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Prep sports commentary: With great talent comes great big decisions

Rock Falls senior Alex Leaf shoots over Newman senior Kyle Moore during a Sauk Valley Shootout game Nov. 23 at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
Rock Falls senior Alex Leaf shoots over Newman senior Kyle Moore during a Sauk Valley Shootout game Nov. 23 at Musgrove Fieldhouse.

Ten years. That’s about three times the average length of an NFL player’s career, according to its player’s association.

It’s also how long Alex Leaf has been a three-sport athlete, as well as an outstanding student. In fact, he was recently named to the all-state academic football team. His 4.1 grade-point average puts him firmly on the cusp of being in the top 10 percent of students at Rock Falls High School.

If he can crack that top 10, Alex will likely attend Sauk Valley Community College on a full scholarship that is provided to high school students in that illustrious 10 percent, then move on to a 4-year school like Northern Illinois University.

But Alex is twisting in the breeze (pun intended) on one of the toughest decisions he’ll ever make: Does he want to play sports in college?

He has the opportunity. Several Division-II and -III schools have expressed interest in his football talent, and he’s fleet enough of foot to run track at most of those schools, too.

But Alex is suffering from a malady I’ve heard about a lot lately, and I’m not exactly sure whether it’s more prominent than in bygone eras.

He’s burnt out. And who could blame him?

After tackling a school day chock full of classes that include such college-level beasts as statistics and advanced speech, both of which would earn him credits at Sauk, he hits the weight room. Then it’s off to either practice or a game. Once he gets home, his nose is in a book until it’s time to turn in, most always before 10 p.m.

Wake up. Repeat. As the late, great Pat Morita famously coined as Mr. Miyagi, don’t forget to breathe.

During the summer, Alex doesn’t have those exhausting classes. Instead, he spends his days in the sun de-roguing corn for Green Rose Farms. And for years he worked concessions for the Northern Illinois Youth Tackle Football League, in which he started playing the game in third grade. This past season (August through October), he spent his Saturdays refereeing NIYTF games.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pooped just writing about Alex’s daily life. Oh, and he’s got a main squeeze in Bree Celetti. If married life has taught me anything, it’s that love is a full-time job in and of itself.

Check out how this segue grabs you: I look at Alex’s decision the same way I look at losing love, giving up soda, basically letting go of anything that brings enormous, heart-beating-through-chest satisfaction, but is also accompanied by plenty of pain.

During a Twitter conversation Monday night, Alex told me he wants to “enjoy life” in college, his time not dominated by sports. But he also mentioned that he’ll be playing in the state all-star football game for the all-Western Illinois squad in July, well after his deadline to make a decision on the sports/no sports conundrum.

He lamented the timing, saying he wished he could put on the pads one more time to “feel it,” with hopes it would help with his decision.

Here’s my bold prediction: It wouldn’t. Just like seeing your ex one last time for closure or having one last Sun Drop or Whopper before employing a dietary restriction, it doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye. Quite the opposite. It’s going to feel extraordinary in the moment (well, maybe not seeing your ex), making you wonder, “Why in the world would I ever give this up?”

On the flipside, how is a kid who’s “out of fuel” expected to step back and make a clear-minded decision of whether he can keep doing what’s made their life what it is today? Alex’s words, not mine.

There is no perfect advice. Alex can talk to his classmate and close friend, Addesyn Nailor, for advice. Suffering from similar burnout, she decided not to play hoops in her senior year. He can talk to his dad, who – while Alex’s folks never pressured any of their three kids to play sports – wondered aloud to his youngest how he could go into college without playing sports.

My opinion? Well, I try to never pen a column without firmly planting my feet in the soil on one side of the fence or the other. But I refuse to do that in this case. It’s not my place.

That job is exclusively reservered for Alex. And there’s no perfect time to make his decision. It’s a tough life lesson, but he’ll be better for having to make it.

As for the rest of us, the next time we use a sentence resembling one of the following, “He’s just a kid,” “He can take it,” or “It’s good for him,” remember that teenagers’ energy is not, in fact, boundless. Other similarly driven high-schoolers? They can take solace in the fact that they’re not alone.

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