THE FIRST HIGH school football game I ever wrote about, a kid came off the bench to lead a doormat of a program to a comeback victory. The reserve running back made a series of spectacular runs for touchdowns and afterward he was all but carried off the field.
It was a nice little tale to be sure until the lad took off his helmet for a post-game interview.
He had scars and chipped teeth and looked more like a grizzled boxing veteran than a clear-skinned American Idol. When his drunken father approached and laid into him with a slurred, unintelligible, profane-laced tirade, I realized that high school athletics was a healthy diversion and for some kids, a sure-fire, one-way ticket out of Hellsville.
I also learned that same year that prep games can offer some sheer fun and levity as well.
The first girls basketball game I covered an opposing player was on the line in the final seconds and the home rooting section tried to distract the girl with an unusually loud and obnoxious series of groans, raspberries and rude comments.
After sinking both free throws the girl calmly glanced over to the rooting section and rather than offer an obscenity or raised finger, she gave the ultimate “so there” by simply sticking out her tongue.
Take that NBA, NFL or MLB.
Who needs all the pretense of the pros? I remember thinking then that you have all the purity of the game, all the heartfelt human drama at all four corners of the prep game.
That was 25 years ago.
That same year, Gatorade started its national campaign to pick out the best high school performers from the land.
I never paid much attention to it – I’m a little more interested into what the grunt lineman have to say rather then the megastar quarterback – but in my last three years as a national writer at MaxPreps I’ve needed to follow the prep elite more closely, including Gatorade's Players of the Year.
What I admire about the Gatorade program is it pays attention to the human element - what these kids do outside the lines.
They’ve picked 10,000 kids over the last quarter century and 210 national winners, the last 24 of whom I’ve got to meet at Gatorade's end-of-the-year banquets.
Grade point averages and community service are as important as scoring averages and touchdowns scored.
What I’ve appreciated most about the award-winners are just how grounded and humble they are, considering they no doubt get the star treatment back home.
“We’ve pretty much been treated like professional athletes which were obviously not,” 2007-08 National Girls Soccer Player of the Year Teresa Noyola Palo Alto (Palo Alto, Calif.) acknowledged. Noyola is now at Stanford. “It’s really important for us to stay grounded because we have such a long way to go.”
You just hope they don’t get filled up with all the hype.
“You just have to filter so much of it out,” said 2007-08 girls Basketball Player of the Year Nneka Ogwumike Cy-Fair (Cypress, Texas), now starring at Stanford.“People are going to tell you how great you are but you can’t reflect on it. You just keep working harder.”
Such perspective makes these elite athletes easy to root for.
And this year, easy to vote for.
In conjunction with its 25th anniversary, Gatorade is asking the public to vote for their all-time greatest Gatorade Player of the Year.
So, if a tub of ice cold Gatorade was held over my head and I had to pick my all-time best, who would they be?
Let’s do it this way. I’ll give you my choice and who I think the public will pick.
As far as my personal criteria, I look at high school achievement 50 percent and anything beyond the other 50 percent. So if Peyton Manning and Tim Couch had equal high school careers, Manning gets the overwhelming nod based on superior after-prep credentials. That also probably eliminates recent selections like Matt Barkley or Jrue Holiday or Skylar Diggins.
As impressive as this list is, there are really only two candidates, future sure-fire Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith (Escambia (Pensacola, Fla.) 1986-87) and Peyton Manning (Newman (New Orleans, La.), 1993-94). Because he accomplished more in the NFL to this point, Smith gets the nod. He’s my choice, but Manning might get the people’s vote because his name and game is fresh. My pick: Smith. Public’s pick: Manning.
This one is fairly clear cut. Kerri Walsh (Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.), 1995-96) not only was the first Gatorade national volleyball POY, she’s accomplished the most after her prep career, teaming with Misty May-Treanor to win the last two Olympic beach volleyball gold medals. My pick and public: Walsh.
My knowledge here is as soft as a Nerf soccer ball, but I’m fairly certain my pick, former national team captain, three-time national champ at Virginia and MLS star Claudio Reyna (St. Benedict's Prep (Newark, N.J.), 1990-91) will also be the public’s pick. My pick and public: Reyna.
Another original selection, Aly Wagner (Presentation (San Jose, Calif.), 1997-98) is a two-time Olympian and a gold medalist in 2004. I think she takes the public’s pick as well. My pick and public: Wagner.
These are the biggest names in the entire Gatorade field, starting with the great debate between two-time winner LeBron James (St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio), 01-02, 02-03) and Kobe Bryant (Lower Merion (Ardmore, Pa.), 1995-96). You have other household names like Dwight Howard (Southwest Atlanta Christian (Atlanta, Ga.), 2003-04), Kevin Love (Lake Oswego (Lake Oswego, Ore.), 2006-07), Baron Davis (Crossroads (Santa Monica, Calif.)1996-97) and Greg Oden (Lawrence North (Indianapolis, Ind.)., 2004-05, 2005-06). James and Oden were the only two-time picks, but the vote will no doubt come down to James and Bryant. James should and will prevail. My pick and public: James.
There are some fantastic names and players here, but I think the only two-time winner Candace Parker (Central (Naperville, Ill.), 2002-03, 2003-04) should win and will be the public’s pick as well. Lisa Leslie (Morningside (Inglewood, Calif.)., 1989-90) should also get some serious consideration. My pick and public: Parker.
Another remarkably competitive field, with recent selections climbing quickly to MLB All-Star consideration, like Clayton Kershaw (Highland Park (Dallas, Texas), 2005-06), Justin Upton (Great Bridge (Chesapeake, Va.), 2004-05) and Zack Greinke (Apopka (Apopka, Fla.), 2001-02). But the unquestioned favorite and winner here will be Alex Rodriguez (Westminster Christian (Miami, Fla.), 1992-93). My pick and public: Rodriguez.
All 11 selections in 12 years have been pitchers, but the most accomplished is probably 2004 gold medalist and 2008 Silver medalist Catherine “Cat” Osterman (Cypress Falls (Houston, Texas). I think she gets the nod, but Kenzie Fowler (Canyon del Oro (Tucson, Ariz.), 2007-08, 2008-09) is the only double winner and should accomplish great things at the University of Arizona. My pick and public: Osterman.
Girls track and field
A fantastic list of national champions and Olympic greats, but Marion Jones (Rio Mesa (Oxnard, Calif.) and Thousand Oaks (Thousand Oaks, Calif.) is the only three-time winner of the award in any sport and despite her off-the-track troubles in recent years, deserves this award. They’ll be those, understandably, who won’t vote for her which might push the award to Suzy Powell (Downey (Modesto, Calif.), Angela Williams (Chino (Chino, Calif.) or Allyson Felix (Los Angeles Baptist (North Hills, Calif.). My pick: Jones. Public pick: Williams.
Boys track and field
I found this to be the toughest field of all. Though all super preps, none truly established themselves internationally. That’s why I think whoever accomplished most in high school wins here and the last three is a dead heat between Curtis Beach (Albuquerque Academy (Albuquerque, N.M.), 2008-09), German Fernandez (Riverbank (Riverbank, Calif.) 2007-08) and Bryshon Nellum (Poly (Long Beach, Calif.), 2006-07). I found Fernandez’ distance marks most startling of all and would give him a slight edge. The people’s choice is wide open. My pick: Fernandez. Public pick: Nellum.
Basketball is the most visible sport here and Parker is a smart, deserving and good overall choice. My pick and public: Parker.
No question that LeBron James will take this award and deservedly so on just about every level. But when I cast my vote it will go to the most unique athlete in the lot: Joe Mauer. He won his national award as a quarterback in football of all things for Cretin-Derham Hall HS, St. Paul, Minn. In 2000-01. He’s the only prep to win both the USA Today National Player of the Year award in two sports: football and baseball. Of course, he just won the American League MVP as a catcher for the Twins. I think that sets him apart from all the others. He’s my greatest All-Time Gatorade National Player of the Year. My pick: Mauer. Public pick: James.
To vote, CLICK HERE and choose the “vote” button featured on the Gatorade home page. You can view all the past winners from each sport, read bios and vote. As long as you’re 13-years-old or older you can vote once per poll per day. Sweepstakes and prizes will be awarded to voters, including jerseys autographed by Parker, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter. The grand prize will be a trip for two to the Gatorade Athlete of the Year event at the 2010 ESPY’s in Hollywood, Calif.