You know Deion. You know Bo. NFL phenoms who managed against all odds to play two sports professionally. You know Kyler Murray and Jameis Winston, gifted crossover talents who excelled through the college level. You probably even know the legend of Jim Thorpe, the über-running back who seemingly did it all.
But did you know today’s NFL is still chock-full of gym-class heroes — from Tom Brady to J.J. Watt to Odell Beckham Jr. — who dominated their hometown courts, diamonds, rinks, tracks and courses? As they gear up for an unprecedented NFL season, we revisited six highlights that have become the stuff of local lore among their friends, family and still-awestruck communities.
Julio Jones was flying.
It was like he was Superman, play-by-play announcer Clark Stewart would later recall.
The senior at Alabama’s Foley High School had just tracked an offensive rebound. The ball floated high and long, and, as if in slow motion, Jones used his 39-inch vertical to snatch the missed transition 3 at its apex, swooping in like a hawk on an empty stomach.
He could have leaped from the free throw line; maybe it was half court. Aw heck, Stewart says, maybe it was from the rafters. Helpless onlookers from both teams in the subregional playoff game watched Jones finally descend, punching home an emphatic jackhammer slam.
DeMarcus Cousins (yeah, that DeMarcus Cousins), on the bench in foul trouble for opposing LeFlore High School, later called it the best dunk he has seen at any level.
Before Jones could reach the floor, those in LeFlore’s tiny gym came unglued. Some fans hopped happily in their seats; others wandered down to the baseline, as if closer inspection would reveal a hologram. Even the referee almost swallowed his whistle — out of shock.
The game stopped for five whole minutes.
There’s no video — Cousins has tried and failed to locate it — but it’s even better as lore. Stewart’s family has been around Alabama high school sports since the 1950s. Jones, Cousins, former Foley quarterback Ken Stabler — they’ve seen their share of amazing Alabama athletes.
“It was one of the most incredible plays at any high school athletic event that I’ve seen,” Stewart says.
A promising cloud of chalk kicked up as the shot put crash-landed. John Watt could see it from his perch, with a free safety’s view, atop the bleachers in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Was that 60 feet?
Not quite — 59-11¼. Good enough for his son J.J. to nab the 2007 state title.
And to leave John, who held the shot put record from 1980 to 2002 at Pewaukee High School — where all three of his sons would follow — gobsmacked. He knew J.J. was an incredible athlete, but before his senior year, he’d never even touched a shot put.
Before he wandered into a Pewaukee throwing practice, during a break from an after-school jog, he hadn’t even considered it.
“‘I didn’t know [what I was doing],'” John remembers his oldest son saying matter-of-factly of an impromptu toss, “‘but I still threw it a lot farther than any of those guys that were already doing it.'”
More than 50 feet, in fact. It was as if Babe Ruth had hit a homer on his first-ever swing, after he found a Louisville Slugger buried in his backyard. J.J. breezed onto the team shortly after. A few months later, he was a state champion.
But bragging rights were short-lived. Younger brothers Derek and T.J. won titles in 2011 and 2013, respectively — with T.J. breaking the 60-foot mark to claim both the Pewaukee and the (more important) Watt family record. (In 2011, Derek hit 62 feet, according to John’s estimate, but it was nullified by a toeboard foul.)
The details matter.
“J.J. always says, ‘I just picked it up,'” John says, pausing as the thought of the bickering brothers surfaces a laugh, ‘”and I was a state champion.'”
Adam Thielen had an idea.
First, though, Thielen’s golf team at Minnesota’s Detroit Lakes High School would have to win a state championship, something a golf team hadn’t done in school history.
Thielen, a four-sport star, had done everything else at Detroit Lakes. In his senior year, after football season, he finished his hoops career as the school’s all-time leading scorer. The 2008 Class AA state golf title would be the icing on the cake.
The state tournament was held at The Ridges at Sand Creek, south of the Twin Cities, where 40 mph winds were battering finalists in the last round, scattering golf balls everywhere.
Thielen’s playing style — boom it off the tee, go find it and save himself with soft hands on difficult shots from trouble spots — was perfect for the erratic weather. His final-round 77 helped Detroit Lakes win that state title and placed him 16th out of 88 golfers.
Then, the idea. Thielen had a reputation for unique attempts at team bonding (something about a hot tub and ankle-deep soap — don’t ask!). This time, he persuaded five teammates to strip off their shirts and shoes and throw caution to the 40 mph winds.
The Detroit Lakes golf team, the 2008 Minnesota Class AA state champions, stared into a pond off the 18th green, the one with the big fountain and the bigger collection of muck.
The plunge has become an unlikely Minnesota golf tradition. Not only was it started by a future Vikings star, but it has also extended since to every other Class AA state champion in the sport — Detroit Lakes or not, boys and girls — and later included a coach and a radio announcer.
“Some of the schools said [at first], ‘Oh, we’re not jumping in that pond,'” says Detroit Lakes coach Bob Gorden. “We’d give them a bad time if they’d beat us. That’s tradition here.
“You got to jump in the pond, you know?”
Eddie Babcox had to duck. A hockey helmet, thrown by one of his Cleveland Heights High School players, was coming for his head.
Babcox then followed his livid forward, banished to the dressing room, but he was too late to stop the damage.
The floor was littered with plastic … foosball men.
They were strewn haphazardly, the consequence of a one-sided battle: man vs. table. The man was senior Jason Kelce, future Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro center, who sat seething in the Tigers’ home digs. He had destroyed the foosball table during what would become another loss to area rival Kent Roosevelt after he was assessed a roughing penalty (he disagreed), tossed that helmet (an assistant coach hit the deck too) and was ejected (probably a good idea).
A high school linebacker pushing 250 pounds, Kelce delivered a hit like one, often ignoring the puck and focusing on the contact. But Kelce was more than just a football player on skates. He was an all-league player as a senior with 95 career points.
“That’s what made it so frightening,” Babcox says now. “Sometimes you get football players who can’t skate. But Jason was big and agile; he was able to skate backwards and forwards. He was crisp.”
Three weeks later against the same opponent, Kelce kept his cool — to the relief of several tiny plastic soccer players — even during a tense overtime. He and teammate Paris Murray eventually rushed out to a 2-on-1. Murray shot. Save. Kelce, barreling in on a teenage goalie like an offensive lineman on a toss sweep, came to the rescue. Easy goal. Game over.
Six days later, again against Kent Roosevelt, he registered a hat trick and added an assist in another win.
“Jason knew when business was business,” Babcox said.
Just ask the foosball table.
“When you see him, you’re going to like him.”
That’s what other coaches told Colin Rocke, a former professional soccer player who coached the youth game in New Orleans. So Rocke went to Audubon Park, where the boy, then 12 and new to the game, was training. Rocke couldn’t believe his eyes. He stood out so starkly that he made the others fade.
There was the speed of his track-star mother — whoosh — that left other players in his wake. There was the change of direction of his running back father — screech — that indicated otherworldly agility. And the soft feet on the ball — tap-tap-tap — were like those of an experienced player from Europe, not a beginner from the Deep South.
Who was this kid? He was Odell Beckham Jr.
“I told him,” Rocke says now, “‘Decide about the football thing because you could probably be on the national team in a few years.'”
Well, he chose to focus fully on that football thing. But not before a couple of adolescent years under Rocke’s tutelage.
During one game somewhere along the Gulf Coast, Beckham, playing as a striker, could only be slowed down by intentional fouls, grabbing and clutching — young soccer players doing then what NFL defensive backs do now.
Rocke stopped and took a moment to admire.
“This kid,” Rocke remembers thinking, “is unstoppable. You can’t cover him.”
In 1995, Tom Brady lugged an unfamiliar wood bat into the left-handed batter’s box of Seattle’s Kingdome.
A skinny teenager with a letterman’s jacket in his closet, Brady was in Seattle for a workout ahead of that June’s MLB draft. Pete Jensen, who was Brady’s baseball coach at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, had brought Brady and a teammate to a showcase for scouts. They’d fly in and out that day.
Brady, a catcher, had a big senior year. He hit two home runs in a playoff game, one of them soaring deep enough to smack the team bus, startling the driver out of his slumber. But it was pregame infield practice that had scouts transfixed; Brady’s throws were appointment viewing.
It earned him a trip to the home of the Mariners, where he dug in and started taking batting practice.
One swing drove a ball deep to right, sending an echo through the cavernous dome as it cleared the fence.
Then another. Right field. Echo. Gone.
Jensen had coached Gregg Jefferies, a two-time National League All-Star, at Serra and was at the school, though not as the varsity coach, when Barry Bonds was on campus.
“There wasn’t any of them that I said, ‘This guy’s definitely a major league player,'” says Jensen, who also scouted for the Mariners. “But Tommy? Because of his position, and his tools, he was. My bosses with Seattle would’ve taken him in the second round.”
Brady instead was drafted in the 18th round by the Montreal Expos (and, eventually, in the sixth round by the New England Patriots). But he’ll always have the Kingdome.