Charlie Ward had it all. Or, at the very least, the former Florida State star did it all. Days after winning the Heisman Trophy and the school’s first National Championship as the senior quarterback and captain for Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, Ward was on the hardwood for FSU’s basketball team as the starting point guard averaging 10 points and five assists per game, leading to an eventual NBA career.
Over 20 years later, it’s Ward who another two-sport star looks to as the model of how to pull off one of college athletics’ most difficult feats: star quarterback and star basketball player. That’s the dream for Mississippi State freshman Elijah Staley, and it always has been, Ward serving as his shining example.
“This is what I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “This has been a goal in my life. It’s something I’m going to keep doing, keep striving to do.”
For whatever reason, many people seem to be against the idea for Staley, and as far back as high school people told him he needed to pick a sport and stick with it. Focus on one, they told him, and he could be a five star. But, he thinks, why not be a five star in both?
After all, he’s 19 years old, full of energy and passion. And really, Staley just wants to have fun. Anyone who has been around him knows it as he’s seen on TV dancing on the football sideline, video-bombing interviews and cheering on the action. Coaches have called his personality infectious and teammates have called him someone they go to in order to have their spirits lifted. Staley is just a college kid enjoying the life he has.
“I’ve just always loved playing both,” he said. “If I’m good enough to play both at an SEC level, then why not? I’ve always wanted to do stuff other people can’t do.”
Staley was a top player in both sports in high school, though that tends to happen with the sizable gap in athleticism between elite high school players and those around them. In college, everyone is good. At a certain level, everyone is great. Players can’t get by on talent alone, only half-dedicating themselves to one sport, let alone two.
When Staley signed with MSU, though, it was with the plan of playing both and fully dedicating himself to each, no matter how much time and effort it took. He redshirted in football during his first year on campus in 2014, and when that regular season ended, he started practicing with the basketball team, as planned. However, a leg injury sidelined not only that entire basketball season, but portions of the football offseason, as well.
Now, as a redshirt freshman in both sports, he’s back to try it again, and this time, it’s going a little better. The 6’7’ lefty finally got on the field in football, playing some mop-up time behind starter Dak Prescott, completing three of his five pass attempts, one of which was a particularly pretty 37-yard touchdown deep down the right sideline. He also ran it a few times, gaining 18 yards on the ground. It wasn’t a lot of action, but it wasn’t nothing, either.
Now that the regular season in football has finished, Staley is making the transition to basketball, a fairly time-consuming process.
The last week, for instance, has been one of the busiest of his life. Saturday, he was with the basketball team for their game in Missouri. Sunday, he was at practice with the football team as the Bulldogs prepare for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on December 30. Monday morning, he woke up and had breakfast with the basketball team while reviewing film on their next opponent – Florida State, appropriately enough.
He lifts weights with the football team, and while the basketball team lifts weights, Staley is on a treadmill conditioning for the more-cardio-centric sport. On Tuesday, Staley had his own individual practice with basketball graduate assistants before going to the real practice with the entire team immediately after.
Those individual sessions are, in Staley’s mind, the equivalent of walk-throughs for football, a chance to slowly work through the plays, making sure he knows and is comfortable with each of them. With Travis Daniels, the starter at Staley’s position, out with a concussion, it may be time for Staley to make his debut against the Seminoles one the road tonight. He has to be ready.
And, he hopes, he just about is ready, if he can just get in basketball shape.
“He’s better than I thought he was,” freshman teammate Malik Newman said. “I think once he gets in shape and is able to go up and down the court a few times, I think he’ll earn some playing time. He’s a big body, he can shoot it, he can play in the post.”
But the difference between football and basketball shape, as basketball head coach Ben Howland pointed out, is quite severe. As a quarterback, ideally, Staley stands still in the pocket for a few seconds, throws a pass, then has a breather between plays. At the most, he should never be moving for more than 15 or so seconds at a time. In basketball, the movement, is constant. Opportunities for catching your breath are slim.
Staley is slowly but steadily getting into the kind of shape necessary for the back-and-forth pace of basketball, and as he’s doing so, he’s seeing some benefits in football, too. During football practice Sunday, he noticed how much better he felt, a seemingly unlimited amount of energy inside him. He was comfortable on the field, too. After a couple weeks away from football, he still knew all the reads, knew all the routes, knew where to go and what to do. As MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson pointed out, Staley has been around over a year. He knows what he’s doing.
“It’s not that hard,” Johnson said after pointing out that Staley isn’t the first person MSU has had to play multiple sports. “For him, it’s just a matter of staying sharp and knowing what we’re doing. He just has to maximize all of his reps and mostly maximize his time … It’s been good for him.”
If basketball training has aided his football stamina, so too has the 18 months of weight training in football made things easier on the court for the 250-pound forward. After taking on SEC defensive linemen in practice every day, it’s not so bad for Staley to bang around in the post against guys who don’t weigh much more than he does, if at all.
And that’s what he hopes to bring to the basketball team – a physical presence. Asked what type of player he is, Staley immediately began describing a scrappy rebounder, a bulldog defender, a big body willing to block out and set screens. Plus, to add a little of that quarterback finesse, he expects to have a reliable low-corner jump shot and excellent court vision.
Right now, Staley is still working his way through in each sport. Just a freshman, after all, he’s where he’s supposed to be in both basketball and football – the learning phase. However, in the few spare moments he has these days, it’s hard for him not to envision a future similar to his athletic role model Charlie Ward.
On the football field, this season’s starting quarterback is a senior. On the basketball court, too, the starting power forward is about to graduate. The opportunity, as soon as this time next year, will be there, and seemingly for the next few years, too, if he can make it happen.
“Man, that’s my dream,” Staley confessed. “That’s always been my dream. I’ve always wanted to be a starting quarterback and then be starting on the basketball team. I know it’s really hard. Some people say it’s unrealistic … But it’s something that could happen. I’ve just got to keep my mind right and my body right.”
In the meantime, he’s bonding with his friends on the basketball team, where senior forward Gavin Ware took him in from day one. He’s continuing his relationships on the football team, where fellow freshman Brandon Bryant is one of his greatest supporters. Staley is doing something almost every high school star fantasizes about at some point, and he’s having a ball.
“It’s very fun,” Staley said with his usual smile. “I love doing it.”