Nearly 20 years ago, the phrase on everyone’s lips was “Bo knows.” It was a tribute to two-sport star Bo Jackson, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the Oakland Raiders who also was an all-star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals.
The “Bo knows” commercial played off his talents — Kirk Gibson said “Bo knows baseball” over scenes of Jackson playing; Jim Everett said “Bo knows football” over scenes of him running the football. The commercial even playfully had Wayne Gretzky questioning Jackson’s hockey ability. The punch line had legendary blues guitarist Bo Diddley saying “Bo, you don’t know diddley” as the athlete tried to play the blues.
Two-sport athletes used to be regulars on athletic fields and courts across college campuses. Charlie Ward, also a former Heisman winner, played 11 years in the NBA. Deion Sanders, a two-time Super Bowl champ, played nine years in Major League Baseball.
On today’s teams, specialization is the key. Except for Matt Poplawski, a two-sport athlete at Penn. His first season starts Friday night, when the Quakers open the men’s soccer season against Washington.
“It’s what he brings to the locker room,” said Quakers men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller. “He is going to make whatever team he is a part of better.”
Fuller saw Poplawski’s basketball potential during the 2013 soccer season.
“In that I recruited him, I knew he played basketball,” Fuller said. “I don’t know much about basketball but no matter what sport I’m coaching, there would always be a spot on my team for Matt Poplawski. I told (Jerome) Allen (then the men’s basketball coach) that we could have a two-sport athlete here.”
Poplawski didn’t average a triple-double in basketball last season. Nor was he the leading goal scorer in soccer. In his 34 career matches at Penn, Poplawski has 2 goals and 3 assists. On the basketball court he’s played 21 games, averaging 6 points a game.
It’s the little things that make the 5-foot-10 junior from Bellevue, Wash., such a big asset to both teams.
“He provides great leadership, great energy and leads by example,” men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue said.
“He is responsible, mature, hardworking, driven,” Fuller said. “There are so many adjectives that describe him and they would be 100% accurate. He remains very humble and never puts himself above the team.”
So it came as no surprise when Poplawski was named tri-captain on this year’s soccer team. Fuller uses an elaborate formula based solely on player input.
“It is a quantitative and qualitative approach to get to the heart and soul of the team,” Fuller said. “Each player answers a questionnaire. It asks what teammate gives you the most confidence, who do you trust the most, who cares most about the team. Then each player evaluates every teammate based on a ranking system. That way choosing captains doesn’t become a popularity contest and the team is more or less deciding the captain based on their answers.”
On the court Poplawski describes himself as a talker, who brings energy and flies around on defense. Nothing flashy; just doing the little things. He played in 17 games last year at guard, starting three. What he called his most rewarding moment of the season came against Ivy League-champion Harvard as a starter.
“We didn’t have one of our best players, (guard) Tony Hicks,” Poplowski said. “I started and I drew a couple of charges: one on Siyani Chambers, another on Wesley Saunders. Both are Harvard’s big name players.”
The challenge of playing two sports isn’t for Poplawski. “The fatigue for me is mental,” he said. “It is more of a mental burnout than a physical one.”
Fuller likens Poplawski to the Energizer Bunny.
“I’ve never really seen him worn out or fatigued,” Fuller said. “He has unending amounts of energy. It’s that competitive fire to compete.”