Thursday, March 19, 2015

Stanford Pro Day…Sights and Sounds

I just got back from Stanford’s Pro Day. This is the event where the scouts for many (if not all) NFL teams come to watch the Stanford football players who declared for the draft. Some of the players were invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month (Andrus Peat, Alex Carter, David Parry, Ty Montgomery, etc.). Others were not and this is just an opportunity for them to get in front of the teams one more time.

AJ Tarpley getting ready to run
They do various drills, are timed, etc. As I am not an NFL scout, I do not know how they evaluate these players based on these drills. I just know what I have seen on the field on Saturdays.

Stanford football has tremendous athletes and Coach David Shaw and his staff do a great job at reloading every year. I look at many of these players and wonder how they will fill that hole next year, but someone is always waiting for their shot.

This is my second Pro Day at Stanford. And no, my first Pro Day was not Andrew Luck’s. I actually watched him on TV trying to release the ball before the broom attacked. I attended the following year.

One thing you have to know about going to Pro Day at Stanford. It’s going to be hot. There is no shade, although the athletic department does put up a few umbrellas. So bring plenty of water and a hat.

Many former Stanford players show up. This year I noticed Indianapolis Colts teammates Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen, among others.

Coby Fleener on the right
Coby, who is a tight end, had a breakout season with 51 catches for 774 yards and eight touchdowns this year. Something just seemed to click this year for Coby.

“Playing under Pep Hamilton’s (Colts offensive coordinator and former Stanford OC) system helped…and people don’t realize that the stripes on the ball are different and they are coming right at you. The pro game is much different than the college game.”

I also spied Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie talking to San Jose State wide receiver Jabari Carr in the parking lot. Jabari, who had his Pro Day yesterday and enjoyed it, said, “It was fun to get back out there on the field.”

The Stanford players also shared some thoughts.

Andrus Peat, an offensive tackle, who is predicted to go in the first round of the draft, stands at 6-7, 313 pounds. He made All-Pac-12 first team, Outland Trophy quarterfinalist, Sporting News and SI.com All-America, and on and on. Andrus is the son of former NFL offensive tackle, Todd Peat, who played for the Cardinals and the Raiders.

“Today was what I expected,” he said. When asked about San Francisco 49er Chris Borland retiring earlier this week due to concerns around concussions, Andrus said, “It’s his decision. I want to play as long as I can.”

Ty Montgomery
Ty Montgomery, wide receiver (and return specialist) who finished the season with a team-high 61 receptions for 604 yards. He was a Hornung Award finalist, SI.com All-America honorable mention, All-Pac-12 second team (return specialist), etc. He lost 10 pounds of muscle between the combine last month and today.

“I was lighter and felt more flexible (today),” he said. “My emphasis was on flexibility. I got a little stiff (at the combine). I felt fast and explosive today. It’s been a little stressful and tiring, but this is what I signed up for…what I want to do. I’m very grateful to be here.”

Now, all that is left is the waiting…until their name is called on draft day(s), April 30.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

JJ Ambrose….and the Two-Minute Drill

I have wanted to interview JJ Ambrose, the MMA fighter, for a few years. It took a while for us to set this up, but I guess it’s all about timing. He is in between fights at the moment, waiting for his petition to join the UFC to be accepted. Or, as JJ likes to say, he is waiting to join the major leagues.

The first time I saw JJ was at my gym, Bodies by Amorim. My personal trainer, Kevin Nathan, was telling me how JJ, aka Superman, was getting ready for an upcoming fight. It’s incredible to see what he goes through in the gym. I have witnessed all kinds of athletes train, but none can do what JJ does.

JJ Ambrose after winning a fight
For those of you who don’t know much about MMA, it is a combination of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling.

JJ, who turned professional in 2005, has an overall record of 21-5. He has been fighting in the Lightweight division for Bellator since 2012.

We sat down recently to talk and here’s what JJ shared with me.

PJ: How did you get started in this sport?

JJ: I started in 2005, my senior year in high school. A promoter from a neighboring city asked a group of us [at school] if we wanted to fight. Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV was just starting and it was popular with guys my age. It seemed natural. I went on the show and won. It felt good at the end to have my arm lifted above my head.

I didn’t have a lot of direction at that point. Thought I’d wrestle in school, but I wasn’t sure of what would have been next. When I ended up winning the fight I met people who helped me connect the dots. I spoke to people who pointed me in the right direction of where to go next.

I trained in SoCal full-time and opted out of Cerritos College for wrestling. It sounds silly not to go to school. But, I had no passion for any other career but this one. It was fulfilling a dream. In a sense I feel like the kids from Peter Pan—the Lost Boys. I don’t want to grow up.

PJ: How did you know MMA was it?

JJ: Part of me felt this was destiny or fate. I saw myself making it here. In the beginning I was na├»ve. When I first started out fighting I was sure of myself. Then I got older and realized, hey, I’m good at this.

PJ: What is it about MMA that makes you want to continue to do it?

JJ: It clicked from that first fight. All the martial arts pieces come together. It’s addicting in a way. Although, there are some scary things behind the scenes. The 24 hours before a fight I feel like I’m line for a roller coaster and I can’t get out of line. Every fight it’s the same mentality—the fear of the unknown. The waiting. It’s not like a street fight, there is no escalation. It is eight weeks of training, knowing who you are going to fight and having no animosity towards them. You just know that in eight weeks you get into the cage and fight.

It’s still an addiction. At my first fight camp, the night before weigh in I felt like I was going crazy. Part of me wanted to quit. One of the coaches said that it’s crazy to get in a cage and not feel it. This is going against the grain…starving yourself [for the weigh in]. The body and mind want shelter, enough food to eat, etc. Here you are willing to put yourself in harm’s way. It’s your moment of sanity thinking I want to quit.

But you can’t. The night before the fight all the nerves and pressure are there. After the fight you know exactly why you do this. It seems perfectly natural, not crazy. Then, a month goes by and you forget again and ask why am I doing this?

PJ: What are you top moments in MMA?

JJ: It’s hard to narrow down everything. Although, I have to say the travel around the world and the people I’ve met resonate. I’ve met the who’s who in MMA.

I remember as a kid watching [Jean Claude] Van Damme’s movie Kickboxer and thinking Wow, it would be awesome to train in Thailand. Then at 23 my bags were packed and I was going to Thailand. If I had gone to college I wouldn’t have traveled to all those places in the short life I’ve had.

PJ: What was it like in Thailand?

JJ: It was an eye-opener. The sport is more embedded in the culture. In American it is baseball, there it is Muy Thai. I’m not sure what percentage of the population fights there, but you are either a tuk tuk driver, a government official or a fighter. When they see a Westerner, they ask Muy Thai?
Thailand is a beautiful place, but people assume if you are a Westerner, you are there training Muy Thai.

PJ: How about the training?

JJ: Before Thailand training was different. It’s hard to break down. Before I fought with a controlled rage. I’d pump myself up over nothing and fight. There, both fighters are trying to get ahead. They accept losses and carry on.

In America, people are bitter and angry if your team gets knocked out of the playoffs. They are bitter and root against others.

In Thailand, it’s I lost, I’ll go back to the gym tomorrow. It’s business as usual…an acceptance. It’s not a change in training, it’s more of a change mentally. There is a lesson learned, now go back to the gym…now I know how to train.

PJ: How has your training changed since you’ve been working with Kevin Nathan and Travis Amorim of Bodies by Amorim?

JJ: As a fighter, my mentality was either to spar or do martial arts training to get in shape. I had read about strength training and heard others talk about it. It has made me more efficient. Now I am stronger and faster and my level of coordination has improved. This is the key to the puzzle…what makes me a complete fighter.

Year round I maintain a level of cardio. I am never out of shape. I can’t get stronger and faster at the same time. Sometimes I work on strength and other times speed. Right now, I am working on my skills sets—to get better. Recently, I trained for a fight that was cancelled, so I am ready to go.

In UFC fights get cancelled a lot. It is the equivalent to a pitcher on the sidelines waiting to go in. Now, I am just waiting for an opponent.

Fortunately, I am still young enough to make an impact in UFC. I have another 5-10 years in me. Luckily, I haven’t been injured and I am still coherent—no brain injuries, so it’s a matter of time.

PJ: How do you keep motivated?

JJ: I enjoy training. I enjoy the camaraderie with the other fighters. It is the sense of fitting in—like we are all crowded around the campfire telling stories. As fighter, it’s comforting knowing others are going through the same strife as you. You are not the only one.

It’s like two people tired and both look up at the same time and see each other suffering. I know what you are going through.

PJ: What is your favorite sport to train?

JJ: I get a different satisfaction out of all of them. I enjoy jiu jitsu, boxing, wrestling—all of it. It’s about landing a punch. I am not happy hurting someone, but I get a satisfaction out of landing a perfect punch. I want to make people quit—not die—that is the goal.

PJ: What are your goals?

JJ: I don’t really have goals, just the next step. I like the next 20 foot theory. If I had a flashlight and shined it, I can’t see 200 miles down the road, but I can see 20 feet. Now, it’s all about getting into the UFC. Once I get there I’ll see what’s next. I focus on being in better shape than I am today….If I had been too far-reaching, like a goal of UFC champion right now, I wouldn’t achieve it. I never think like that.

I think sometimes there is a problem with kids starting out…all they see is the glitz and glam. Yet, it takes years to get where I am now. You have to go through stumbles…that’s what makes great athletes—being able to pick yourself up over and over again when you fail.

PJ: You are spending your time now as a personal trainer. How is that?

JJ: I am pretty selective on my clients. I enjoy training my wife and friends—people I care about. I get satisfaction when I can see people I care about succeed in their goals. When I can help someone else and have some type of impact, I like it. I enjoy showing what I’ve learned.

PJ: How do you keep inspired?

JJ: I write a note for myself before my fights. The note is like an identity statement. [It helps] with the nerves in the 24 hours before a fight…there are a lot of what ifs…a lot of thinking. I have nightmares where I am afraid of the dark, like I am a 10 year old. I wake up and I forget I am an adult…a fighter. At this point there are so many nerves and wasted energy.

I have quotes from different authors and things from me. I trained really hard for this fight. I killed it in training. It’s like an affirmation to myself. Otherwise, I will revert to a child.

It’s hard not to think. I am reminded of the movie, The Last Samurai…there is a line “Too many mind…the sword…the enemy….” In MMA, this clicks. You think about what’s ahead of you. It’s the larger focus when fighting. It’s like anything in life. I ask my daughter…how many things do you do at once? She is drawing and looking at the TV at the same time. This lesson to her applies back to me.

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Follow JJ on Twitter @SuperJJAmbrose



Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tyrone Brooks…and the Two-Minute Drill

It’s spring and for Tyrone Brooks, who is the Director of Player Personnel for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that means he should be in Bradenton, Florida, meeting with the scouts and his team and getting ready for the season.

Instead, he is in San Francisco, waiting for the birth of his second child. San Francisco? Not Pittsburgh? That’s right. I know, it sounds a little confusing.

Tyrone Brooks
Here’s the backstory. From 2007-2009 Tyrone and his wife, Stephanie, lived in San Francisco when he worked as a scout for the Cleveland Indians covering the Pacific Coast League, Texas League, and California League.

He accepted a job with the Pirates as Director of Baseball Operations and a few days later his daughter was born in San Francisco. He and Stephanie want their second child to be born in San Francisco, as well.

So here they wait, as the Pirates start spring training in Florida.

For Tyrone, his path to this point started with the Atlanta Braves. He was an intern at first and then held various positions (in player development, scouting, and administration), throughout his 11 year tenure, as the Braves won 10 Division titles in 11 seasons and had two World Series appearances in 1996 and 1999. The organization won a total of 14 Division titles from 1991-2005—an incredible streak.

Tyrone knows how fortunate he’s been in his career and is grateful to those who have helped along the way the past 20 years. He also is not shy about giving back. He founded a group on LinkedIn, Baseball Industry Network, to help others who dream of working in baseball.

Tyrone and I sat down recently and he shared his story.

PJ: What is the outlook for the Pirates this season?

Tyrone: I think our club has the best depth as an organization I’ve seen here. It’s our best team on paper, but it’s a matter of us going out and taking care of business. The goal is bring the championship to Pittsburgh. This hasn’t changed. We have the same goal every year. We’ve taken little steps towards that.

In our division, we have to go through St. Louis. And the others have gotten better—Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee are all strong clubs. It’s going to be very competitive. We have to win every series. If you win two out of three games you are a very good team. It’s tough, but that’s what we have to do.

PJ: Who should we keep an eye on this season?

Tyrone: With the loss of Russell Martin to Toronto, we’ve brought Francisco Cervelli over from the Yankees. Russell did a great job handling the pitching staff and getting guys ready to pitch every game. Cervelli is an important player to watch. Defense is a big priority for us and if he can add some offense that will be good. It could be a pivotal spot for us.

PJ: Recently, Andrew McCutchen wrote a piece for the Players Tribune. What are your thoughts on this?

Tyrone: I was blown away by his message. What he’s dealt with growing up and especially with the resources he had and yet didn’t let the obstacles get in his way to achieve. It [this piece] opened a lot of eyes. It’s good to hear from someone like him. This should be a must-read and hopefully other players will chime in on how they can help.

What Andrew’s done on and off the field is exemplary. It would be nice to have 25 like him on the club, but that’s not possible. In the community he is helping kids and local charities and a lot of that goes unnoticed. He understands his position as a role model for kids coming up.

PJ: What can you tell me about the Pirates turnaround?

Tyrone: You have to look at the owner, Bob Nutting, and what he brought—a long-term vision for the franchise. He brought in the President, Frank Coonelly, and the GM Neal Huntington. Building from the bottom up with a process to develop a strong infrastructure from scouts to coaches to analysts. There is a lot of faith in individuals…there is also faith in leadership. All aspects have been part of this change.

One other thing that has been important is bringing in Clint Hurdle as manager. He has brought people in Pittsburgh together and is a leader on the field. He is a positive individual and has created an environment for the players to want to win. Initially, I saw the players hoped to win. Now, they believe in themselves and want to win every night. That’s how the mindset of our organization has changed.

In my first year, 2010, we lost 105 games. It was tough to get through. However, having gone through it as a group, we all want to do better, together. Neal, Frank, and Bob put this in place. They want to see people do well and gain opportunities. In turn, people want to do better and achieve because they understand what we want to do as an organization.

PJ: What is the organization’s biggest achievement?

Tyrone: Looking at the group that has been in place the last eight years, I would have to say sustainability…making the playoffs two years in a row. It’s one thing to get to the playoffs once. But if you do it the next year, it shows that you weren’t just a one-year wonder. It shows that things are going on here.

PJ: How has technology and information changed your role?

Tyrone: The stakes are so high at this point. More and more clubs need data along with the information they are getting from scouts. It’s the baseline of where a guy fits, to help make educated decisions.

The Braves were a scout-centric organization. Now, so much information is used, both data and from scouts. Teams are truly run like a big business and it’s a matter of showing results. The GM reports to the president…and having the information is valuable to show why they are making certain decisions.
The biggest thing now is that information flows much faster and we make decisions at a faster pace.

Information is so accessible and easy to get. So, it makes sense to do more due diligence. There have been so many changes in the front office, going back 10-15 years. Now there are diverse skill sets. There are obviously so many intelligent individuals drawn into the game now. It’s changed how the game is run.

PJ: What do you see as the next wave?

Tyrone: I definitely see that information is getting more in-depth every year. I think we will continue to see this taken to another level—becoming more measurable and more accurate.

PJ: Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

Tyrone: Looking back, No. 1 is John Schuerholz, who was GM of the Atlanta Braves and is now President. How he was able to trust people and put the right people in the right places. He had good instincts in reading people, understanding which players to bring in, and the organizational structure was just amazing.

It was an amazing streak—the Braves winning 14 straight division titles. Every year we expected excellence, we expected to be in the playoffs. Because of this, I challenged myself and asked “Is what I am doing making a difference?”

John did this. Not by micro-managing, yet when you needed input he was there. For me, I look at how he was able to be so successful for so many years…running this team and being so successful.

Paul Snyder [held various front office roles for the Braves] is another great…just being around him and Dayton Moore [also in the front office with Braves and current Royals GM]. How loyal they both were and how people were loyal to them. How they gave people opportunities, promoting from within.

These individuals challenged me…always allowing me to grow. I will always be grateful to them.
And, also Hank Aaron and Stan Kasten created an intern program [for minorities with the Braves] to get in the door at the ground level to learn and grow from there. If it wasn’t for that who knows if I would’ve been able to get my foot in the door at that time.

PJ: Tell me a little about working with Hank Aaron, who is one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, one of my favorites, as well as a great person.

Tyrone: You look at the struggles he had to go through from playing in the deep South and breaking the home run record and he is always so positive. None of this [his struggles] tainted anything for him. He has an understanding for each person…for who they are and trusts them. When I was in Atlanta he would talk to the young players about how he overcame obstacles and about treating others with respect. His love of the game would come out, as well as his positive frame of mind. He is a classy individual. As an industry we are proud of what he has done both on and off the field, and how he has conducted himself.

I came away with an understanding of him as a man and as a business person. He was an intelligent player and this has translated into being a successful executive. Seeing him as a person, his outreach in the community, and focus on education for people of color…this has had a great effect on me. For me, my education truly opened up doors for working in baseball.

PJ: As John Schuerholz, Dayton Moore, Paul Snyder, Stan Kasten and Hank Aaron helped you in your career. Tell me how you are paying it forward with your Baseball Industry Network group on LinkedIn?

Tyrone: I started this group five years ago. For me, it’s a passion to help people achieve in this industry and get opportunities. My thought behind it was two-fold—to bring professionals together to network and grow and to reach back to help those trying to break in.

This is truly a people business and it’s about building relationships. If it wasn’t for others I would not be where I am today—20 years working in baseball doing something I love to do. If I can help open doors to help others achieve their dreams, that’s great. When I get emails and calls from people who I may have helped by giving them advice, and hear their updates, I feel a lot of joy and take a lot of pride in that.

If we can continue to educate, even kids in inner cities, showing that if you love to do it, you can do it for a career [that’s a goal]. Most people only see the on field, but we can show them that they can still do things to work in sports, just behind the scenes.

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The Baseball Industry Network can be found at www.baseballindustrynetwork.com and followed on Twitter @tbrooksBIN





Monday, February 23, 2015

Kevin Garnett, Dee Brown, Juwan Howard, Ronnie Fields…just who was the best high school basketball player?

Who was the best high school athlete you covered? I get asked this question a lot.

One of the great things about sports is that we are always wondering who is the all-time the best. From the Top 100 Best NBA players to Hall of Fame inductees—the debate is ongoing.

Kevin Garnett dunking during
his first go-around with the Timberwolves
I thought it was time to turn back the clock and think about some of the best high school players. I asked a few of my former sports writing colleagues from Chicago to join in the fun.

Here’s the roster for our high school sports roundtable:

Tina Akouris covered high school sports from 1994 to 2013, with a break from 2009 to 2012 to cover the Big Ten, and is currently a producer/writer for WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM in Chicago.

Dale Bowman covered high schools sports from 1984-2013 and is currently the Chicago Sun-Times outdoors columnist, host of Outside with Dale Bowman radio show, co-host and prime blogger for Stray Casts Media, and monthly columnist for Heartland Outdoors.

Orrin Schwarz has covered high school sports from 1991-present and is currently Assistant Sports Editor/DuPage County and pro soccer writer for the Daily Herald Media Group.

And I covered high school sports from 1985-86, 1988-2000, and 2012-2013.

So, without any further delay…

Who were the Top 5 boys basketball players you covered or saw play and why?

Tina: The ones I remember most are from St. Joseph in Westchester: Demetri McCamey and Evan Turner mid-2000s; and Leon Smith from King and Quentin Richardson from Whitney Young in the mid-1990s.

McCamey and Turner just dominated, and playing their home games in a small gym probably helped make them appear bigger than they were.

Smith and Richardson went head to head in a Public League Championship game [1998] and the hype leading up to that game was intense. It was the good guys of Young vs. the rough-around-the-edges guys from King. People thought Smith had taken a few cheap shots at Richardson in that game. 

Dale: Ronnie Fields, Farragut, mid-1990s. He was just an explosive all-round player.

Tommy Kleinschmidt, Gordon-Tech, late 80s. He was an all-round, technically perfect and better athlete than most would admit of a white player.

Rod Brookin, Steel-High, Steelton, PA, mid-80s. A monster player, who smashed backboards, at least twice if my memory is right, and packed gyms.

Kevin Garnett, Farragut, mid-90s. I suppose I should include him, but Fields was a better high school player.

I only had a chance to cover or see them once or twice, but King’s Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton, early-mid 90s. They were big enough to play in the NBA in high school, probably the greatest Twin Towers anywhere in the U.S. at any time

Orrin: Dee Brown, Proviso East. He had a special quality about him even then. You had fun watching him have fun.

Drew Crawford, Naperville Central. A great athlete, but also a very smart player, son of NBA ref Danny Crawford.

Ronnie Fields, the best athlete this side of Michael Jordan, too bad he couldn’t get things together outside of basketball.

Kevin Garnett. I thought it was a mistake for him to go pro straight from high school. Turns out the mistake was mine.

John Shurna, Glenbard West. Not a great athlete, but he made everyone around him better.

PJ: Jamie Brandon, King, late 80s-early 90s. From the moment I saw him play he made this list. He was a leader on the court and early on in his high school career you knew he was really good. He led his team as a senior to a 32-0 record and the state title and was Mr. Basketball in 1990. I remember a half-court buzzer beater he made in the semi-finals of the Public League Championships to help his team advance. I think it was his sophomore year. To this day, they are still debating whether that one left his hands before the clock ticked down.

Kevin Garnett. He dominated in his senior year. A great player.

Ronnie Fields. He was another player that was fun to watch grow from his sophomore year on. I agree with Dale, he was better than Garnett.

Juwan Howard, CVS, late 80s. There was a lot of talent in Chicago during this time and he stood out. Like Jamie Brandon, he just kept getting better.

If you could travel to any time period, what boys basketball player or team would you like to see play and why? Or, if it’s a player/team in another sport, please share.

Tina: I’d love to have seen Ben Wilson play at Simeon his junior year, the season that my former colleague at the Sun-Times, Taylor Bell, named him the No. 1 player in the nation. I was only in junior high when Wilson was killed so I don’t remember him that much.

Dale: Baseball, Shawon Dunston. I just thought he had baseball gifts beyond belief.

Orrin: Kenny Battle, 1984 West Aurora. When I was in high school, he was the guy to watch.

Thornton High School basketball…1998? It was a pretty amazing team also with Antwaan Randle El, Napoleon Harris, and Tai Streets. They played football professionally, but they were a lot of fun to watch on a basketball court.

Brian McBride’s Buffalo Grove soccer team.

PJ: Benji Wilson. From what I’ve heard, he was simply the best.

Proviso East’s 1991 one-loss state championship team with Michael Finley, Sherrell Ford, and Donnie Boyce. The “Three Amigos” were future NBA players.

And I think I want to see Rod Brookin smashing those backboards!

Who were the Top 5 all-around male/female high school athletes you’ve seen play and why?

Tina: Candace Parker, Naperville Central, graduated in 2004. She played like a guy, and I mean that as a compliment. She had this easiness on the court and by her just showing up, she could intimidate players on the other team...thereby getting a win.
Alexandria Anderson
competing in the long jump
in high school

Alexandria Anderson, track and field, Morgan Park [she went on to Texas and is now competing for USA Track & Field]; early 2000s. She was the one who broke Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s state record in the long jump. No one thought anyone could do that. When she ran, it looked like she was floating.

Dan Dierking, Wheaton Warrenville South (WWS), mid-2000s; football and track. He was the Sun-Times player of the year his senior year. He broke some of Red Grange’s records at WWS, but I remember him more as just being a nice kid, who didn’t let all the hype get to him.

Dale: Terri Zemaitis, early 90s. Three-sport star at Downers Grove South, then an All-American volleyball player at Penn State.

Ricky Watters, mid-80s. I covered him when he was already a stud football player as a sophomore at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, PA. By the time he was a senior, not a single school would kick the ball to him.

Ronnie Fields. A helluva a basketball player who seemed to enjoy what he did.

Mark Mulder, Thornwood, baseball, mid-90s. He was such a good baseball player that when the coaches and I were doing the Sun-Times All-Area team, we had three options for him: pitcher, first base, or DH.

Rod Brookin. First high schooler I saw bust a backboard, at least twice. You had to get to his games more than an hour ahead of time, even if you were press, to get in the gym.

Orrin: Candace Parker. The best women’s basketball player ever.
Candace Parker, now with
LA Sparks, dunking

Mike Fisher, Batavia, soccer, 1993. The first MLS draft pick, but he chose med school. I’ve never forgotten his bicycle kick goal in the state third-place game.

Austin Teitsma, Glenbard South football, wrestling, track, 2011. He always seemed to have a smile on his face. A great teammate who also excelled in all three sports, and I think he won state titles in track and wrestling. Played football at Illinois.

Justin Jackson, Glenbard North, a freshman running back at Northwestern. I never actually saw him play football, I just had writers thanking me each week for sending them to cover his football games. I did see him play basketball. He took his team to the supersectional. A year later that team has only won half a dozen games.

Reilly O’Toole, WWS football, just quarterbacked Illinois. This might have been what it was like watching Fran Tarkenton.

PJ: Karen O’Malley, Madison East (WI), basketball, 1985. She went on to play at the University of Wisconsin. She had a sixth sense on the court. She saw everything, knew when to play more aggressively and just loved to play the game.

Kristi Gaines, Tunstall (Dry Folk, VA), softball, 1991. She was the ace pitcher on this team that lost a tough 2-0 game in the state semi-finals. She led her team to a 23-2 record and totally dominated batters. The best high school baseball or softball player I ever saw play the game.

Donovan McNabb, Mt. Carmel, early 90s. As a quarterback he just stood out.

Who were the biggest surprises (went on to have bigger college/pro careers than you imagined) in any sport?

Dale: By far, Kevin Garnett. I thought Fields was a much better player. Second would be baseball player Jody Gerut, Willowbrook. I would have never thought he would be signed, let alone make the majors. But he did.

Orrin: Frank Kaminsky, Benet Academy, playing at University of Wisconsin. Nobody who saw him play in high school expected him to be this good. Nobody.

John Shurna. A great kid who nearly carried Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament.

Antwaan Randle El, Thornton about 1997, Indiana, Pittsburgh Steelers. Considering his size, or lack thereof, he did much better than expected.

Chad Steinbrecher, Glenbard West soccer, 1992, U.S. Navy Seals, multiple deployments, son of former U.S. Soccer secretary general. Excelled on a different playing field.

Who were the biggest busts (athletes you thought would make it, but didn't)?

Tina: Kyle Prater, Proviso West; he graduated in January of 2010. He went to USC but was injury prone and transferred to Northwestern. People made a big deal about him in high school because he was tall (6-5ish), but he also played in one of the weaker football leagues in the area. He was banged up a lot at Northwestern, too.

Evan Watkins, Glenbard North, quarterback; went to Northwestern. He was a huge kid, over 6-5 and everyone fawned over him as a high school quarterback...again the height thing....and he WAS good in high school, but at Northwestern he was behind Dan Persa and didn’t see much playing time until Persa ripped his Achilles tendon against Iowa in November 2010 and Watkins had to take over. The kid looked scared, like he wasn’t prepared and was just really awkward out there. He ended up leaving the football program.

Dale: Ronnie Fields. I thought he was a lock for the NBA from the time he was a freshman in high school.

Robert Farmer, a running back from Bolingbrook who was buried at Notre Dame by Holtz (if my memory is right, or maybe I just like to blame Holtz). Farmer might have made the greatest high school play I ever saw. He was playing safety or cornerback, I forget which one, and an opposing wide receiver ran free. Farmer came from the other side of the field and ran him down, then blew him up with a hit from behind, from behind I said, which could be heard on the other sideline.

Jarrett Payton, St. Viator, mid-to-late-90s. He could have been one of the greatest soccer players to come out of Illinois, instead he switched to football and was so-so.

Orrin: Mike Fisher. He probably shouldn’t be considered a bust since he chose med school after graduating Virginia. But he would’ve been a great pro.

Ronnie Fields, poor grades, a car accident, poor basketball fundamentals because he relied on outstanding athleticism.

Benji Wilson
Benji Wilson. Again, not really a bust. Murdered on a Chicago street before he could graduate high school. He would have been one of the best basketball players to come out of Chicago. All the greats to come out of Simeon, like Jabari Parker and Deon Thomas, are compared to Wilson.

Billy Savarino, soccer, Brother Rice. Set the Illinois scoring record, but he wasn’t a good enough athlete to be great at the next level at Notre Dame.

PJ: Jamie Brandon. I thought he would have a great college career and a lock for the NBA. He was a good ball-handler, floor leader, and shooter. He went to LSU and played with Shaq. He never got to play in a system that used his skills. He didn’t do much at LSU and declared for the draft early and went undrafted.

I agree with Orrin and Dale on Ronnie Fields.

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And I must say while we still do not have a clear cut answer to the all-time best high school basketball player or the best high school athlete, we were all so fortunate to have witnessed so many greats.


Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz

To read Dale’s outdoors columns check it out here Sun-Times outdoors
You can catch Dale’s podcast (coming soon) and blogs here Stray Casts "Outdoor Cartoon Television"
Follow Dale on Twitter @BowmanOutside

Follow Tina on Twitter @takouris