Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Legend of Bubba

(Published December 2010)

The stories rolled across the Kansas prairie like a summer thunderstorm.

At first, they sounded like tall tales. Concocted in some Main Street coffee shop. But they kept coming.

Could it be true?

That a small-town boy with a name straight out of American folklore bounced off a gymnasium floor, caught an errant pass, turned 180 degrees in the air as he got fouled and dunked the ball over his head.

That his baseball coach made him use a wood bat at practice so he wouldn't blast the elementary school parking lot beyond the left field wall. “You don't wanna kill somebody,” the coach said.

That his own football coaches routinely gathered before each game to predict how many plays it would take him to score. Usually, one. He'd cross the goal line and point at his 98-year-old great grandmother.

Kansans young and old call Bubba Starling the greatest high school athlete they've ever seen. A major conference Division I athlete in three sports — if he wanted to be. A 6-foot-5, 200-pound winning lottery ticket. You simply do not find 18-year-olds with his combination of size and speed.

As word spreads, autograph requests from Vermont to California hit Bubba's mailbox — “Sign here, please.” Strangers who haven't seen a high school game in years show up to study his every move, wondering what the folk hero does next.

But this was McPherson, Kan., an old railroad hub 160 miles from the legend's origin. And before that October night, few in McPherson had ever seen Bubba.

Starling's team, Gardner-Edgerton, was No. 1 in the state's second largest class. McPherson was No. 3. Both were undefeated. The bleachers were full.

A McPherson sportswriter, 36 years in the pressbox, calls it the greatest game he's ever seen, featuring the greatest player he's ever seen.

Final score: 49-42. Bubba's team got the ball seven times. It scored seven touchdowns. He finished with 273 rushing yards, 118 passing yards and five scores.

Time and time again, defenders had Bubba's jersey in their hands, only to watch him break free. By the second half, McPherson fans were calling third down “Bubba time.”

There's one play they remember most.

Starling took a shotgun snap, rolled left when he found nobody open, almost got sacked, danced a little farther left, got cornered on the sideline by five McPherson defenders, stiff-armed one, looped 15 yards into the backfield to avoid the other four, turned the corner, started running downhill toward the goal line, cut back to the left, broke three more tackles, ran out of fuel at the 10-yard line and got dragged down.

The play gained only 30 yards, but it lasted 19 seconds. If only the quarterback would've cut toward the right sideline, he probably would've scored.

“I know,” Bubba says with not a hint of sarcasm. “What was I thinkin'?”

Better question: What was Bo Pelini thinking? The Nebraska coach was in McPherson that night, along with his offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, and Husker baseball coach Mike Anderson.

Bubba Starling has committed to play quarterback in Lincoln in 2011. And if you listen to the people who've seen Bubba play, he has a chance to be the next Tim Tebow or Vince Young. The difference between 10-3 and 13-0.

Just one problem.

Bubba Starling is the nation's top high school baseball prospect, according to Baseball America. A potentially rare five-tool center fielder. And if you listen to the people who've seen him play, he has a chance to be the next Josh Hamilton or Carl Crawford. The difference between winning pennants and taking October vacations.

So there's a drama brewing. Chances are, it'll go something like this:

In January, Bubba will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, his first taste of all-star football.

In February, he will sign a national letter of intent to play for Nebraska.

In March, he will make another run at a state basketball championship.

In April, dozens of baseball scouts will tote their radar guns and clipboards to every game Bubba plays. They'll study his reaction to a called third strike. They'll note whether he runs out a ground ball. They'll look for the tiniest flaws in his swing.

In May, Bubba will graduate from Gardner-Edgerton High School, leave the only town in which he's ever lived, move three hours north, start summer classes and work out with the Huskers.

In June, he will be drafted by a major league baseball team, almost surely in the first round.

In July, the kid who hasn't gone more than a week without organized sports since elementary school will return home to his dogs and his dock. For a few days, he'll embrace the sound of silence.

Then in August, after starting preseason practice with the Huskers and wearing a red jersey to fan day, he will hole up with his parents in some Lincoln hotel room.

Aug. 15 is the deadline for major league teams to sign a drafted player.

If Bubba declines to sign, he'll suspend pro baseball for three years and focus on college football and college baseball.

As the midnight deadline approaches, Starling's agent, the famous Scott Boras, will use every bargaining chip he knows to secure a signing bonus close to $10 million. No way Bubba gets offered less than $5 million, experts say.

On one phone line, Bubba will have a general manager twisting his arm to give up college for a shot at the big leagues.

“And then I'm going to have Pelini and Watson telling me they really want me to stick with football,” Bubba says.

“It's going to be crazy.”

Aura of Bubba

Yes, you've heard it all before.

You're numb to the hype. Sick of superlatives.

How many times have you read an article about a wunderkind who was going to be a star? And then wasn't.

You have every right to stop reading right now, because this story starts like so many before it.

But something strange is happening south of the state line. Why else would all these grown men start babbling like teenage girls at a Jonas Brothers concert?

“I have seen the future star of American sports, and his name is Bubba.” That's from a New York columnist who watched Starling play a few baseball games this past summer.

A former big leaguer, Brian McRae, says, “You don't see a guy that big run that fast and be that athletic. And he's got a lot of room to grow. Projecting where he's going to be when he's 22, 23 years old, it's kind of scary.”

An ESPN recruiting expert says, “He really gives you hope again about today's youth, because you hear all these stories about kids getting into trouble and it's so few times where you have a guy like Bubba Starling where everything is so special about him.”

The legend begins when Derek Starling leaves the womb weighing 10 pounds. His aunt sees his chubby little legs and stamps him with a nickname.

In first grade, his teacher asks what he wants her to call him. He weighs the pros and cons in his mind. The nickname, he decides, fit his ornery personality better.

Each day after school, his grandma picks him up and drops him off at the ballpark, where he's bat boy for the Gardner-Edgerton Blazers.

Bubba dreams of eating up fly balls like Jim Edmonds. He dreams of hitting laser beams to all fields like Joe Mauer. The images come mostly from his imagination — his family won't get cable TV until he's 17. No video games, either.

“If you want something to do,” his father, Jim, says, “go out and find a ball. Or I'll find something for you to do.”

Those early summers, he plays on a coach-pitch team. Friends celebrate when they get a single. Not Bubba. He makes a habit out of inside-the-park homers. The third or fourth at-bat of every game, he switches to the left side and damned if he doesn't smash another.

The competition in his small town is too easy, so he joins a traveling team in Kansas City. Of course, he isn't going to give up his other sports. One day he tells his coach, former Kansas City Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane, he's going to be late to practice because of a basketball game.

Coach Mac jokes, “Don't even bother showing up unless you score 40.”

The final horn sounds, Bubba looks at the stat sheet and, Yes! Forty on the nose.

His freshman and sophomore years, he leads Gardner-Edgerton's varsity basketball team in scoring. He averages about 18 points, 10 rebounds and two dunks. (He has a chance this winter to break school records for career points and rebounds.)

“He just has an aura about him,” said basketball coach Jeff Langrehr. “You can feel it when you walk into the gym. The whole gym is looking at him and whispering, ‘That's Bubba Starling.' ”

If he wanted to play college basketball, Kansans say, the best coaches in the country would gift-wrap a scholarship. But if you think he should play for Bill Self or Frank Martin, you haven't seen him on a diamond.

As a freshman, he's topping 90 mph on the mound, even though his coach calls his mechanics “horrible.” He throws a perfect game: six innings, 15 strikeouts.

Sophomore year, with the temperature barely above freezing, he starts the season with back-to-back homers.

“Add them to together,” coach Jerald Van Rheen says, “and it was really close to 1,000 feet. He just hit the crap out of both of 'em.”

Bombs like those prompt Van Rheen to institute a wood-bat-only rule for batting practice to protect the kids walking out of Madison Elementary.

A year later, Bubba is late joining the baseball team because of basketball. After just two bullpen sessions and a handful of practices, Van Rheen puts him on the mound in the season opener. The scouts in attendance “were foaming at the mouth wanting to see him throw.”

Bubba pitches one inning. Throws 11 pitches. Hits 95 on the radar guns.

A few weeks later, Bubba's standing in the left-center gap when a power hitter crushes a ball to right-center. Bubba takes off, covers 40 yards, leaps off one foot at the warning track and snatches the ball before it clears the chain-link outfield wall.

Sitting in the stands is an old doctor who played against Nolan Cromwell in high school. For 35 years, Brian Sorell believed Cromwell, a world-class hurdler and former NFL All-Pro, was the best high school athlete he'd seen in Kansas. Until now.

Baseball. Center field. This was Bubba's calling. He knew it. Everyone knew it.

Then something unexpected happens. Bubba turns into a football player. As a junior, he makes defenses look silly, leading the Blazers to the state championship game.

He can vertical jump 34½ inches. He can run a 40-yard dash, electronically timed, in 4.36 seconds. He can throw a football 55 yards with two knees on the ground — and 80 yards from two feet. But no number describes his greatest asset.

He'd rather be hurt than be a loser.

When his junior season ends, assistant coaches from the top football programs in America pack his voicemail like an undersized suitcase.

Alabama. Oklahoma. Notre Dame. Miami.

Bo Pelini's no-nonsense style suits Starling's values. His mom works at school as a secretary and one teacher says, “If he got out of line, she'd beat his butt.”

Pelini and Mike Anderson get together and make a pitch: Bubba can play both football and baseball, sure. He commits.

“You could make all the promises about playing both sports in college and he could say all the right things,” said ESPN recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree. “But everybody knew that the big elephant in the room was baseball.”

Then the elephant grows.

In June, Starling makes the Under-18 national team. But just barely. Twenty players make the cut. According to a coach, Bubba is No. 18 or 19.

Then he starts hitting. He moves from the bottom of the order to the heart of the order. He stretches doubles into stand-up triples. He shows scouts and coaches what he can do when he focuses on baseball.

There are six future first-round picks on the team, Team USA hitting coach Brian McRae says. Kids who'd grown up in Florida and California playing year-round. By summer's end, McRae says, the three-sport athlete from the prairie is as good as or better than all of them.

Bubba becomes a national hit — just in time for his senior year of football.

He'll finish the season with 2,417 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns, averaging 14 yards per carry.
In October, a week after his 391 total yards at McPherson, Bubba travels to Lincoln for a Nebraska game. Gets goosebumps on the sideline. He comes home and tells a teacher, “I know I can play there.”

“It's such a different level of competition,” Bubba says, “but I felt like I could easily see myself playing right now or playing next year on that same field and doing as good as them. If not better.”

A week later, ESPNU brings the big cameras to Gardner.

Against rival St. Thomas Aquinas, Bubba runs for 309 yards on 19 carries. In the third quarter, he absorbs blatantly late hits on back-to-back plays. When Gardner-Edgerton scores again to go up 48-17, Starling starts jawing. He points at the scoreboard and draws a penalty.

“I just wanted to say some (expletive) to them,” Bubba says. “We don't like each other, us and Aquinas. We do not like each other at all.”

In November, Gardner-Edgerton meets Blue Valley in a state semifinal. Jeremy Crabtree goes to watch.

Crabtree, 36, is a Kansas native and one of the nation's most prominent recruiting insiders. He's evaluated hundreds of high school studs you've never heard of — and a few you have.

Adrian Peterson. Vince Young. Mark Sanchez. No one, Crabtree says, has dominated more than Bubba.

“He dictates what happens on every single snap. You can put all 11 guys in the box, but you're not going to stop him.”

That night, he fights calf cramps. He needs an inhaler on the sideline. But the Blue Valley fans cheer when Bubba is tackled after 8- and 9-yard gains. He rushes for 395 yards. It's not enough. Gardner-Edgerton loses, 45-42.

As he walks off the field, it's hard not to wonder: Has Bubba Starling played his last meaningful football game?

What's he going to do?

Last week, Bubba's baseball coach received an e-mail request from a prep school basketball coach in Wisconsin. The man has two sons and they want Bubba's autograph.

Wednesday, he went Christmas shopping in his letter jacket. Two women approached him.

“You're Bubba!” one said.

Then she asked Bubba to sign the back of a blank check.

Gardner, 30 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City, had about 3,000 residents when Bubba was born. But Kansas City keeps moving south. Now the number is approaching 20,000.

It still feels like a small town. And small towns don't always cherish their star athletes, football coach Marvin Diener says.

“A lot of times, people like to see those guys slip and fall. That's not the case here.”

One teacher recalls receiving a phone call from Bubba at 11 p.m. after a football game. He'd just opened his ACT results and wanted to share the good news.

Another teacher recalls taking his 8-year-old son to a football practice. Bubba sneaked away from the team to play catch with the kid.

Three weeks ago, Gardner-Edgerton's student body surprised Bubba with a pep rally when he was named Kansas City's best football player. In his speech, he recognized his 98-year-old great-grandma who rarely missed a game (she passed away last week).

Two weeks ago, Bubba heard about a girl in the hospital who'd been in a car accident. Her sister had died. Her mother, who worked at Gardner-Edgerton, was in a different hospital. Someone told Bubba after a Friday night basketball game that the girl wanted to see him.

The next morning, he skipped practice, went to the hospital and held her hand.

Bubba knows everyone's watching him. He can handle expectations. But the fanfare wears on him.
He recently changed his cell phone number to get a little more quiet time.

His father, Jim, says a Nebraska website recently misquoted Bubba talking about the draft. Persuading the Starlings to accept an interview for this article was not easy.

When somebody in Gardner suggests they know his future plans, Bubba rages like he did after those cheap shots from St. Thomas Aquinas.

“They say, ‘Yeah, he's going straight to the draft. He's taking the money.' They have no clue what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing yet.”

Bubba is very close to Shawn Watson and talks to him about once a week. He sighed relief when Watson didn't get the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. And again when Pelini didn't go to Miami.
Bubba considers himself a Husker.

But the future is hazy, and Bubba knows it. Part of him wants to hide out for a few months, not play a sport at all, wait out the storm.

There's a perfect spot a few miles west of Gardner, where you can turn toward the setting sun and see nothing but open fields.

An acreage where the Starlings moved when Bubba was 6. One of the main selling points was a pond a couple hundred yards from the back door.

A dock marks the west side, reaching 15 feet into the water.

When Bubba was 10, he and his cousins built a ramp at the end of the dock. They rode their bikes off the edge and made a splash.

He's not that young anymore. In the summer, he sits on that dock with his dogs, Tex and Bo. He sticks his feet in the water and casts a line.

“I just like to get away.”

Soon after the family moved in, they stocked the pond with small catfish from nearby lakes. Then a friend brought over a 20-pound flathead. The last decade, Bubba hunted that fish.

Then last summer, he'd just come home from a baseball game when he saw his bobber — a milk jug — submerge.

This is the big one, he thought. Could it be true?

He reeled it in and, Yes! Forty pounds.

Bubba remembers another night last summer, too. His uncle pulled up to the pond, beer in hand. They started talking baseball.

Uncle Gary said, “Man, what would you do with all that money?”

Bubba Starling had thought about it too many nights to count. He thought about it when fish were biting. He thought about it when fish were sleeping. He thought about it as cicadas sang lullabies under starlit skies.

Months have since passed. The seasons changed and the temperature dropped and the pond froze over.

But legend has it that an 18-year-old boy is still sitting on that dock, two dogs and a fishing pole at his side, watching the city lights creep closer.

Wondering what a folk hero does next.

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