of homes and apartment buildings. Needless to say there were several broken car and house windows! I would eventually get to play summer ball in the Babe Ruth League. I love the game so much and I became really good at it. But of course I had to make some decisions when I entered high school.
My childhood friends Anthony Thompson (1989 Heisman runner-up) and brother Ernie Thompson both played in the National Football League
I recently asked Ernie Thompson, a long time friend of mine to share his thoughts on how multi-sports are good for kids.
"I started playing multiple sports because I wanted to be just like my three older brothers. During my early years I was too young to participate with my older brothers, so I organized pick-up games with other athletes my age. My early sports years were also a way of getting out of the house and escaping reality. It was much easier to participate in sports than to sit at home with very little to eat. Most of the time our coaches or parents of our friends paid for our uniforms, shoes, and whatever else was needed to fit in with the rest of the team."
I could relate to what Ernie said because I come from the same environment and staying active in sports was the key component in staying out of trouble. Maybe that's how I discovered running in the spring when school was past its peak. As a freshman, it was a physical education requirement to run the mile for time. Either you did it in the fall class or spring, you were going to do it. The fastest time was 5:07 from a kid during the fall period. I remember seeing him run while I was in social studies class looking down on to the track. I got my chance in May near the end of the school year and burned 4:57. The PE teacher Mr. Brackell said my team would be the second or third fastest time in the county if I was on the track team. It was too late for me to officially join the team, but he referred me to the varsity coach for the 10th grade.
But like many young kids I still played multi-sports up to the early grades of high school. It was baseball in the summer, cross country in the fall and track in the spring. But eventually I would have to choose one sport or face some consequences. Ernie said it best here:
"Participating in multiple sports in high school was more difficult because there was no unity among head coaches. Because our teams were good enough to extend past the regular season, our minds were divided because we were scared of losing playing time if we were not out there at the start of practice for the other sport."
I eventually gave up baseball for good going into my junior year of high school. My cross country coach even tried to sabotage me by telling the high school baseball coach to cut me if I came to tryouts. I grew to love running because I was good at it. I qualified individually for the state cross country and track meets in my three years of high school running. When I look back it is a big deal considering I have never had years of training like many of my peers. Or maybe I should have counted all of the other sports as well as neighborhood play into the equation.
The final frontier was college and the thought of any multi-sport activity was not happening. It was all running (xc in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and track in the spring). I was solid in college but not great. Ernie on the other hand went to Indiana University as a star football player and eventually into the NFL where he played for the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs.
"When we got to college, it was very difficult to have singular focus on one sport. A good percentage of my teammates at Indiana University participated in multiple sports in high school, making it difficult to only play football. During the season, we would get together for pick up basketball games, or go jogging or go to the track and run sprints as well as distance. Football at Indiana University demanded so much of our time that it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to join another organized sport. Organizing pick up basketball or soccer games was a way to keep the entire body conditioned rather than only using muscles conducive for playing football."
"When I got to the NFL, it was fascinating to see just how good most of the players were in multiple sports. We would travel as a team to play in celebrity basketball games to keep these muscle firing on all cylinders. Picking a final sport was very difficult to the point where I still have a lot of regret. If I had it to do over, baseball would have been my sport of choice."
I don't have any regrets on the choices that I have made because I feel that I made them on my own terms... and that's all you can ask for.