Morris: Ellington might be the last of the two-sport stars

rmorris@ thestate.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Bruce Ellington was a two-sport standout at South Carolina.

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BRUCE ELLINGTON’S recent decision to enter his name in the NFL draft pool ended what might be the last grand experiment of being a two-sport athlete at South Carolina.

There is no questioning that Ellington proved to be a superb athlete during his four years at USC. Anyone who can start a single game in two sports at the highest level of college competition is an exceptional athlete.

“We should all feel lucky here at the school that we were able to watch and be part of such a special young man,” says Frank Martin, USC’s basketball coach.

As much as Ellington meant to the basketball and football programs, he also proved to be a victim of the times. Lengthier schedules have caused increasing overlap in different sports. There is less time for an athlete to dedicate himself to two.

Athletes also are working year-round on one sport from an early age, resulting in a high degree of specialization that cannot be matched by even the best of athletes who divide their time between two sports.

Ellington was a standout quarterback at Berkeley High in Moncks Corner and considered among the top 20 point guard recruits in the country. He came to USC as the cornerstone of Darrin Horn’s basketball program, and at the outset he proved worthy of the hype.

Ellington started every game as a freshman and played an average of 30 minutes. His scoring average was 13, and he had 97 assists to 87 turnovers, which for a freshman point guard is impressive. At the least, there was great promise that Ellington could develop into one of the nation’s best guards.

Then Ellington, perhaps wisely believing he had a better chance to play professionally in that sport, joined the football team for his sophomore year. As his concentration shifted from one sport to another, so, too, did his production. In fact, his value as a football player seemed to increase proportionally as his value as a basketball player decreased.

Again, this is no knock on Ellington and his athletic ability. Rather, it is a statement on how exceptional an athlete must be to consistently excel at two sports.

“It’s impossible, impossible,” Martin says. “It’s hard. That’s why he’s such a special kid.”

The truth of the matter is, while Ellington was practicing the precision pass-route running as a wide receiver on the football field, his basketball teammates and their opponents were attempting hundreds, if not thousands, of jump shots every day on the basketball court.

This is not the 1960s or 1970s, when USC produced a pair of its best two-sport athletes, Bobby Bryant and Jeff Grantz. Bryant was an All-American defensive back in football and outstanding pitcher in baseball in the mid-1960s. Grantz was a second-team All-American quarterback and played shortstop for USC’s 1975 College World Series team.

Bryant and Grantz could take off their shoulder pads at the end of football season and pick up their baseball gloves without missing much, save for spring football practice. Once he made the switch to football, Ellington missed all of preseason basketball practice and most of the early nonconference schedule. He was constantly playing catch-up on the basketball court.

So it was understandable that Ellington’s football numbers gradually increased from 17 catches for 211 yards and one touchdown his first season to 40 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 to a team-leading 49 catches for 775 yards and eight touchdowns this past season.

Equally understandable was his slide in basketball, from scoring average (13 to 11 to 10 to 6), to field-goal percentage (33 to 36 to 34 to 29) to assist-to-turnovers (97-87 to 74-54 to 62-66 to 5-4).

Martin says Ellington had a difficult time grasping concepts on the basketball court in January a season ago and in the three nonconference games he played this season, primarily because he had not practiced with the team.

As Martin began to develop his youthful team, it became apparent that Ellington did not represent the future of the program. That had to be difficult for Martin because Ellington was such a strong influence on the younger players.

“He’s one of those kids who, selfishly as a coach, you want to coach him every day,” Martin says. “His spirit, his enthusiasm, his toughness, all those nice adjectives — charisma — he embodies all of that. When you get around people like that, you don’t ever want to stop coaching them. You want to coach them more.

“He’s one of those guys who’s always pulling guys to the right side of the fence. Not having that is going to hurt our team. ... Hopefully, his residue will continue to impact some of our guys to fight for what he showed us.”

In the end, Ellington proved to USC fans that an exceptional athlete can compete in two sports in college. Along the way, he also showed that it is not likely to happen again.

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