Published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 10:15 pm / Updated at 12:36 am
Husker football commit Monte Harrison a standout on the diamond too

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. — Monte Harrison should have picked a sport by now. Isn't that how this usually works?

The young boys are the ones who get to experiment with their skills, indulging in fantasies about doing it all. Hitting World Series home runs. Firing up Game 7 buzzer beaters. Scoring Super Bowl touchdowns.

Until voices drop and bones grow. Then teenagers have a decision to make.

Time to try to be the best, at something. Right? Today's athlete can't maximize potential without complete devotion to the game that carries the most promise.

But what happens when you're still playing the three major sports in high school? When you make it look so easy?

The radar gun reading shows 97 mph on your relay throw from the outfield, and the timer clocked your 60-yard dash in under 6.7 seconds. You stand 6-foot-2, weigh 205 pounds and can bounce a basketball off the court and then off the bottom of the backboard so it ricochets into your hands right as you started your 180-degree, midair spin before flushing home a two-handed, reverse jam. Your football coach — who's spent the past two years designing direct snaps, screens, long balls and reverses just to get the ball in your hands — says he's never seen anything like you.

Because of preseason football obligations, you arrive late at practice for a summer all-star baseball event that produced 42 first-round draft picks in its first five years, and still, you impress scouts by smashing one of the first pitches you see.

You can stay engaged during a shootaround and a film session on a Saturday morning, then leave your basketball team to work out for a couple of Major League Baseball franchises. Yet you'll still be ready for tipoff on the hardwood that evening.

“Everybody who can't do it or hasn't done it will always think it's crazy, it's hard, or the toughest job in the world.”

That's Danan Hughes talking. He's one of the few who gets Harrison. And appropriately, for the last decade, he's been mentoring the Nebraska football recruit.

Hughes was a three-sport standout in Bayonne, N.J., before playing baseball and football at Iowa. He was a third-round MLB draft pick. He ended up playing six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.

“Thing is, it wasn't that hard,” Hughes said. “You get in such a routine. The challenge is when you start having free time and you're not used to it. But as long as you can do it, I think you play as many sports as you can.”

It's the way of life Harrison is enjoying now. He's splitting time among baseball, football and basketball because, quite simply, that's what he wanted to do. Because that's how it's always been.

He prefers to savor the moment, even while those around him wonder what's next.

Harrison will sign a letter of intent this week, following through on his six-month pledge to become a Husker. He could be a receiver for Bo Pelini, perhaps the most physically gifted player in a recruiting class that will be finalized Wednesday. He could play outfield for Darin Erstad, too, increasing the talent within an NU baseball program that appears to be on the rise.

Just pardon the portion of hesitant Husker fans who are attempting to ignore the buzz. They've been through this before.

* * *

Remember Bubba Starling? Of course you do.

The Kansas prodigy and multisport star signed with Nebraska in 2011. He was a legend back at Gardner-Edgerton High School, and the hype migrated to Lincoln way before Starling ever arrived.

He did stay on campus during the summer. He even attended Husker fan day, wearing an NU jersey and sitting just a couple of spots away from fellow quarterback Taylor Martinez.

But Starling was the Kansas City Royals' No. 5 overall pick that summer. He signed a professional contract midway through August.

The story was the same for the Huskers 12 years earlier with Carl Crawford. The 1999 NU quarterback recruit from Houston chose baseball instead and is about to enter his 13th season in the majors as an outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Harrison's story could play out similarly.

He's a top 50 baseball prospect, according to numerous scouting services. He played in Perfect Game's All-America Classic in August and two weeks later was on hand for the Under Armour All-America Game. He hit .457 for Lee's Summit West as a junior, recording 21 extra-base hits in 83 at-bats.

Getting selected in June's MLB draft seems inevitable for Harrison, who already has an adviser.

But what he'll do after that isn't clear.

Harrison declined to be interviewed for this story. Those close to him say he's just trying to enjoy what's left of his senior year.

There will be time this summer — roughly six weeks — to weigh the pros and cons of going pro or opting for college. The deadline to sign an MLB contract is July 18.

“For Monte, everybody asks that question. 'What are you going to do?' About a week at a time — like it's really going to change from week to week,” Hughes said. “At this point, he doesn't have to choose, so he's not gonna.”

Hughes will be around if Harrison needs any advice. That's how it's been since Harrison was 10, Hughes said.

Harrison's father, Jack Jr., died in 2001. Monte and his brother, Shaquille, were raised by their mom, Michelle Francis.

The boys needed more example-setters. Their involvement in sports provided that. Hughes ran a little league baseball team. Other coaches guided the boys, too.

Competition was the best way to get the brothers' attention. Monte and Shaquille were the guys who played one-on-one over and over — because Monte didn't quit until he won. They suited up in football pants and pads at home, just to practice tackling drills. One battle ended with a hole in the wall. Mom wasn't too pleased with that.

“People used to think we were crazy,” said Shaquille, who spoke by phone to The World-Herald last summer.

By high school, though, everyone understood.

Shaquille was a first-team all-state receiver and Kansas City's metro basketball player of the year. He accepted a scholarship offer at Tulsa, where he's started all 53 games of his career so far.

Monte couldn't play football as a freshman because of a weight room injury, but he was on the baseball diamond later that school year.

It didn't take long for him to stand out.

* * *

A Royals scout stopped by the home of a family friend one day. Harrison and some classmates happened to be practicing baseball on a field outside.

Purely coincidence. That's what Lee's Summit West baseball coach Jay Meyer was told.

The scout glanced toward the high school freshmen. Then he had a question.

“Who's that?”

Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.

Those were the only two words spoken, as reported back to Meyer.

Soon, more and more scouts would have similar inquiries. All eyes glued to Harrison. Then college football coaches started taking notice.

Harrison didn't play receiver until his junior year, and by the time he was named the offensive skill MVP at a camp last April, his football stock was skyrocketing.

Harrison then joined a club baseball team out of Houston that summer. Evaluators like Baseball Factory scout Steve Bernhardt had already been pondering about what kind of ballplayer Harrison could become.

“Immediately, just when you set eyes on him, he's got that body that you'd want,” said Bernhardt, Baseball Factory's executive vice president and chairman of the Under Armour All-America Game selection committee. “You see the athlete actions, how easy things come to him. Everything is fluid. There's no effort involved.”

Just watch Harrison play basketball. Better yet, check out his halftime dunk show while the junior varsity players are strategizing in the locker room.

He's throwing down windmills and reverse jams off the baseline. A couple of Harrison's friends yell down their requests from the stands.

Then the game starts, but the show doesn't stop. Against Truman High School on Tuesday, Harrison had four dunks, three layups, a step-back jumper and an easy corner 3.

All that from a guy who almost didn't play basketball this year. Because most assumed it's an injury risk. Because most are thinking about his future in football and baseball. Because most wonder if he could use a break.

Harrison's always listening, but he makes his own decision. Followed his heart on that one. It seems he figures the rest will fall into place.

“It's the 1 percent-ers, but it can be done,” Meyer said. “The good ones figure it out.”

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.



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