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The Zak Zone

December 8, 2011

Sometimes, I wish I were around in the "Good Ol' Days."

Directly to this column's left, on Page 6, is an article that was submitted to me this week about a man, Joseph Harrick, who was recently inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame for being the only known individual in school history to earn 16 letters — a feat that is simply unheard of today.

First of all, athletes today have three sports seasons, and except for the occasional kicker-who-is-a-soccer-player, the idea of an athlete playing two sports in one season is practically extinct.

That fact alone limits most athletes to a maximum of 12 letters in their high school careers.

It is even more rare for an athlete, especially one of the best on his or her team, to compete in more than one sport at the collegiate level.

Big schools are paying big money for these athletes to play the sport for which they have granted them a scholarship, and the coaches aren't about to take the chance on risking one of their best players getting hurt in the off season because they were a two-sport athlete.

Growing up, Bo Jackson was one of the most interesting men in the world in my eyes.

Jackson — a pure athlete and my uncle John's favorite player — did something that most boys dreamed of: Played professional football and baseball.

The two seasons overlapped, though, causing Jackson to miss the beginning of football season. Late Raiders' owner Al Davis saw the glaring potential in Jackson, though, and offered him full-time running back money despite the fact he would miss the beginning of each season.

Jackson, a two-sport athlete, is the one I refer to when I think about my "good ol' days," and there were others in his time period that I don't think back on as much.

Deion Sanders, an amazing cover talent in the NFL was also a baseball player, but his baseball game was limited mostly to bunting and using his speed to his advantage. Michael Jordan took a break from basketball after his father's death to pursue a baseball career, and despite putting up some good numbers in the minors, he was far from the "M.J. of baseball."

So in the sports era I grew up in, Bo knew best.

But the interesting thing about that phrase is that no matter how far back you go, there were always "good ol' days" prior.

My grandfather always told me that the best baseball player he'd ever seen was Roberto Clemente. Since I was a boy, I've wished that I could go back in time and watch just one Pirates game before that fateful plane crash took the best baseball player so many ever saw.

Before Clemente, though, there were the good ol' days of so many others I wish I could have been around for: Babe Ruth, Micky Mantle, Ty Cobb ... The list goes on and on, and those are just baseball players.

This week, I added Joseph V. Harrick to the list of athletes I would have loved to see compete.

Harrick earned letters in four different sports. He was a true athlete and top of the line in everything he did. That is my kind of athlete.

Wouldn't it be cool if sports returned to its good ol' days?

In Punxsutawney, we're lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the best athletes competing across sports, as there are three seasons, and each athlete has the chance to compete in three different sports each year.

But there are even some high school coaches now who limit their athletes' playing time out of season.

Maybe there's a changing tide on the horizon, though.

Just this year, ESPN reports have been noted the University of Georgia's willingness to allow athletes to attempt to cross lines and play two different sports.

Those in opposition of the practice have valid points, though.

An athlete who is struggling academically should strongly consider playing two sports, as the semester the athlete is not participating is a great opportunity for him or her to concentrate on academics and pull grades back up.

But what about athletes who aren't struggling academically?

Isn't it in the best interest of the universities, the coaches, the fans, and, in particular, the players to allow them to pursue the activities at which they are best?

Maybe some of the athletes participating at Punxsutawney right now will be a part of a new generation. One that allows athletes to shine across the board in whatever sports they choose even beyond the high school level.

Maybe, just maybe, PAHS is currently the home of an athlete that will take us back to the good ol' days in honor of Joseph Harrick.

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