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Air Force football roster built with multisport talents

October 26, 2014 Updated: October 26, 2014 at 12:09 pm
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photo - Air Force wide receiver Garrett Brown catches a touchdown pass thrown by running back Jacobi Owens during a trick play as Air Force beat Navy 30-21 Saturday, October 4, 2014 at Falcon Stadium. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Air Force wide receiver Garrett Brown catches a touchdown pass thrown by running back Jacobi Owens during a trick play as Air Force beat Navy 30-21 Saturday, October 4, 2014 at Falcon Stadium. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

Garrett Brown was in the locker room preparing for a high school basketball game when his coach informed him a college scout was in the building.

"He told me, 'There's an Air Force coach here, you better play good,'" Brown said.

The coach in the building that night in Marietta, Ga., wasn't an Air Force basketball coach, but former Falcons football assistant Charlton Warren.

Brown, now a standout Air Force receiver, remembers scoring 25 points that night. He thinks he put a bit more emphasis on defense, since Warren was the defensive backs coach.

Brown's story isn't unique. Air Force football often dispatches coaches to observe recruits in sports other than football. Multisport athletes appeal to Falcons coach Troy Calhoun, which explains a roster that includes a couple of tracksters - tight end Garrett Griffin (javelin) and cornerback Gavin McHenry (sprints) - who have competed for Air Force in both sports, a baseball player in Weston Steelhammer who may yet play both sports at the academy and a slew of others who stood out in various athletic endeavors in high school.

"It's the beauty of playing a bunch of sports when you're young," Calhoun said. "All the things that happen, the different environments in which you play, the teamwork and the different skills that are awesome. Right now that might be the antithesis, and we're all supposed to raise our children only playing one sport because they're all going to the NBA or the majors.

"But I love it. I absolutely love it."

Many of the best players at Air Force under Calhoun entered the academy as multisport athletes. Jon Davis and Connor Dietz played basketball. Tim Jefferson was a hurdler. Jonathan Warzeka ran track.

Calhoun talks longingly for days of athletes like Jim Brown, Donovan McNabb, Jackie Robinson and even John Elway, who stood out in far more than the sport that made them household names.

"What we've done with body development and the way bodies have changed, it has made it a little more difficult to do," Calhoun said.

Had Garrett Brown specialized in a sport as a youth it would have been football he dropped. As a point guard he had college potential and had opportunities to play year-round. His parents even encouraged it. But his older brother played football and he wanted to be like him, so he kept right on doing both.

"I would have been bored," Brown said of the prospect of playing just one sport as a teen.

For Griffin, who played basketball and football in high school in addition to being a state track champion in track and a state qualifier in the 110-meter high hurdles, a diverse athletic portfolio was a choice.

Growing up 40 miles south of Kansas City, he saw friends decide to specialize as the city - and the athletic opportunities it provided - crept closer to his hometown of Louisburg, Kan.

"My dad was a coach and he always told me that the first thing you get looked at when you're being recruited is if you compete or not," Griffin said. "I think any coach would tell you they'd rather have someone who can compete all year round rather than specialize in one sport. They kind of feed off each other.

"And you don't get burned out. Some of the Texas guys we have that play spring ball all year round have said they get burned out."

Steelhammer said there were times growing up that he wished he could have devoted himself to one sport, but he was never able to choose between baseball and football. The sophomore strong safety knows the skills of the two sports have helped each other, and the hand-eye coordination that helped him in baseball have likely helped him to three interceptions in his first season as a starter.

"There was no offseason growing up and I liked it that way," Steelhammer said. "I might have suffered in the weight room here or there, who knows, but I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Steelhammer's backup, Jamal Byrd, played on a national championship AAU basketball team while in high school.

The sports played by those on the Air Force football team aren't limited. Defensive tackle Nick Fitzgerald played youth hockey in Texas. Linebacker Jordan Pierce played golf. Defensive lineman Riley Cannon played lacrosse.

Like his receiving partner Brown, Jalen Robinette grew up starring in basketball as well as football. And like Brown, Robinette was recruited by Air Force football on the basketball court in high school.

It was running backs coach Ben Miller who saw Robinette play an off-guard position at Bexley, Ohio.

"On the court when you're continuously playing you're able to show off your athleticism a lot more," Robinette said. "Seeing me run and jump and everything, I think that's what really caught his eye. I don't know, I think playing basketball my whole life I just think was good for coordination and situational awareness with making plays, going up and getting balls."

So, when Robinette jumps over a defender to catch a pass like he did last week against New Mexico, or when Brown changes directions on a punt return like a guard making a crossover move, or when Griffin hurdles an opponent (he did that, too), or McHenry runs down a receiver from behind, remember that these were skills Air Force identified before it had these players on campus.

They were just showing up on different fields of play.

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