GARDNER, Kan. -- You can't believe what they've said about Bubba Starling. Or maybe you can because it's high school, complete with all the usual adolescent vindictiveness -- both spread and heard.
"I have a kid," said one of the nation's best two-sport athletes. "I'm out for two games because I got caught with weed."
Starling is merely repeating what gets back to him from the street and from the stands. Whether it's the NFL, Major League Baseball or Gardner-Edgerton High School here in eastern Kansas, there are always haters. There are always those ready to tear down the athletic gods among us. Starling is just realizing that. And it will get worse before it gets better because there aren't many like him anywhere.
|Derek 'Bubba' Starling can run for nearly 400 yards in a game or strike out seven with a 95-mph fastball. (Credit: Tom Lemming)|
He is, of course, none of those things -- an unwed father, a druggie nor a coward. He is 18, a sculpted 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior the likes of which this area has seldom seen. As a top 30 recruit in football, Starling, a quarterback, is committed to Nebraska. As Baseball America's top high school prospect, Starling is also committed to Nebraska.
The Huskers said he could come to Lincoln and play both sports. So did a lot of schools, but the question eventually becomes: for how long? Nebraska is merely the winner for now willing to take the risk. No one is ignoring the obvious elephant in the room.
Derek "Bubba" Starling might never set foot on the field as a collegian.
You can't believe what they've said about Bubba Starling. It's written in the offers from the likes of Notre Dame, which was among the finalists. Miami's Al Golden inquired a couple of weeks ago. Nick Saban spoke with Starling by Skype and firmly suggested his offer would be one-way -- football only. See ya, Alabama. Nebraska provides both the relatively close cocoon -- it is three hours away by car -- and a possible launching pad for a kid whose career arc is beginning to resemble Joe Mauer's. Ten years ago the Twins' superstar catcher was the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit. Mauer then teased Florida State by signing a letter of intent before eventually signing professionally with the Twins.
The assumption by almost everyone is that Starling will do the same and ultimately sign a professional baseball contract later this year. As good as he has been in football -- the Kansas state player of the year, U.S. Army All-American -- Starling might be more imposing in baseball. Half Bryce Harper phenom, half Brian Wilson flamethrower, Bubba once hit a couple of home runs in a high school game that measured a combined 1,000 feet. That was two years ago when he was a sophomore. With his 95-mph heater, Starling struck out seven in three relief appearances for the under-18 national team last summer.
Perhaps his ultimate weapon in this discussion, though, is his baseball advisor: super agent Scott Boras.
"If you were on the fence I would think if you're hiring Boras he's going to make sure you play baseball," said Brian McRae, a former major leaguer and Starling's batting coach with the national team. "It doesn't take a highly educated person to see where everything was going. Nebraska isn't known for developing NFL quarterbacks. If he thought he had a future in football beyond college, why wouldn't he go to a place that has a reputation for players at his position?"
McRae is intimating what everyone is thinking. Baseball is more lucrative. Playing it probably means a longer career. All Starling has to do is read the latest headlines and realize baseball is safer. To Bubba, part of it is more rumor and innuendo. It all congeals into the question they all keep asking this Captain America -- by way of suburban Kansas City.
Which sport are you going to play?
"I just laugh and say, 'Mom, they keep asking me the same stuff,'" Bubba said. "I keep telling them the same answer."
He doesn't know what he's going to do.
The Bubba Factor
An aunt nicknamed him Bubba at birth because of the 10-pound baby's chubby legs. She couldn't have known the name would hang on him like a hero in a Hardy Boys book. As a youth in coach-pitch, parents would complain he threw too hard. In basketball, his dad Jim mandated that Bubba make sure every one of his teammates touch the ball and shoot before his son could score.
Mom and dad are heroes of their own -- at least to other parents. They didn't allow cable TV in the house until last fall. Bubba still goes to friends' homes to play video games. The Starlings demanded that their kids go out and do something. It's obvious they have done a heck of a job raising a prodigy. Bubba is a humble package with a 34½-inch vertical, who runs a 4.36-second 40 and can chuck a football 80 yards. Starling could also be a Division I basketball prospect if he chose. Growing up, baseball was his favorite. Now, with the choice of his life ahead, he's not sure.
It's impossible for everyone to leave him alone, though, while he figures it out.
Those Nebraska fans have been, well, Nebraska fans. Bubba is recognized by the Big Red horde wherever he goes. He and his father went to the Texas-Nebraska game last fall. Bubba was solicited for an autograph that showed up a week later on eBay. In San Antonio for the Army All-American game, Starling was recognized by a Nebraska fan who gave him the shirt off his back -- to sign. Another Nebraska fan gave him a card that read, "5 million reasons to choose Nebraska and turn down $5 million." Clever, but if the projections are correct, it's going to take a lot more than $5 million to sign Starling in baseball.
Bubba remained star struck this week dreamily describing a handwritten letter he got from Nebraska legend/AD Tom Osborne. Nebraska may not be a pipeline for NFL quarterbacks, but it has had a few stars at the position.
"You could be," Bubba said, reciting part of Osborne's letter, "the next Eric Crouch."
Star struck? Crouch was the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner.
It adds up to an interesting and complicated 2011. Starling will sign Wednesday, finish his high school basketball and baseball seasons, then wait for June's baseball draft. Given the typical wrangling, slotting and negotiating over top baseball picks, it may come down to Aug. 15 -- the deadline for major-league teams to sign their draft choices. That date also falls smack in the middle of Nebraska's fall drills.
"It will probably depend on where I get drafted ...," Starling said. "If I was later in the [first] round, I'd probably think college."
Seven months to go and it seems like seven years. There is a bit of innocence about to be lost. Ninety-eight-year-old Elizabeth Fox was upset that Friday last fall and not just because she had been admitted to the hospital earlier in the week. "Gram" was missing her weekly hair appointment and wouldn't be attending her great grandson's game that night.
"She just kind of attended every athletic event she could get herself to," Bubba said. "I called her that afternoon."
At 4:30 p.m. Gram died. It was only the third time in her life she had been to a hospital.
It's obvious Gram passed on that hearty stock. Bubba ran for more than 2,300 yards, scoring 31 touchdowns in 2010. In an ESPNU game against rival St. Thomas Aquinas he piled up 309 yards on 19 carries but got cheap-shotted on a couple of plays. Suddenly, all the frustration bubbled up. All the crap being talked about him didn't stay down this time. After one touchdown, Bubba made sure pointed to the scoreboard in what would eventually be a 57-17 win for his team.
"[The rumors] get around to scouts," he said. "They call my dad and say, 'Is this true?'"
To us, it seems like trivial high school stuff. To an 18-year-old still finding himself, it's huge. It's everything. In the playoffs, Starling ran for 395 yards but his team still lost 45-42 to Blue Valley. Was it his final football game? They wonder around here whether the phenomenon that has become Gardner-Edgerton football will be able to sustain itself without Starling. They packed the stands on Friday nights when Bubba was playing. Tailgaters gathered.
"It's definitely a football town now," he said.
Deb Starling grew up here. She feels a little uneasy about seeing her hometown boom from a population of 3,000 to a bedroom community of approximately 20,000. Her son is responsible for a lot of it. Kids wear Bubba's No. 16 jersey with as much fervor as Auburn fans clamor for Cam Newton's No. 2. Football coach Marvin Diener has the junior high players evaluated so well that he knows what side of the ball they will play on in high school by the seventh grade.
"They call it the Bubba Factor," she said. "Will that continue after this year?"
The same might be said of this town's favorite son. No one knows. Not here, not in Lincoln, not in random minor-league parks where Bubba's skills would be sharpened out of the limelight. Not even in Boras' office.
"I do know this," Diener said, "He doesn't like people telling him that he's not going to play football."
That's because Gram's boy -- the humble stud with the rocket arm, blazing speed and unlimited future -- doesn't know himself.