Starling is the state's next — and maybe last — great three-sport athlete

03/12/2010 12:00 AM

03/12/2010 12:04 AM

TOPEKA — Let's start with the name, because it's not fair.

It's not fair that a kid with all the athletic ability in the world gets the big-time name, too.

Bubba Starling? You have to be kidding.

With the name alone, this kid is destined for fame. Never mind that he's 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds with thunder in his right arm and lightning in his legs.

Football, basketball, baseball — Starling does them all at the highest level for Gardner-Edgerton High, near Kansas City. The Blazers finished second to Hutchinson in the Class 5A football playoffs last fall and will meet top-seeded and unbeaten Bishop Miege in the semifinals of the state basketball tournament today in Topeka.

Starling already has seven college offers from schools willing to give him his wish to play football and baseball. And he's only a junior.

Starling said he has offers from Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Baylor, Louisville, Notre Dame and Arizona.

"There are quite a few others I'm still talking to,'' he said.

There is no rush to make a choice and Starling isn't divulging which schools might be front runners. He's too smart for that.

As a quarterback for the Blazers last season, Starling rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and passed for the same, despite missing two games with a separated left shoulder.

He's Gardner's leading scorer in basketball because of his combination of size, speed and jumping ability. And he not only throws a baseball 90 mph-plus, he hits one farther than the eyes can see.

By playing three sports in high school, he's the last of a dying breed. By excelling in three the way he does, Starling might soon be in the argument when the state's best athletes are being debated.

"Growing up as a kid, I loved all three sports — football, basketball and baseball,'' Starling said. "It just depended what season it was. If it was basketball season, that's what I wanted to do. And I like to compete against people and play the very best.''

Lots of people love multiple sports. Very few excel in one, let alone three.

"And if he wanted to, Bubba could be a one-man track team,'' Gardner football coach Marvin Diener said.

Get this: When Diener, previously a highly successful coach at Salina Central, was interviewing for the Gardner job five years ago, administrators told him about a kid in the seventh grade who was someday going to be a star for the high school.

Bubba was a selling point.

"And they were sure right,'' Diener said. "It was pretty amazing that I'm trying to get this job and one of the first things people talked to me about was this kid in the seventh grade.''

Starling looks like he was chiseled out of rock. In a quarterfinal win over Great Bend on Wednesday, he scored a ho-hum 17 points in an easy win.

Before the game, students from Great Bend were on him big time, already aware of the legend of Bubba Starling. He paid them no attention until after he finished off a monster dunk in the second quarter. After that, he pounded his chest and mouthed something to those students.

"My mother wouldn't want me doing that,'' Starling said after the game. "I just lost control of my emotions.''

Starling's coaches can't stop raving about his ability and his work ethic. For good measure, he's also a strong student, carrying a 3.2 grade-point average even though sports eat up so much time.

Before the team left for Wednesday's game, Starling took tests in Chemistry and Algebra II and missed two others. You can tell there are times when the stresses of being a three-sport athlete who prides himself on academics wears on him, but he perseveres.

"If there was some way he could play more than three sports, he'd be awesome in those, too,'' first-year Gardner basketball coach Jeff Langrehr said. "He can do anything he wants. He's pretty remarkable.''

Langrehr used the word "remarkable" three other times during a two-minute chat about Starling. And it's not because he has a limited vocabulary. It's because the people who known Bubba the best run out of superlatives to describe him.

Diener coached Jake Sharp and Terrence Newman at Salina Central and says Starling is faster than either of them.

"He's the fastest kid I've ever been around,'' Diener said. "When you watch him on the football field, he just absolutely out-runs any defensive player who might have an angle on him.''

Starling practically begged Diener to get back on the field after separating his shoulder and finally the coach relented. It helped that because of his speed and quickness, Starling hardly ever gets sacked — twice in two seasons.

"You just don't see kids who are 6-5 and have Bubba's explosiveness,'' Diener said. "You should see some of this kid's dunks on the basketball court. Alley-oops, behind his head. This fall we tested vertical jumps and his was 32.''

To test Starling's arm strength, Diener asked him to get on both knees and throw a football, thinking he'd be lucky to get it out there 30 or 35 yards.

Starling flinged the ball 55 yards, an accomplishment that with any other athlete would be nothing but urban legend. Diener saw it with his own eyes.

"This is just freak stuff,'' the coach said. "What can I say?''

It's amazing that Starling can still get his head through a door, but his coaches say there's no sign of an out-of-control ego. If anything, they say, Starling doesn't realize how good he is.

He plays sports because he loves them, not because they identify him.

"Everybody tells me, 'Oh, wow, there's no way you can play football and baseball at the Division I level,' '' Starling said. "But I want to be one of those guys who can do both and keep up with my academics. I think I can do it.''

There are all kinds of rumors out there about Starling. One is that he's going to give up playing football in the fall and concentrate on baseball.

No way, Starling said. NO WAY! You'd have a better chance of getting him to cut off his right arm than getting him to give up football.

Another is that Starling will eventually forgo college to give professional baseball a chance since he's a potential high draft pick in 2011.

Again, that's probably not going to happen. Starling loves football too much to stop playing now. And besides, football might eventually be his ticket, not baseball.

"He could be playing on Sundays,'' Langrehr said. "Then again, he could be in MLB just as easy.''

So what about the name?

The last name just happened, a stroke of good fortune. But the first name, Bubba, was a choice.

When Starling was born, he weighed 10 pounds. The family had never seen a baby so big.

"My aunt Sis gave me the nickname 'Bubba' just because I was a big ol' boy,'' Starling said.

It stuck. He's never been a Derek. He's always been a Bubba.

Remember the name: Bubba Starling. As if you could forget.

About Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.

Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com

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