Is specialization the best road to a scholarship?

For today’s high-school athletes, the times aren’t just changing — they’ve already changed.

The era of participating for the fun of it has given way to a businesslike mentality where some parents and kids are hell-bent on securing a college scholarship.

The multi-sport athlete, once looked upon with great respect for his or her versatility, has been virtually replaced by kids who are choosing one sport to focus on before they even enter the seventh grade.

But there was a time, not that long ago, when athletes played three sports in a single school year and excelled at them. And at the same time, college recruiters specifically looked for that type of athlete.

And while many things have changed, the recruiting process has not, Eric Canton says. And if anyone should know, it’s Canton.

Regarded as one of the best all-around athletes to ever attend South Kitsap High School, Canton, a 1986 graduate and current offensive coordinator for the football team, knows a thing or two about being a multi-sport athlete and dealing with college recruiters.

In his senior year alone, Canton was an all-American in football, all-state in baseball and all-league in basketball. He was heavily recruited by the University of Southern California and Oregon before deciding to attend the University of Washington.

And he says one of the big reasons he was so highly recruited was the fact he played a lot of different sports.

“I think I was pretty fortunate because I had, probably, one of the best high-school baseball coaches (Elton Goodwin) in the nation,” Canton said, “and one of the best high-school football coaches (Ed Fisher) in the nation and our basketball coach (Darrel Anderson) was really good, too.

“All three of them were very, very encouraging as far as (telling me) I needed to play more than one sport,” Canton said. “I was always encouraged to participate in something, whether it was the weight room or if it was another sport.”

Canton said his parents also encouraged him to participate as well, and not just sports but other extra-curricular activities, going as far to bribe him sometimes with promises of payments for car insurance.

Choosing not to participate meant getting a job and working instead of playing.

“They call it sports, and they say you’re ‘playing’ a sport because you’re playing. It’s supposed to be fun,” Canton said. “Work or fun, that was a no-brainer. It was an easy choice.”

But it was his participation in multiple sports that got him to UW, Canton said. Even though USC had already offered a scholarship, Washington didn’t come along with an offer until recruiter Skip Hall saw Canton play a few basketball games.

And don’t think that has changed, Canton said. In an age where some kids focus completely on one sport to get college offers, recruiters are still looking for all-around athletes.

“The one thing I tell kids today is that one of the first questions you are going to see on a questionnaire that comes from a college recruiter is, ‘What other sports do you play?’ ” Canton said. “They want to know what other sport you play. “

And being well-rounded is a huge advantage once at the college level, Canton said. All the athletes who play college sports are good, he said, and the more-rounded athlete has better success.

Canton pointed out that when watching professional sports on TV, for 90 percent of athletes singled out and talked about as an individual, multiple sports were part of their background.

And those kids who play more than one sport are always going to get noticed by recruiters.

“I’ve talked to two recruiting coordinators in past six months to a year and both of them have specifically said that they want to see their players playing other sports,” Canton said. “Bottom line — that’s still something that they are looking for.”

And by participating in multiple sports, athletes are giving themselves multiple avenues to follow, Canton said.

One good example is former North Kitsap standout Jared Prince, who was All-Narrows League in football, baseball and basketball during his senior year and received a scholarship to Washington State earlier this year.

Prince signed to play baseball but will also be allowed to play football, something he wanted to do at UW but was discouraged from trying.

“Look at the choices he had when it all came down to the end,” Canton said. “But there are tons of bad examples as well. Just look at Todd Marinovich,” Canton said.

Marinovich was programmed as a child to play quarterback in the NFL, which he did for two seasons with the then Los Angeles Raiders. But ever since, he’s spent his time in and out of trouble with the law.

It’s that kind of pressure from over-bearing parents that can ruin an athlete before they ever get a chance, Canton said.

That’s the extreme downside, but there are plenty of success stories of single-sport athletes. Canton feels they are missing out on other experiences that they may regret some day.

“I think down the road ... and I can’t speak for everybody, but I know I would be kicking myself hard if I hadn’t have played (multiple sports),” Canton said. “I’ve already told my son, ‘You’re going to play three (sports) or you’re not going to be playing. Period.’ He is going to do more than just one.”

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