Eleanor Roosevelt quarterback Jaden Faulkner is the school’s best player in both football and basketball. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Jaden Faulkner sat against the back wall of the gym, laughing at nothing in particular, as his teammates tugged accessories onto their bodies.

It looked as if they were dressing for an athletic apparel commercial, not a high school basketball summer league game. They slipped into leggings shaded black, gray and off-white. They situated their socks at very particular lengths. They wore shoes that matched undershirts that matched wristbands, and spent the minutes leading up to the game making sure it all looked just right.

But Faulkner did not join the impromptu fashion show. He walked onto the court wearing black ankle socks, a baggy gray T-shirt and soccer shorts hovering well above his knees. He looked out of place, and maybe he was. On this June evening, Faulkner was Eleanor Roosevelt’s 6-foot-4 star point guard who also plays football. On other days, he is the Greenbelt school’s star dual-threat quarterback who also plays basketball. 

From there, the duality of his athletic career thickens: He is being recruited by Division I programs in both sports and has one more season of each before he has to choose. That choice will, in many ways, be shaped by the generation in which he is playing — the age of both AAU basketball and football head-injury concerns. And with more college-bound athletes specializing in one sport from a young age, precedent for how to navigate it has dwindled. 

“It’s really confusing, with the recruiting and the pressure to choose from both sides,” Faulkner said. “But I really do love both sports, and I’ve been playing both since I was a little kid. I’m only choosing because I have to.”

His mother, Natasha Marshall, reads the latest concussion studies and sometimes worries about her son’s long-term health should he continue playing football. That is a pull toward hoops. But the year-round demand of AAU basketball, and Faulkner’s inability to fully submerge himself in it, could set him back in recruiting. That is a pull toward football. 

Some smaller college football programs are interested in Faulkner as a quarterback, while a few power programs, including Ohio State, are recruiting him as a defensive back. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

College football coaches are unsure if they want him as a quarterback or safety. Lower-profile programs such as James Madison and Massachusetts like him under center. Power-conference schools such as Ohio State, Syracuse, Kentucky and Pittsburgh like him as a defensive back. He doesn’t have a football offer, not yet at least, and his lone basketball offer is from Central Connecticut State.

None of that pulls him one way or the other, and Faulkner is left competing on both sides of an unsolved equation.

“You’ll see a lot of kids play both sports, that’s not uncommon,” said Tom Green, Eleanor Roosevelt’s football coach. “But for a kid to be the best in the school at football and basketball, that just doesn’t happen much anymore. And no matter what, Jaden will have a tough choice to make.”

‘Just part of a game’

Just after Faulkner peeled himself off the field and slowly walked to the sideline, Marshall pushed herself off the bleachers and walked briskly toward the Eleanor Roosevelt bench. 

For three quarters last November, she had watched her son get driven into the ground by Wise’s defenders. The Raiders run an option offense that requires Faulkner to make snap decisions in the pocket and often scramble into the open field. But Wise’s defense was plugging all the holes in what ended in a lopsided, season-ending loss for Eleanor Roosevelt.

Marshall winced when Faulkner’s helmet cracked against a defender’s. She silently pleaded with him to slide and held her breath when he didn’t, instead choosing to go headfirst into another collision. Then she had enough. 

“He’s not going back into the game, is he?” Marshall remembers asking the Raiders’ athletic trainer on the sideline, suspecting her son was concussed.

“Mom, I’m going back —” Faulkner started before he was cut off. 

“Jaden, you’re not going back into that game,” Marshall said, and Faulkner didn’t play another snap. 

Jaden Faulkner says concussions are “just part of a game” he has played since he was five years old. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“My mom likes basketball because I don’t get hurt as much,” Faulkner said in August. “She doesn’t like when I get hit in football and will remind me that concussions can stay with you for a long time.”

Faulkner was not diagnosed with a concussion, but Marshall maintains that “something wasn’t right” when he came off the field. Her relationship with football is complicated. She loves the sport, but doesn’t always love it for her son. She sees head injuries as a workplace hazard her son willingly signs up for, but is also worried they could seep into his future as the hits pile up. 

She does not actively sell her son on basketball or football. Neither does Faulkner’s father, Derwin, who played football at Virginia State and coaches girls varsity basketball at Douglass High. Derwin knows the risks of playing football but said his son “could also get hurt walking down the street.” Jaden Faulkner sees concussions risks as “just part of a game” he has played since he was five years old.

But Marshall follows the latest concussion news, including a revealing study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the brains of former NFL players from July, and sometimes views basketball as the safer choice.

“I do think about it a lot actually,” Marshall said. “It’s hard to be a football parent now and not worry about your kid’s future with all that is out there. I worry a bit. I don’t think anybody likes seeing their son get hit, and now he has a chance to go play basketball in college. I love football, and if he wants to play it, I’ll support him. But I also know they don’t hit in basketball.”

Hesitation on both sides

The question comes two different ways, and it comes often. 

Do you love football?

Do you love basketball?

College coaches want to make sure Faulkner is fully committed to the sport they are recruiting him for, and all he can do is tell them that he is. Or would be. It’s complicated. 

His 6-foot-4 frame, coupled with deceptive speed, makes him a quarterback who sees well over the line and a defensive back who bullies smaller receivers. It also makes him an unusually long point guard who finishes above the rim and guards multiple positions on defense. 

But skepticism lingers from both sides.

“Unless you’re LeBron James, or Allen Iverson, or an athlete of that caliber, I think it’s really hard to be a lower-level D-I guy and get exposure while splitting your time between two sports,” said a high-major college basketball assistant, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of NCAA rules against discussing potential recruits. 

“There has to be some kind of investment from both sides, because they could be offering you a scholarship worth $40,000 or more,” the assistant continued. “So for there to be any doubt that a kid is totally in it, that could really hurt a kid’s recruitment in either sport.”

Faulkner (center) pitches out to Eleanor Roosevelt running back Dell Cloyd during a recent practice in Greenbelt, Md. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

AAU basketball is a constant grind and a different college assistant called it a “necessary evil that Division I hopefuls cannot avoid.” Football prospects follow strict year-round weight training regiments, all geared toward readying their bodies for the college game. 

Faulkner’s two-sided recruiting process has been difficult at times, and he thinks he could have more offers if he specialized. He ultimately plans to make his college decision at the end of the basketball season, and choose a sport and school all at once. But he still has to turn all this promise into concrete opportunity, and even getting to this point has been dizzying.

This past summer, Faulkner finished a seven-on-seven event at Surrattsville High and Derwin paid for a 30-minute ride to a basketball camp at the University of Maryland. Another time, he flew back from an AAU event in Atlanta, went to a football workout the same day, and then flew to Las Vegas for another AAU event two days later. 

“College coaches tell me they are hesitant to offer scholarships because if they do and he changes his mind, that’s a problem,” said Derwin, who manages his son’s recruitment for both sports.

“He has put in a lot to both. I mean, football takes a lot of time and AAU basketball is all the time. But he hasn’t made the full pledge to one sport and I think that has held him back a bit.”

‘No real regrets’

It all happened in two quick motions while most of Faulkner’s teammates were huddled around the water station. 

It was a sunless mid-August evening and the Raiders were wrapping up another day of training camp. For the moment, and the months ahead, Faulkner was Eleanor Roosevelt’s star dual-threat quarterback who also plays basketball. In the winter that will shift again. And then, who knows. 

“Throw me the ball! Throw me the ball!” Faulkner yelled through a grin, and then he stabbed it out of the air with one hand, wound it behind his head in a smooth circular motion and chucked a whistling spiral into the hands of an unsuspecting teammate. His left hand never touched the ball. A teammate watching from behind Faulkner muttered, “Holy God.”

Faulkner, center, remains caught in the middle of a decision between football and basketball. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It is moments like these — when Faulkner makes a perfect read out of the option, or slips through the tiny cracks of a defense in basketball — that bottle all of his potential and intrigue into single athletic feats. That make this pending choice feel less like a burden and more like a springboard. That take all the thoughts in his head, about recruiting and concussions and expectations, and bury them in the joy of playing games. 

“Sometimes I think about it, like, ‘Damn, I could be better than what I am,” Faulkner said. “Like I’ll be having long thoughts about it, but in the end there are no real regrets.”

After practice wound down, Faulkner made his way toward the school with a few of his teammates. To his left was Eleanor Roosevelt’s football field, with new stadium lights that will turn Friday nights into his stage. To his right was a worn pickup basketball court, the concrete cracked but two netless hoops still standing on either end. 

And Faulkner, without hesitating, walked directly between the two.