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Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes says that playing three sports in high school helped his development: “The way you have to find different ways to win, in whatever sport it is, that helped mold me to be the quarterback that I am.” (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

MIAMI — At Whitehouse High outside Tyler, Tex., Patrick Mahomes did not think of himself as a quarterback first, if at all. He told inquiring coaches his favorite sport was whatever was in season. He started at point guard as a freshman and quietly harbored a dream to play for Duke. He pitched and played shortstop for the baseball team and turned down a signing bonus after the Detroit Tigers drafted him. He played defensive back as a freshman and didn’t earn the starting quarterback position until early in his sophomore year.

This week at the Super Bowl, Mahomes described his high school self as “a baseball player that was playing football.”

Mahomes grew up in an age of early specialization, a time when quarterback gurus and hitting coaches and shot doctors and year-round travel teams have overtaken youth sports. And yet he developed into one of the greatest football forces on the planet as an athletic generalist.

Mahomes has blossomed into an MVP, Super Bowl quarterback and wunderkind franchise savior at age 24, and Sunday evening he seeks to deliver the Kansas City Chiefs their first championship in 50 years against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. Waiting until college to narrow his concentration did not keep him from ascending to this summit. He became Patrick Mahomes precisely because he waited.

He used his developmental years to cultivate a broad spectrum of tangible and intangible athletic capabilities. He gained a profound, intrinsic sense of how to wield his body in competition. He learned how to be the best quarterback by not playing quarterback.

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It may be folly to draw lessons from Mahomes; his talent is so spectacular it defies external application. But if his athletic origin story presents a moral, it lies in the rejection of specialization, in the notion that virtuosity surfaces not through rote training but through organic play.

“Just the competitiveness that you have to have,” Mahomes said. “The way you have to find different ways to win, in whatever sport it is, that helped mold me to be the quarterback that I am.”

‘He just breaks physics’

Sports science backs up what Mahomes instinctively feels. As a baseline, playing multiple sports allows an athlete to discover what he does best, according to David Epstein, the author of “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” Had Mahomes chosen to specialize, it is likely he never would have become a quarterback — his father, Pat Mahomes Sr., was a major league relief pitcher, and Mahomes’s best early success came as a pitcher.

The selection process isn’t the only benefit of waiting. Epstein said that several studies have shown athletes who play multiple sports require less time to become elite in the game they ultimately choose.

“[This] seems particularly to be true for athletes who play multiple ‘attacking’ sports,” Epstein wrote in an email. “That is, anything that requires you to build anticipatory skills — the perceptual expertise that allows you to react faster than your reflexes would allow because you’re essentially seeing things unfold before they actually happen.”

In Mahomes’s most luminous moments, a direct line can be drawn to the sports he played as a teenager in the winter and spring. He completes passes from various arm angles with precision, a skill Mahomes said he honed manning shortstop. He zings throws under pressure or without looking at his intended target, a feat he once made routine on the hardwood.

“We welcomed teams to press and trap us when he had the ball,” said Ryan Tomlin, Mahomes’s high school basketball coach. “He would throw no-look, diagonal passes across the court to a spot to where he knew a player was going to end up being. Which is exactly what I watch him do today. He’s just seeing things really before they happen, and he knows who’s going to be where, and he knows where the ball is going to be. Just things you can’t teach.”

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Mahomes was an unselfish point guard with an unorthodox jump shot who managed to score when needed, a sneaky defender who, Tomlin said, was “fast without being fast.” He would often get out of position on defense, but Tomlin trusted Mahomes to sneak behind a ballhandler and make a steal. Mahomes credited basketball with enhancing his spatial awareness.

“You can tell by his vision he’s played basketball,” Chiefs quarterback coach Mike Kafka said.

When Mahomes reached the NFL, he leaned on footwork and technique picked up on the diamond. His proficiency at off-platform and across-body throws, he said, traces back to baseball. The bubble screen is a staple of Kansas City’s offense, and the play requires a quarterback to make a rapid-fire throw laterally, without even gripping the football’s laces, in a move similar to turning a double play in baseball.

“We actually coach quarterbacks, ‘Hey, catch it and turn two,’ ” said Brad Childress, a Chiefs offensive assistant during Mahomes’s first two seasons.

At Whitehouse, football coach Adam Cook realized Mahomes possessed rare athleticism, and he taught him basic principles but never bogged him down with mechanical instruction. Even Mahomes Sr. would sometimes confide in Cook that he wasn’t sure Mahomes’s mechanics would translate to college football. Cook ensured him they would.

“You look at someone like Patrick,” Cook said, “and he just breaks physics.”

Cook urged Mahomes to stick with baseball and basketball even after he became Whitehouse’s starting quarterback.

“In my opinion, it played a huge role in his development as an athlete,” Cook said. “From just the way he looks at the field, it’s similar to what a basketball player would see. … Sometimes it looks like he’s going to backhand a ball and he’s throwing across the diamond.”

Bobby Stroupe, who has trained Mahomes since he was a fourth grader, took a similar approach.

“Instead of trying to get him to do the things that people think make quarterbacks unique and special, we just continued to bore into the things that made Patrick unique and special,” Stroupe said. “If you really watch him play, he’s an incredibly creative person. Someone like that has to be trained in a way that supports his athleticism. His athleticism doesn’t fit in a bucket. He’s not a big overhand, throw-down guy. His feet don’t set like normal quarterbacks.”

Mahomes’s eschewing of textbook mechanics may have been crucial to his development. Many coaches teach one series of techniques, regardless of an athlete’s individual traits. By doing so to a quarterback, a coach may be asking him to play in a style for which he isn’t best suited, at the expense of his natural instincts.

Epstein drew a parallel to Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, perhaps the greatest distance runner in history. She has an ugly stride no coach would teach, with asymmetrical feet and a wobbly head. And yet, Epstein said, a lab test found she is her sport’s most efficient runner.

“Even when the textbook is reasonable, it doesn’t nearly encompass the variation of things that work,” Epstein said. “ … It’s sort of like showing an average of some population and not including the incredible variance, which is often where the truth really lies.”

‘The MacGyver of football’

Mahomes’s unusual style scared off college recruiters and, later, teams in the draft. What some NFL scouts and executives saw was a raw quarterback with unorthodox mechanics and shoddy footwork. What those evaluators missed was a genius athlete who understood his biomechanics on a deep level after developing, to his benefit, outside the Quarterback Industrial Complex.

“People coming out of even high school said, ‘Oh, he just has terrible footwork,’ " Stroupe said. “Well, he scrambled for 20 yards and threw the ball downfield 70. I feel like that’s decent footwork. Maybe he and I just don’t interpret footwork the same as other people.”

Even Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach, who championed Mahomes with evangelical zeal even when he was a front-office assistant, found faults in Mahomes’s mechanics. But he also realized Mahomes’s other athletic traits defined him.

“On one end, you don’t see the footwork you want to see,” Veach said. “On the other end, not many people possess that arm. We were just dealing with a different animal.”

As he studied film of other Texas Tech prospects, Veach was captivated by Mahomes. On a lazy spring day before Mahomes’s junior season, Chiefs Coach Andy Reid walked into Veach’s office and asked what he was up to. A Texas Tech game was on Veach’s screen. “I’m watching the next quarterback of the Chiefs,” Veach replied.

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Mahomes sat his rookie season behind Alex Smith, but he validated Veach’s evaluation immediately. During training camp, Mahomes led Kansas City’s third-string offense against its third-string defense. His performance quickly became legend.

“It was like a phenomenon with Pat, where we run back to dorms and we would put the threes vs. threes on just because we wanted to see the throws he was making,” Veach said. “That doesn’t happen. You have training camp dog days. The veterans, they’re in the tent and they’re watering down. The vets would stand there … to watch the kid go against the threes. You knew you had something.”

Even as Mahomes has become the face of football, he still aims to be well rounded. With Stroupe, he focused on the concept of proprioception, which is the awareness of how a body moves through its environment. He performs routine exercises from unorthodox positions.

“You can see his game and see that we train him as an athlete first and a quarterback second,” Stroupe said. “If you watch him, the foundation of his game is he is an incredible problem solver. Really, we want him to kind of be the MacGyver of football. He needed to be able to go out there and solve the problem in any way necessary. That’s his game. That’s how we train. That’s his mental approach. It doesn’t have to look like how someone else did it. It’s just, do the job.”

Learning to lead

Bouncing from one sport to the next carried immeasurable benefits for Mahomes. He was always on a team, and so he constantly honed his competitiveness and leadership. When he subbed out in basketball games, Mahomes would sit next to coaches, so he could understand what they wanted and how best to implore teammates from the bench.

“It was probably the main thing, the main reason why he is who he is,” Tomlin said. “Whatever season it was and there’s a ball available, Pat was ready to play and compete. … Sitting out and focusing on one thing would have definitely hurt him. As talented as he is playing everything, it enhanced his ability to lead and to compete.”

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Other sports could provide lessons in ways football could not. Baseball is a sport of failure, and understanding how to battle through a hitting slump may help a quarterback keep his head when, say, his team is losing 24-0 in the second quarter of a playoff game against the Houston Texans. A point guard has to lead his team in the flow of a game rather than with teammates standing around him in a huddle.

“Quarterback is a natural leader position,” 49ers quarterback coach Shane Day said. “But when you’re on different positions on different teams, you learn to lead from different places and with different types of people, which I think is really important. So when you come back to football, if you’re in a locker room with a lot of different types of people from a lot of different cultures, it really does help you as a leader.”

Reid seems to have an understanding, on some level, of the importance of allowing players to experiment. He has endorsed Mahomes’s use of no-look passes during games, and he permits his players a brief unstructured period at practices. Mahomes has attempted throwing to receivers with his eyes closed to test his timing. Without trying everything, he could not know what is possible.

“It’s about seeing what we can do,” Mahomes said.

What happened in Super Bowl LIV

The Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20, in the Super Bowl to deliver Kansas City’s first NFL championship in 50 years. Find all the highlights here.

How it happened: Patrick Mahomes had a play in his back pocket for when the Chiefs needed it. Now “Tre Right, Three Jet Chip Wasp” will live in Kansas City lore.

Commentary: Patrick Mahomes, in Super Bowl comeback, showed why he is the best quarterback in the NFL.

Parade: Fans gather early and in mass numbers to celebrate Chiefs’ Super Bowl in Kansas City.

Photos: The best photos from Hard Rock Stadium | The plays the Chiefs made to win

Halftime show: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira teamed up to become the first two Latina singers to perform at the Super Bowl. It was a truly riveting, wildly entertaining performance. “You may have heard the American Dream itself pulsing in a space where it will always be allowed to live,” pop music critic Chris Richards writes, “inside a pop song.”

Commercials: The very best from Super Bowl Sunday, and the very worst.

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