GameDay: Oregon football players struggle transitioning to basketball, but should they specialize?

With about a second left in the game, Pleasant Grove High School trailed Monterey Trail 59-58 on Dec. 10, 2010. Pleasant Grove’s head coach, John DePonte, decided to run the final play for his star junior, Arik Armstead.

“Coach Duponte draws up a play, gets it to Arik, who hits a turnaround jumper at the buzzer,” Armstead’s father, Guss, said. “Right off the football field, pretty much.”

Six days earlier, the Pleasant Grove football team beat Monterey Trail 21-6 in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section championship. Armstead, who played offensive and defensive line for the Eagles, tallied four tackles in the championship game.

Armstead fondly remembers these high school games, but his roots in basketball run deeper. He started playing the sport when he was about six years old. And he smiled when he talked about his father’s basketball camps and traveling to nearly 25 states with his Amateur Athletic Union team.

“I’d say my best childhood memories were from AAU basketball,” Armstead said.

Armstead, now a sophomore at Oregon, stuck with both sports when he got to college. But on Jan. 28, he decided to leave the basketball team.

“I had to make the best decision for me and going forward in what I wanted to do with my career,” Armstead told the Emerald on Feb. 10. “So I felt like focusing on football, focusing on school was most important at the time.”

Freshmen twins Tyrell (linebacker) and Tyree Robinson (defensive back) also planned on playing basketball after the football season ended, but they never made the roster and Tyrell doesn’t know why. He said he’d happily play if he could, but head men’s basketball coach Dana Altman never returned Tyrell’s phone calls.

“I don’t want to hang up my shoes,” Tyrell said.

Still Tyrell said he could see himself eventually ending pursuit of a basketball roster spot if he makes strides in football.

Oregon football’s final game of 2013 – the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30 – occurred 12 games into the basketball season. Football’s late finish makes it nearly impossible for any of its players to receive substantial playing time on the basketball court (Armstead played four minutes in his three weeks with the team). However, these football players might be losing more than they might think by shunning basketball.

Focusing on one sport in college doesn’t create nearly as much of an injury risk as it does for athletes who are still growing, but a football player who forgoes basketball – or another sport – might still hurt his ability on the gridiron. Guss said basketball has been vital to the football success for both of his sons, Arik and Armond Armstead.

“The agility, the footwork and all the stuff that they have,” Guss said, “they got that from basketball.”

Guss isn’t the only person who sees the benefits football players receive from basketball.

“College coaches tell me during the recruiting process that’s something they look for,” Guss said. “If it’s a big guy and he played basketball, they feel like that’s a bonus.”

Both of Arik’s high school coaches said they’re big proponents of playing multiple sports in high school. Joe Cattolico, Arik’s football coach at Pleasant Grove, said participating in more than one sport doesn’t just help prevent overuse injuries, it gives athletes an opportunity to competitively play sports they probably have to give up as adults.

For Armstead and the Robinson twins, basketball has consumed their lives since they were little. Tyree said in November that basketball is his “first love before football,” and Tyrell agreed.

“I think I do like basketball more,” Tyrell said. “Just because I’ve been playing it for so long.”

Guss Armstead, a renowned basketball trainer in Sacramento, Calif., said Arik, too, was a “basketball guy” growing up.

“I built a court for my boys in the backyard,” Guss said. “(Arik) was out there every day and he came to me and told me his goals and what he wanted to do. I kind of trained him like I trained my older guys.”

This loss of an adored sport is the biggest tragedy about sports specialization in college, Chris Preston believes. Preston, a writer/editor for Wyatt Investment Research, wrote a piece for ESPN in 2008 about specialization in college sports.

“Denying a college athlete the chance to play one (or more) of the sports he or she loves is the equivalent of shattering a dream,” Preston wrote.

In a phone interview with the Emerald, Preston questioned the argument that football players who give up basketball are decreasing the risk of injury.

“Do football players at the college level not play pickup basketball?” Preston said. “Why not have them play basketball, if they’re good enough to do it, in a controlled environment where you have coaches (provide) techniques for where you’re less likely to get injured?”

However, so many other factors cloud players’ decision to stick with a second sport or abandon it. The potential for future success and lack of playing time are two reasons, and DePonte said some of the positives of playing multiple sports, like decreasing risk of overuse injuries, might be overblown.

“With the way training has evolved,” DePonte said, “the benefits that you would get from playing multiple sports, physically, I don’t think are the same with the training that’s involved to help you with the specific sport.”

Preston mentioned the financial ramifications universities face when they invest in, say, a basketball player who also wants to play football.

“You don’t want to take that financial risk of wasting a scholarship on a kid who’s going to break his leg on the first play of football practice,” Preston said.

The same concern surely pops into football coaches’ heads when their players want to join the basketball team.

In the case of a pickup game, it might potentially be more dangerous but it doesn’t entail the same dedication as a Division 1 team and the rewards are often greater. Altman said Armstead wanted a bigger role but didn’t get it. Armstead, Tyree and Tyrell Robinson, who’s on an intramural team, almost automatically become the best players on the floor during a pickup game.

As long as the Oregon football team plays into December and January, its players will have a nearly impossible time getting significant playing time on the basketball court. Those players also have so many other concerns to think about, like injuries and falling behind in football. For Armstead, the decision to quit basketball made sense given his already high NFL draft stock.

“His future’s in football and he needs to concentrate on that and I agreed with his decision,” Altman told reporters on Jan. 29.

Yet while focusing on football might not hurt players like Armstead, it also might not hurt them to at least stick with basketball until the NFL comes calling.

“If someone’s able to do it,” Preston said, “why hold them back?”

Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415

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