Gopher football recruits multi-talented, multi-sport guys

MINNEAPOLIS -- When the hulking 6-foot-5, 270-pound Garrison Wright approached the net in tennis matches, spectators congregated and opponents fled. On his way to the state doubles tournament as a junior and senior at Marysville (Kan.) High Schoo...

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Minnesota head football coach Tracy Claeys is shown on the sidelines in an undated file photo. (Photo by Mike Carter - USA Today Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS - When the hulking 6-foot-5, 270-pound Garrison Wright approached the net in tennis matches, spectators congregated and opponents fled.

On his way to the state doubles tournament as a junior and senior at Marysville (Kan.) High School, fans and football recruiters wanted to see Wright’s power and relative agility on the court.

During his sophomore year in 2011, Wright eyed up an easy lob and smashed it right below the opponent’s belt, sending him to the hospital.

“Other teams called him the ‘Quiet Giant,’ ” his coach, Mary Kessinger-Wassom, said. “This intimidation just followed him. Everybody was like, ‘Get out of the way; Garrison is on the court.’”

Wright is bringing that swagger to football field at TCF Bank Stadium. Now 310 pounds, Wright is joining the Gophers from Butler Community College in Kansas and is a projected starter at guard next season.


Wright is one of six players to sign early letters of intent with the Gophers in December. Five of them were multi-sport athletes in high school. On national signing day Wednesday, the Gophers are expected to ink another 20 players, including the best in-state football players who didn’t just strap on shoulder pads and helmets.

In January, the NCAA looked - for the first time - at the number of athletes specializing in one sport. According to the study, 33 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision players specialized in football by age 12. Of the 11 sports tracked, soccer had the most specialization (68 percent), followed by tennis (66), hockey (55) and basketball (49).

“There is definitely more single-sport specialization; that is an overall societal trend,” said Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, medical director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.

But the best of the best football players didn’t focus on one sport. Ninety-two percent of NFL all-pro players in 2015 were multi-sport athletes in high school, with 62 percent participating in track and field, according to data base Tracking Football.

“In general, if you look at injury trends and success in the future, people who start to specialize at a very young age very, very, very rarely make it to more elite levels of the sport,” Finnoff said. “It’s because of the problems - burnout, recurrent injuries.”

Gophers ways

At 65 percent, a solid majority of current Gophers football players were multi-sport athletes in high school.

On national signing day last year, now-retired coach Jerry Kill shared a story about assistant coach Pat Poore following a tip on a player he needed to see near the Texas-Mexico border.


Kill relayed this message: “There’s a kid down in El Paso that a lot of people don’t know about. You need to go take a look at him. No. 1, he’s a heck of a basketball player. He’s a heck of an athlete, and he’s a steal.”

Rashad Still was an all-state basketball player and participated in the 300-meter hurdles, triple jump, long jump and multiple relay events on the track and field team at Andress High School.

Still didn’t start playing football until he was a junior. In his abbreviated career, he had 77 receptions for 1,071 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“Football was my best sport,” Still said. “I didn’t start getting recruited until my senior year. My coach put out some film, and they got a look at it.”

Still, who didn’t receive a scholarship offer from hometown University of Texas at El Paso, was offered by the Gophers on Jan. 20 last year. He gave an oral commitment Jan. 24 and signed on the dotted line with Minnesota Feb. 4.

He played 12 games as a true freshman last season and finished with 18 catches for 194 yards and three touchdowns.

Against Illinois, Still used his 6-foot-5 frame to rise up and catch a jump-ball touchdown pass from quarterback Mitch Leidner - using the same muscles and technique he used to go after a contested rebound on the hardwood.

Multiple pros


In Marshall, Minn., senior Drew Hmielewski never considered specializing in one sport.

His parents Chris, who played baseball at Kansas State and baseball in the Montreal Expos’ system, and Mary Jo, a basketball player at K-State, put a ball in Drew’s hand before he could walk.

It hasn’t left.

Hmielewski is projected as wide receiver in the Gophers’ incoming class, but he was also a defensive back, kick returner, punt returner and punter. In baseball, he is a shortstop, center fielder and pitcher. In basketball, he’s a shooting guard or small forward, but sometimes guards post players.

“Drew has always been an explosive player,” Marshall football coach Terry Bahlmann said.

Mayo Clinic’s Finnoff said multi-sport athletes like Hmielewski have physical advantages over specialists.

“They learn different movement patterns, and that makes them a better athlete at any given sport,” Finnoff said.

Bahlmann said the varying activities raise the ceiling for physical breakthroughs.

“It’s hitting all different muscle groups,” Bahlmann said. “If you do one sport over and over, and you are going to build some muscular strength in that area, but you will plateau.”

Hmielewski doesn’t plan on settling for one sport at Minnesota, either. He plans to play baseball for the Gophers after taking his freshman year to focus on football and adjust to college.

“I’ve loved each sport and try to do as much as I can all the time,” Hmielewski said. “Even days that I have off, I want to get out there and do something with a ball.”

As quarterback at Minneapolis North, Tyler Johnson was often the best player on the field. On the basketball court, he is surrounded by talented players, including a handful of Division I prospects, said coach Larry McKenzie.

“In basketball, he has some other kids around him that are talented as well, so it’s about learning to be a good teammate,” said McKenzie, who won four consecutive state titles at Patrick Henry.

Sharing the limelight will be helpful when he switches position and is around other talented players at wide receiver or defensive back with the Gophers.

“It’s going to help me a lot,” said Johnson, who also plays baseball. “Being competitive with my teams is about me wanting them to be better. That is about being helpful at all times and the good things happen.”

Eden Prairie senior linebacker Carter Coughlin is the state’s top-rated football recruit, but he was a defensive and rebounding specialist on the Eagles basketball team until left shoulder surgery ended his senior season about two weeks ago (he can’t lift weights for three months during his rehab but expects to be ready for Gophers fall camp in August).

Coughlin talked about footwork and endurance carrying over from the basketball court but said another advantage came outside the lines.

“You are hanging out with your (travel basketball) team a lot, and so that gave me a really good team feel,” said Coughlin, who has taken a leadership role with the 2016 class by scheduling events and starting a group text message thread.

Specialization cons

Finnoff addressed three main drawbacks to sports specialization.

“One of the more common ones is burnout,” he said.

“Before they even mature and get to a level where they could be a professional athlete or a college athlete, they’re done. They don’t want to do this ever again.”

The time commitment will only increase in college. According the NCAA study,

FBS football players continued to report the highest in-season time commitment at 42 hours per week.

If an athlete doesn’t cross train or play another sport, Finnoff said, that’s a recipe for more injury. Finnoff cited younger prep pitchers needing Tommy John surgeries for elbow ligament damage and high school runners developing stress fractures in their legs.

“If you do one sport and you’re doing a repetitive single movement pattern over and over and over, then that tends to create strength and flexibility asymmetries and overload of specific tissues,” Finnoff said.

Beyond the physical dangers, Finnoff said, lies another potential issue. Specialization, he said, “Is driven by their parents’ paranoia that their child is not going to be the best if they don’t do that single sport,” Finnoff said. “And some of it is parents trying to realize their own dreams where they are trying to live vicariously through their child and really trying to push them.”

Wright way

In order to have Wright play high school tennis, Kessinger-Wassom had to offer a better sales pitch than those from the baseball, golf and track coaches at his small school in northern Kansas.

Wright played basketball in the winter, and Kessinger-Wassom was competing against the basketball and football coaches, too.

“I got him more on the court because he likes it so much, but the coaches are demanding of his time,” she said.

“They wanted him in the weight room. They wanted him doing football workouts. They wanted him doing basketball workouts.”

New Minnesota offensive line coach Bart Miller’s goal is to have the “meanest, toughest and nastiest” guys, who are also are physically gifted and good characters off the field.

“Garrison is my big teddy bear,” Kessinger-Wassom said. “I have three sons, and he is their No. 1 choice for babysitter. Even on Christmas break, we called Garrison. He’s a great role model for kids. He’s got such a great personality.”

In other words, Wright and other Gophers recruits are well-rounded.

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