The track for today's athlete who wishes to excel at the college level all too often goes something like this: Try a lot of sports through about the fourth grade, have your parents or some neighborhood coach declare your specialty sometime between the ages of 10 or 12, and then practice that sport endlessly through high school and hope a college coach notices.
Wayne Runnels wasn't on that track.
Runnels grew up your prototypical small-town athlete in Watonga, a west-central Oklahoma community of about 4,500.
In Watonga, Runnels played them all.
What's more, he played them all well, said Ty Hussey, who coached the young Runnels in basketball.
“If there was a sport,'' Hussey said, “Wayne could play it.''
In basketball, Runnels was a do-everything player who often found himself double- and triple-teamed when he touched the ball.
In football, Runnels played wide receiver his first two seasons on the varsity and quarterback the last two. He played free safety on defense, intercepting a dozen passes as a senior while leading Watonga to its first playoff berth in seven seasons.
“He was our horse,'' said Shannon Grimes, the school's football coach.
Runnels pitched and played shortstop in baseball. His .587 batting average as a senior attracted the interest of some professional scouts, who thought he might have a future in that sport.
He divided his time in the spring between baseball and track, where his accomplishments include setting the school's high jump record.
“I did a little bit of everything when I was in high school,'' Runnels said. “A small-town guy like me, it's not uncommon to play three or four sports.''
But in college, his heart left him with just one choice.
“There's nothing like basketball,'' Runnels said. “I just couldn't give it up.''
That's why Runnels is at Creighton, preparing to make his mark as a Bluejay rather than perhaps catching passes at Tulsa or hitting baseballs in some minor league outpost.
Runnels spent the past two seasons playing basketball at Northern Oklahoma College. He averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds a game last season for the Jets, drawing the interest of recruiters from an assortment of Division I schools.
Runnels committed to Creighton last March, the day after he watched the Bluejays play Kentucky in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Runnels is expected to provide Creighton with some much-needed help on the boards.
“He's a good athlete, active and strong,'' said Greg Schamburg, Runnels' junior college coach. “He's a guy whose upside is high. Some kids get to this point and max out because they've been doing it for so long.
“Wayne's just the opposite. He did so many things in high school that he's still learning to be a full-time basketball guy.''
In high school, Runnels once thought football would be the sport that would take him places.
“Growing up in Oklahoma, you just have to play football,'' he said. “And football was probably No. 1 with me through middle school and my first couple years of high school.
“I actually quit basketball for like three days when I was a freshman in high school. I had a good season in football as a freshman, and I really thought football was going to be my No. 1 sport.''
A talk with his dad convinced Runnels there was nothing wrong with a little diversification in an age where many young athletes are drawn toward specialization.
Several of Runnels' new Creighton teammates followed a similar path. Casey Harriman was a three-sport star growing up in Iowa, earning all-state honors in basketball and football. Justin Carter, too, was a football-basketball standout in Maryland. He originally signed with Towson State to play football in college before a coaching change left him searching for other options.
He played both sports his first year in junior college before deciding to concentrate solely on basketball.
Runnels said he and Carter sometimes talk about their glory days as football players.
“I think we both miss it a little bit,'' he said.
What Runnels says he misses most about football is the feeling he got on Friday nights in the fall.
“You'd get there about 4 in the afternoon for a 7 o'clock game and hang out with the fellas,'' he said. “I miss the Friday night lights, all your friends and family in the stands. There's nothing better.
“The practices, I don't miss those. But there's nothing like game days in football.''
As a senior, Runnels made all-state while throwing for almost 1,700 yards and running for another 500.
“He was good,'' said Grimes, Watonga's football coach. “He was so big and fast, deceptively fast. He could throw the ball forever and was pretty accurate. He drew a lot of interest from colleges.''
Tulsa was the one Division I school that showed the most interest but backed off after a coaching change. Still, Grimes said Runnels had a number of “really nice offers'' from Division II schools.
“And Northern Iowa tried to recruit him for football after seeing him compete at the state track meet,'' the coach said. “But by that time, Wayne was pretty set on playing basketball.''
Runnels literally stood out on the basketball court for Watonga.
“After Wayne, our tallest guy was probably 6-1,'' Hussey said. “Wayne did it all for us. He was our best ball-handler. He shot the ball better than anybody else. He led our team in shooting, scoring and rebounding.
“He usually had to guard the other team's best post player, and even though teams usually had two or three guys guarding him, he still averaged like 27 points a game for us.''
While Runnels had plenty of natural talent, what Hussey remembers the most about the player was his work ethic.
“He was always the one that was calling me to come open the gym so he could shoot,'' Hussey said. “He's a hard worker. Still is. When he comes home, he's always coming in and working with our guys.”
Runnels expects to get things done this season for the Bluejays by combining his basketball skills with a football mentality.
“When I was younger, my older cousin used to kid me about being soft on the basketball court,'' Runnels said. “I'm not that way any more. I think there are certain times in a basketball game, when you need that big rebound or that big stop, where my football mentality takes over.
“It's all about being aggressive.''
While his athletic path could have taken him in a number of different directions, Runnels is glad he's wound up at Creighton.
“Sometimes I wonder where I would have been if I had stuck with football but I have no regrets,'' Runnels said. “I'm glad I'm here.''
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