What follows is somewhere between unlikely and unbelievable.
The two recent recruits in Tennessee’s 2020 football round-up, Damarcus Beckwith of Florence, Ala., and Malachi Wideman of Venice, Fla., are talking about playing Volunteer basketball in their spare time.
Smart salesman Jeremy Pruitt smiled and said fine and dandy, of course you can give it a try. Rick Barnes was encouraging. Free depth sounds good.
At first, I thought I was hearing things. Now I think I am seeing UFOs. Both new Vols are four-star athletes. Both are 6-4 or maybe 6-5. Both are really good in both sports. Wideman might even be big-time in both.
Stop the music. Stop right there.
Neither Malachi nor Damarcus, youthful receivers, has any idea what it will take to become proficient in Tennessee football. They have not been introduced to the complicated reads in Jim Chaney’s route tree. They have not yet met SEC linebackers who get in the way of slant routes or strong safeties who are borderline lethal. They don’t know about winter workout mandates, get bigger, get stronger, get faster.
They do not realize college football at this level is a year-round job, well, 11 months.
History proves it is possible to combine Tennessee football and Tennessee track, if coaches are tolerant and you are good enough on the gridiron to skip most of spring practice (see Richmond Flowers, Willie Gault and Chip Kell). There is a way to do football and baseball (Condredge Holloway, Todd Helton and Alan Cockrell are examples).
I concede it is possible to pair football and basketball but it is very, very difficult. Had it been logical, Howard Bayne would have done it. He was a knock-down-and-drag-out enforcer on the court in the Ray Mears era. I always thought he might have been an NFL tight end.
No matter how you count hours, days, weeks and months, on fingers or fingers and toes, the seasons run together. Tennessee intends to play January 1 bowl games. By the time a football player celebrates a victory, has one dinner with family and friends and begins transformation into basketball condition, the race would be on for tournament bids.
But wait, you say, Ron Widby did it.
Widby was a terrific basketball player who punted between jump shots and had fun with other sports because he could. He played football and basketball professionally but not at the same time.
There are hints that Wideman might be great in baskets. In the summer of 2018, at the Fab 48 youth tournament in Las Vegas, he unleashed a pair of dunks that twice brought LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to their feet. There were exclamations that sounded sort of like wow – with adjectives.
Those two know what real dunks look like. They won a couple of NBA championships together.
Wideman won the City of Palms Classic dunk contest in December. As Malachi described it, he did a little old 360 one-handed slam in the semifinal. It brought down the house.
For the win, he hit a between-the-legs 360 “on first try.”
Wideman credits football, basketball and time spent on track with helping keep him on the straight and narrow – “keeping my head on my shoulders and making sure I’m staying out of trouble. It’s so easy to find trouble.”
Malachi said he guesses he’ll play football and basketball until he finds he can’t do both.
The greatest dual-sport athletes – from Jim Thorpe to Deion Sanders to Bo Jackson – performed in an era before specialization became a near-absolute-requirement for excellence.
Once upon a time, there were Volunteers who went from sport to sport without a rest stop. Nathan W. Dougherty, 1906-1912, was captain of Tennessee football and basketball. He participated in track. He also excelled in engineering.
Bobby Dodd played football, basketball and baseball. He devoted less energy to academics.
In the beginning, Doug Atkins signed a basketball scholarship. He was going to try out for football. He scored 38 in a freshman basketball game. He beat the varsity in practices. He finally played enough in 1951, after the Cotton Bowl, to earn a letter.
Atkins always thought Robert R. Neyland told the basketball coach, Emmett Lowery, to discourage him.
“He would send me to the bench and forget I was there.”
Doug joined the track team, almost never practiced, but won an SEC high jump title at 6-6. He was asked why he bothered.
“Meal money,” said Adkins. “At the conference meet, they gave you enough to buy two hot dogs and a six-pack of beer.”
No doubt you already know that college fun ‘n games have changed.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks and questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org