LaTroy Hawkins pitched 21 years in Major League Baseball, appeared in more than 1,000 games, suffered just one significant injury in his career, and proved highly durable and extremely valuable through the 2015 season, when he retired, at age 42, as the oldest player in the majors.
He made his major league debut with Minnesota on April 29, 1995, then was quickly shuttled back to the minors. He returned to the Twins on Sept. 18 of that season for his fourth major league start, one day after his good buddy Pat Mahomes, a fellow Twins pitcher, welcomed his first child into the world. That child, Patrick Mahomes, was born in Tyler, Texas, and the next day, in the second game of a double-header at Kansas City, his godfather, Hawkins, would earn his first MLB win, going 5 2/3 innings, while Patrick’s father relieved him in the sixth to pick up a three-inning save.
Patrick Mahomes’ two future role models are shining examples of what it means to be a professional athlete -- living embodiments of the dedication, perseverance and sacrifice it requires to reach the pinnacle of pro sports. And now, 21 years in the making, young Patrick Mahomes is primed to be selected in the first round of April’s NFL draft. He is one of the players that NFL execs are most intrigued to watch at this week’s scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“I remember the day his mom and dad and told me that they were pregnant with him,” Hawkins told me after a day of working with the Twins’ minor leaguers at spring training in Fort Myers. “I’ve been with Patrick literally since Day 1.”
The younger Mahomes has spent his entire life as an accomplished youth athlete, immersed in locker rooms and playing fields. At Texas Tech, he played three distinguished seasons under Kliff Kingsbury as the trigger man in the Red Raiders’ Air Raid offense. Sports is literally all Mahomes has known, from the bullpens to the batting cages to the practice fields. Leadership, teamwork, conditioning, selflessness, confidence, ambition, professionalism -- the very traits that can separate star quarterbacks from draft busts -- come naturally to him, those who know him best say, and it’s not simply through osmosis, either.
From a very young age Mahomes, whose father pitched for 11 years in the majors, pushed his mentors for information, assistance, guidance, on how to become a better athlete, but also on how to conduct himself off the field, how to avoid pitfalls, how to navigate the trappings of fame and success, and the importance of shunning the partying lifestyle that could derail even the most promising of careers. Pat Mahomes and Hawkins fully supported Patrick’s decision to pick the gridiron over the diamond -- he turned down a contract from the Tigers, who selected Mahomes in the 2014 MLB draft -- and are excited that one of college football’s best-kept secrets is becoming much more of a household name through the early stages of the pre-draft process.
“We always tried to set a really good example for him,” said Hawkins, who can recall sharing an apartment with baby Patrick and his parents in Puerto Rico in winter league baseball and running to the Burger King across the street to get him fries in the middle of the night. “And keep him not in a cocoon, but to try to keep our circle tight. And we’ve definitely been able to do that, because he’s not one of those guys who is going to go out looking for people to validate that he is good enough. He doesn’t need that. We don’t have an entourage. We’re not about that.
“And he understands that and he’s a lot like me. His daddy always said, ‘That boy acts just like you.’ And you do have to safeguard yourself from some people who want to leach on you or bring you down or influence you not to do the right thing, and Patrick has done a great job of that.
“We always reinforce what the plan is and having the right people to help implement it with you, and I’ve always talked to him about taking care of your body, because your body is your temple, and if you take care of your body you are maximizing your God-given talent ... And He’s one of those kids who retains so much information. He has like a photographic memory -- once you tell him something he’ll never forget it.”
Like his father and godfather, Mahomes was a star pitcher. He excelled at all sports but didn’t really start playing organized football until seventh grade. By high school, he was totally hooked on quarterbacking and that’s been his calling ever since. Despite the deep baseball bloodlines in his family, Mahomes, impeccably mannered with conversation sprinkled with “yes sirs” and “no sirs,” received nothing but support for his decision.
“My mom and dad and godfather really left it up to me,” Mahomes told me after another full day of quarterback training in California prepping for the combine. “They said whatever you enjoy the most, and whatever you feel like you do the best, we’ll support you. They let me make the decision.”
Kingsbury, the esteemed quarterback guru, already had a crowded group of passers at Texas Tech before Mahomes arrived on campus. Then Baker Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma. Mahomes actually flew to Lubbock a day after the Tigers selected him in the 37th round -- his baseball draft stock fell with most teams assuming Mahomes would choose college football -- and ended up appearing in seven games and starting four as a true freshman. He tossed 16 TDs to just 4 INTs on his way to beating out incumbent Davis Webb, who went on to shine at Cal this season and is a well-thought of draft prospect himself.
Now playing big time college football in the Big 12, all of those years spent with his father and Hawkins really began to take hold. The words carried more meaning now, and those days as a child putting balls on a tee for Alex Rodriguez to smash relentlessly for hours at a time all resonated even more deeply. The younger Mahomes went about sculpting his body more in the offseason, realizing that his athletic prowess alone -- and the genetic dynamite in his rifle right arm -- would only carry him so far.
“I was always on him that he could be in better shape,” said Hawkins, who reached the postseason 10 times, including his final season after a trade to Toronto, and pitched in one World Series for the Rockies. “And when he went to college he got in better shape and he saw those guys were bigger, stronger and faster than anything he’d seen before. And once he got as big and fast as those guys, he took off.”
Patrick Mahomes said: “I feel like everything I saw as little kid had a great impact on my life, but I didn’t realize it as much until I got older. Then I could really appreciate how these guys work so hard to stay in the league and to be a professional athlete, and you take from them how hard you have to work to get there. LaTroy really is a great role model for me in how to do things the right way. He did it the right way his entire career. He never drank, he always worked out to keep his body in the best shape possible, and he still looks like he could play today.”
Mahomes managed to somehow fly under the radar as a Red Raider, with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson naturally getting huge accolades en route to a national title and strapping North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky emerging as a one-year wonder and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer seemingly on national television every week. All Mahomes, a superb mobile athlete at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, did was throw for more than 5,000 yards as a junior, completing nearly 66 percent of his passes, averaging over 8.5 yards per attempt, with 41 touchdowns to just 10 picks. While some scouts scoff at the spread formation Kingsbury runs at Texas Tech, the decision to leave school early was relatively easy; Mahomes can play on Sundays and he knows it.
“He looked at the other guys on like his first day on campus,” said Hawkins, who spent his final years in the majors trying to figure out how to watch and get to as many Texas Tech games as possible, “and after his first practice in Lubbock he told his dad and I, ‘I’m better than those guys. I just don’t know the system, yet. But I’m going to outplay them.’ And his body of work the rest of his freshman, sophomore and junior years show you what type of young man he is. He is determined, and once he is determined to do something, there’s not too many things that can stop him. Maybe a 300-pound defensive end running a 4.5 40, but even he’s going to have a problem with him.”
Mahomes said: “It’s just about making myself the best player I can possibly be, so I’m ready to play from Day 1, and my goal is to win a Super Bowl. At Texas Tech I put up all the stats and all the yards, but we never got to a Big 12 Championship, and I want to hold a Trophy at the end of the season.”
Hawkins, drafted by the Twins out of high school in 1991, played a key role, along with Patrick’s parents, of course, in being a sounding-board through the major decisions that Mahomes has faced the past few months. He helped him through the process of picking an agent, settling on Leigh Steinberg, who worked with spread quarterback Paxton Lynch a year ago. Lynch ended up going in the first round while other quarterbacks got more initial hype. Sound familiar?
Lynch struggled some with the transition at the combine, and Steinberg is optimistic Mahomes will be a little crisper when he runs those drills -- he’ll do everything except lift at the combine -- with the pre-draft work aimed at maximizing the quarterback’s performance at his March 31 Pro Day. Mahomes has had his hand in a splint as a precaution in recent weeks but he’s fully healthy now, Steinberg said.
“We chose to recruit him and didn’t even try for the other three quarterbacks,” said Steinberg, who is famous for representing top-of-the-draft quarterbacks, “assuming no one else would represent two, which somebody is. But we made him that commitment, and it wasn’t that we had no contacts at Clemson or UNC or Notre Dame or elsewhere, but it’s because I think he’s the best quarterback in the draft.”
Actually, considering the recent results and bleak short-term prospects of the QB-desperate clubs picking at the top of this draft -- Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago -- being picked a little lower could actually be the best thing possible for Mahomes. Going to a better franchise with a more stable situation and better talent around him (like say the Texans, or the Chiefs), is likely much more conducive to staying healthy and having long-term success, though Mahomes is going to be a draft “riser” regardless, I suspect.
He’s bracing for the onslaught of questions about what some might dub a gimmicky offense in college. He’s quick to point out he was given significant audible freedom at the line of scrimmage and that he took plenty of practice reps under center, so the quarterback wouldn’t only be accustomed to shotgun situations. Kingsbury imparts plenty of pro concepts, which Mahomes intends to display over the next two months.
“No doubt, the coaches and GMs will ask me about it,” Mahomes said, “and it’s a valid question, because not a lot of guys have worked out from it on pro teams. But I feel like I can break the mold.”
As for his overall approach to these coming weeks, for Mahomes it’s simple.
“It’s definitely going to be me showing my passion for the game,” Mahomes said. “They’ll see that in how I talk about the game and how I play it. And win, lose or draw, how I’ll fight until the end every game and they’ll have to drag me off the field. I’m going out there every single day and doing something I love, so why not put everything into it? I’ve seen LaTroy and my dad do it their whole lives, give it all they have every single day, and that’s the same thing I’m going to do.”
Undoubtedly, few others in this draft class will have quite a deep history of such first-hand experiences to cull upon as they make the journey to the NFL. Few rookies will have a more intimate understanding of the type of alpha male locker room they are about to enter. Few, frankly, will be better prepared for the undertaking, and that background has helped mitigate some of the angst that the loved ones of these draft prospects undoubtedly experience with spring just ahead, and new beginnings abounding.
“I’m nervous, just because from a parent’s standpoint you always want the outcome to be the best it could possibly be,” said Hawkins. “But I also have this good bit of calm about me, knowing the kid and dealing with him his entire life. I know that Patrick is going to excel and once people meet him they’ll fall in love with him. He’s that kind of kid and, I’m biased, obviously, but I know he can be the face of a franchise and help get you to the playoffs and eventually win a Super Bowl. I know he has a lot of intangibles that a lot of other people just don’t have.”