June 14, 2012

McPherson doubling up at Army

Army incoming quarterback prospect Blake McPherson recently revealed a change of plans since his February commitment to the Black Knights.

Oh, he's still West Point-bound as a direct admit to the campus along the Hudson River.

The difference is he's launching his Army career as a two-sport athlete -- a football quarterback and track and field decathlete. The promise he showed in the two-day, 10-event decathlon as a senior at Arlington (Wash.) High inspired the additional challenge.

McPherson, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, won the Washington state high school decathlon title earlier this month with a score of 6,201 points. It's important to note he won the decathlon while competing with college implements (for example, a 16-pound shot vs. high school's 12-pound shot or 42-inch hurdles vs. 36 inches).

For the uninitiated, McPherson's is already competing at a college level. His 6,201 points is more than the total recorded by Army's top decathlete, Michael Bliss, who finished the 2012 college track season with a best score of 6,095.

"I thought I'd just throw the javelin this year, but I was in great shape from wrestling season and then I was running the hurdles and doing well," said McPherson, one of the top high school javelin throwers in the nation. "My coach has always pushed me to do the decathlon."

Judd Hunter, Arlington's track coach, believes McPherson has the potential to develop into an NCAA medalist in the decathlon. Hunter, who also serves as Arlington football's defensive coordinator, competed at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., as a football safety and track decathlete.

"Sixty-two hundred is a remarkably high school score," Hunter said. "He's a phenomenal athlete. This was the first time he did the decathlon since his sophomore year, so he's going to figure things out -- how to warm up, cool down and manage his energy level. He's only going to get better."

As an example of McPherson's competitiveness, Hunter said he informed him before the 1,500 meters, the decathlon's final event, what times he needed to run to reach levels in the decathlon scoring system. He explained to finish with 6,000 points he needed to to clock a time of 5 minutes, 21 seconds or to score 6,100 he needed a 5:10.

"And I said, 'but if you want to score 6,200, you have to run a 4:45 -- that's 76-second splits,' " said Hunter, recounting the pep talk. "He said, 'Alright, I'll do it' -- not I think I can do it. And then he ran 4:45.91. He's that kind of kid."

2012 Boys Athlete of the Year

In addition to McPherson's decathlon all-around athleticism, he was a three-sport athlete in an era of specialization, even at the high school level. He competed in football, wrestling and track throughout his prep career -- only a knee injury interrupted him -- and was named the 2012 Boys Athlete of the Year on Wednesday by the Everett (Wash.) Herald.

As a decathlete, no one would seem to fit Army football coach Rich Ellerson's strategy of recruiting versatile athletes better than McPherson.

There was a time in the not-so-distance past when track and field rated among America's major sports. The reigning Olympic decathlon gold medalist was widely celebrated as the "World's Greatest Athlete."

Starting with Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics, men like America's Rafer Johnson (1960), Bill Toomey (1968) and Bruce Jenner (1976) followed by Great Britain's Daley Thompson (1980 and 1984) bestrode the globe as athletic gods.

That will come as a surprise today's generation of college and high school athletes -- after all, McPherson had to be pushed into the decathlon by his high school coach -- since Jenner and Thompson were the last decathlon champions to fully benefit from the "World's Greatest Athlete" title three decades ago. But before Jenner's and Thompson's era of basking in the spotlight (and endorsement dollars) faded, there was humorous convergence with decathletes, NFL general managers and sportswriters.

With the NFL's popularity growing to such an absurd degree that every draft pick was analyzed ad nausea, general managers would offer self-serving hints at their ability to find hidden gems by justifying the selection of an unknown player as "the best athlete available."

That led to sportswriters chipping away at the haughtiness by replying, "You should have drafted Bruce Jenner or Daley Thompson."

Such was the stature of Jenner and Thompson in those days.

But this was before steroid scandals began to chip away at the track and field's integrity, before TV advertising dollars determined what sports were broadcast in prime time and before ESPN redefined the world's greatest athlete with repeated replays of Michael Jordan's high-flying dunks.

Track and field began to go the way of boxing and horse racing in popularity among American sports fans.

If you're wondering why GoBlackKnights.com is providing a brief history lesson on the rise and fall of the decathlon, it's not simply because the 2012 London Olympics are right around the corner. The decathlon background will help you better appreciate McPherson's all-around athleticism.

Last football season he completed 133 of 241 passes (.551 percentage) for 2,355 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran 60 times for 301 yards (4.9 per carry) and six touchdowns.

In wrestling as a 195-pounder, he won district and regional titles en route to a 34-0 record before suffering his first loss. He was the state-meet favorite, but he suffered a shoulder injury (non-throwing shoulder) in an early-round match and ended up defaulting in the fifth-place match rather than risk further injury and settled for sixth in the state.

In track, he set school records in the javelin (204 feet, 10 inches), 300-meter hurdles (38.42 seconds) and the 400 (50.10). He only ran the 400 as part of the decathlon competition, which means he should have little trouble getting under the 50-second barrier that separates fast from very fast.

"He's a beast," said David Krueger, a sportswriter for the Everett Herald. "He plays football, wrestling and track, and I wouldn't want to face him in any of them."

During wrestling season, Krueger wrote a story on McPherson's training regimen, which included 5:30 am workouts at a local gym.

He's a beast ... he plays football, wrestling and track, and I wouldn't want to face him in any of them.

- David Krueger, a sportswriter for the Everett Herald

"I tried to do his workout, and I could only do about one-million-eth of it," said Krueger, who is still relatively fit as a 22-year-old that hasn't yet grown into the stereotypical physique of a veteran sportswriter. "He's going to amaze (Army fans). He's amazed us."

But if you're a football fan first and you think this is turning into a track and field story, realize that McPherson emphasizes in media interviews football remains his first love. Only his rare potential in the decathlon has him planning a two-sport career at Army.

"I've got good hands, I can hit on defense and I can play special teams," McPherson said of his football versatility. "But I want to play quarterback. I've played it all my life. I feel I know the game well and I can lead a team. I have a good arm and legs. I have football smarts."

McPherson's remarkable senior season was a comeback from his junior football year when he suffered a torn ACL requiring reconstructive surgery.

"I'm bigger, stronger and faster," McPherson said. "I was doing therapy throughout wrestling season. I think my knee is better now than it was in football season. I'm looking forward to playing football again (with a stronger knee)."

Football and track coaches can tug an athlete in opposite directions in regard to his future potential, but Hunter coaches both sports and thus touts McPherson in football as well track.

"The guy is tough as nails," Hunter said. "He has speed, quickness and throwing ability. He can put a ball on the money. I think the guys around him will catch on to how competitive he is and his drive to be the best. I think he can be great. It will be fun watching him on TV against Navy."

McPherson's drive comes from growing up trying to compete with two older brothers, Brad and Luke. Brad is four years older and a 2012 West Point graduate who competed in crew for the Black Knights (Coincidentally, Army decathlete Michael Bliss was his roommate).

"He was always keeping up with his brothers, even though he was 4 and 6 years younger," Brad said. "You could see the writing on the wall that he was going to be way better than us."

Brad, who is about to report to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for engineer training, understands the demands of West Point. But he hasn't cautioned Blake, who graduated on Wednesday with a 3.96 GPA, about overloading himself by taking on two sports and West Point academics.

"He's an incredible worker," Brad said. "I think he'll be fine. Football is his main thing, but he'll be fine whatever he does."

Blake, who wasn't rated by Rivals, believes he would have been more heavily recruited if it weren't for his knee injury.

"I had people talking to me after track my sophomore year, but then I hurt my knee my junior year and they stopped talking to me," McPherson said. "I always really wanted to play football, and then coach Brock (John Brock, an Army assistant coach) found out about me. He came to my school and we talked."

McPherson was eager to commit to Army since he had always motivated himself to follow and then top Brad's footsteps -- first as a high school athlete and now as a West Point cadet.

In an earlier era, McPherson's two-sport ambition would be well understood by American sports fans, but decathletes compete in relative obscurity these days. McPherson has a better appreciation for track and field than most kids his age since he is the son of a former Washington State javelin thrower, Paul McPherson. Paul competed in the then-Pac-10 when the iconic and late Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine was a contemporary.

But even with Blake's family background, his high school track coach had to push him to explore his decathlon potential.

And now Army has a unique two-sport athlete on his way to West Point.

If good fortune follows McPherson to West Point, maybe he'll end up being an NFL draft pick. And then "the best athlete available" comment from a general manager won't be reduced to a punch line by sportswriters.

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