With 324 players currently on Division-I rosters, the state of Michigan is well-represented on the college football circuit.
But before those athletes went on to start their college football careers, most made their marks on high school tracks across the Great Lakes State.
From Todd “T.J.” Duckett claiming three consecutive shot put state championships to Tyrone Wheatley holding state records in the long jump and 110-meter hurdles, the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s list of track and field state champions is full of gridiron stars.
To learn more about the symbiotic relationship between track and football, MLive caught up with some of the state’s top coaches and athletes who are currently starring in both sports.
Some of the factors that play into dual-sport success — particularly speed — were self-explanatory, but others were less obvious.
Follow along to see how some of the state’s best high school football players benefit from spending the spring season at the track and some barriers that can prevent them from doing so.Odd, crazy and awesome records from Michigan high school track & fieldThese athletes can run like the wind, jump over Shaq and can toss heavy metal objects pretty far.
Strength and explosion
Every year in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, data emerges regarding how many players from the AFC and NFC championship rosters competed in multiple sports while in high school.
Prior to the 2019 contest between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots, TrackingFootball.com found that 90 percent of athletes from each team were multiple-sport athletes, and that 68 percent of the Rams’ roster competed in track while in high school.
East Kentwood track and field coach Dave Emeott has led the Falcons to seven state championships since 2009, and some of his best athletes have been Division-I football recruits, including Wisconsin signees Logan Brown and Stephan Bracey, University of Michigan freshman early enrollee Mazi Smith and class of 2020 Michigan State commit Dallas Fincher.
When he sees an aspiring college football player show interest in track, the sales pitch is all about diversifying the athlete’s training to add strength, speed and explosion.
“The grand majority of what we’re doing is building speed and power, and a lot of what they’d be doing without us wouldn’t be working the same areas,” Emeott said. “When a kid comes out and wants to become more explosive, it’s an awesome complement to what they’re already doing in the weight room.
“We’re all about power and explosiveness, not just focusing on the speed. In track, you’re not running fast to get around someone or outrun them, you’re only working on your speed.
“For the throwers, they’re focusing on power from the bottom of their toes to their fingertips, and that’s a huge benefit when they get back on the football field.”
In the college football world, 300-pound linemen are the norm, and what separates the difference makers from the rest of the crowd is their ability to move at that size.
“Even with the bigger guys, speed is king when you’re playing football,” said Zeeland East track coach Ralph Neal, an 18-year coaching veteran that led the Chix to a Division 2 state title in 2017. “I look for the fastest big guys over the strongest big guys because it’s about how well you can move. If they’re coordinated and can move their body weight really well, that’s going to translate.”
‘Nowhere to hide’
On the football field, 11 players need to execute their assignments for a play to be successful, but on the track, it’s harder to hide behind your teammate’s mistakes.
In essence, there are no excuses, and there’s no one else to blame.
“One thing that happens in track and helps football players is the opportunity to compete on an individual level — when there is nobody else around that didn’t block or throw it in the right place,” Emeott said. “Whether you do your job or don’t do your job, everyone knows it, and there’s nowhere to hide.”
From the perspective of Zeeland East’s Neal, that pressure is something that football players thrive on because they’ve already gained a sense of mental toughness from weight room sessions and two-a-days that make football such a demanding sport.
“From the competitive standpoint, football kids like to compete, to put themselves in tough environments and fight through it,” he said. “There’s more pressure in a field event, where it’s just them and the event, but I feel like kids from football come over with that grit and toughness and are ready to compete.”
Still, standing alone on the starting block or in the thrower’s circle is a far cry from standing at the line of scrimmage with a full complement of teammates.
“A kid who was a receiver at Western Michigan told me that he’s never been so nervous than waiting for the baton,” said Traverse City Central track coach John Lober. “They’re out there without any pads or helmets on and everyone is watching them. To the competitive athlete, it brings a new skill set, a new type of coaching and new type of environment that increases the athlete’s awareness and competitive edge, which carries over into the different arenas.”
Getting out what you put in
East Kentwood’s Emeott considers 90 percent of track and field to be training, and because of that, there are few sports that provide as much of a reward for an athlete’s hard work.
Boone Bonnema, a senior at Zeeland East and future Western Michigan linebacker, has felt at home on the football field since second grade, but he has also grown to appreciate throwing the shot put and discus based on his ability to see the fruits of his labor.
“I’ve always thought track was kind of interesting compared to all the different sports that I’ve played, as far as how I perform is based on how hard I practice and how focused I stay and what I put into my body that will help me come out with the right results,” said Bonnema, who captured a regional title in the shot put on May 18, with a personal-best throw of 54 feet, 7 inches. “As a football player, it’s helped keep myself accountable because the sport of throwing all kind of relies on how you treat it. If you’re going to take it super seriously, then you’re probably going to do better.”
While it’s not surprising that training to run fast will make you faster, that training doesn’t translate perfectly to the gridiron, where the attribute “football speed” has been given to some of the NFL’s top players who never blew away the competition in a straight-line setting.
Traverse City Central’s Lober, a veteran coach of 55 years, recognizes that and can see why some football players would be hesitant to run track, but added that the best athletes thrive in that environment.
“The thing is that it’s all measureable, and they love that,” he said. “They love pushing themselves to go farther, and the great athletes thrive on that.
“Some of those athletes might shy away (from track) because some of that makes them uncomfortable, and there’s a certain risk factor you have when you’re measuring stuff, but the great ones have goals and compete to reach those.”
The track vs. football camp dilemma
Spring is the season for outdoor track and field in Michigan, but it’s also a busy time for high school football players looking to generate some recruiting buzz and earn scholarship offers along the way.
A growing number of football camps, ranging from skill position to lineman events, are occupying weekends during the track season and forcing players to pick one or the other.
Before he committed to Western Michigan and later Wisconsin, East Kentwood 3-star wide receiver prospect Stephan Bracey gave football priority over his track career, despite leading off the state championship 800-meter relay team in 2017 and helping the Falcons win Division 1 titles in 2017 and 2018.
“There were times where if there was a big camp with a lot of scouts, I’d miss a track meet, so it was a little difficult to decide, but when I decided I was going to play football at the next level, I gave that priority,” Bracey said.
A 30-year veteran head coach of the Detroit Cass Tech football and track programs, Thomas Wilcher has seen a decrease in the number of gridiron stars coming out for the track season.
“I think the reason why track has become less attended by football players and other athletes is because you have more competition set up for other sports,” he said. “7-on-7 camps and AAU (basketball) pull athletes away, and you also have lacrosse and baseball, and they pull you away.”
As a former University of Michigan running back and All-American hurdler for the Wolverines, Wilcher also has a unique perspective on how track can help boost and athlete’s profile even without attending spring football camps.
“I try to say that football camps are great, but not all football camps are great,” he said. “You have to pick and choose because sometimes they’re nothing more than money-maker schemes, and you have to beware of what’s out there.
“Sometimes I think track will help you more because you’re still working, and you’re creating a buzz. One thing you can’t teach in football is speed, so you better figure out how to go get it.”
Track with a side of football
Michigan’s high school track and field state championship meets begin on Saturday, June 1, giving athletes like Bracey and Bonnema less than a week left in their running and throwing careers.
Bracey enters the Division 1 meet seeded first in the 400-meter relay (42.36 seconds), first in the 800 relay (1:27.64), third in the 100 dash (10.80) and third in the long jump (22 feet, 0.25 inches), while Bonnema is third in the shot put (54′ 7) and 11th in the discus (144′ 7).
Both should contend for state titles, and that means the focus has been on registering personal bests, but it has been near-impossible to put football on the back burner.
“I’m doing a lot of drills working on route running and my feet; working on opening up my hips,” Bracey said. “It’s mainly just drills and working on my hands and catching balls out of drills.”
“I’m doing my best (to stay in football shape),” Bonnema added. “Coach Neal wants me at a high caliber and have all my energy reserved for throwing, I’m going to finish out the track season, and then I’ll have three or four more weeks until I head over to Western, and that should be enough time to get back to running and have me conditioned for that.”
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