Eddie Robinson, James Higgins are rare triple threats

James Higgins of Connetquot, left, and Eddie Robinson

James Higgins of Connetquot, left, and Eddie Robinson of Lawrence, right. (Credit: James Escher, Joseph D. Sullivan)

It should be called the triple play -- student-athletes who excel in three high school sports.

And just like the unassisted triple play -- one player accounting for all three outs -- the three-sport star is becoming a rarity.

In an era of skyrocketing college costs, more and more athletes are concentrating on one sport in hopes of earning a scholarship. So much so that three-sport stars who remind us of yesteryear's heroes -- such as East Islip's Boomer Esiason, Deer Park's Kevin Baugh, Farmingdale's Ron Heller and Shoreham-Wading River's Keith Osik -- are much harder to find.

Those are the athletes who jump from sport to sport with each new season and continue to play at a high level.

"There are three-sport stars out there," said Nassau County football coordinator Pat Pizzarelli, who also serves as the athletic director at Lawrence Public Schools. "Not as many as in the past, but they're out there. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication to play a different sport in each season and balance their academics. There are no breaks for those athletes. It takes a special kind of person."

Lawrence has one of Long Island's best in senior Eddie Robinson. The outstanding football and basketball star, who also has excelled in either baseball or track in the spring, signed with Colgate this past week to play football. Robinson, a 6-1, 195-pounder, set a Long Island record with 19 touchdown receptions, leading the Golden Tornadoes to a 12-0 record and the Long Island Class III championship.

"I like the change in sports and the challenge," said Robinson, who was an All-Nassau selection in football, basketball and track. "And I always felt like one sport helped me in another. You take away different skills from one sport and they make you better in the other."

Connetquot senior James Higgins is Suffolk's mirror image of Robinson. The muscular Higgins is a three-sport star for the Thunderbirds, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. He said he is equally passionate about all three sports and agrees with Robinson that one sport helps with the others.

"I love all sports," said Higgins, who earned the National Football Foundation Award as Suffolk's best wide receiver. "When I was younger, I enjoyed baseball the most. When I hit that big growth spurt between 10th and 11th grade, I saw the positive changes for me in basketball and football. It's great that I can play all three."

Higgins, who was an All-Suffolk selection in baseball and football, also signed his national letter of intent this past week when he accepted a scholarship to play wide receiver for LIU Post.

The time commitment can be overwhelming but these guys have adapted well. The time management issue with no breaks in between seasons isn't a problem, either. Both are active leaders within the community.

Robinson unloaded supply trucks after superstorm Sandy and helped distribute water, food, diapers, clothes and baby products in the community.

Higgins is visible at all school events and can be seen at wrestling matches with the student body in support of the team.

"You have to have priorities," Robinson said. "And academics is the priority. It takes a unique individual to find the balance needed for success in and out of the classroom and in the community."

Both athletes have found that the seasonal change to different teams brings new challenges. There is a change in uniforms, teammates and coaches, and that has helped them adapt to new environments. The difference in coaching philosophy and the interaction with new team members also helps mold them as leaders and contributors.

"I would tell anyone that playing multiple sports is a blessing and it's something you shouldn't pass on," Robinson said. "If you're good enough, do it. There's no looking back. Just do it."

Robinson led Lawrence to the Long Island Class III football championship game twice. His 30-yard interception return for a touchdown keyed the Golden Tornadoes' 21-20 win over Sayville this past season. In basketball, he scored 28 points, including six three-pointers, and had 10 rebounds in a win over Lynbrook. The Golden Tornadoes are 12-0 in Nassau Conference A-III and headed for the playoffs.

Robinson will decide whether to go back on the diamond or use spring track to condition himself for Colgate.

"I used to sleep with a baseball bat," he said. "I'd miss it, but I have to get ready for college. That's a tough decision."

Should he choose track, Robinson said he'll likely punctuate his high school career by participating in the 400 meters, 400 hurdles, 4 x 400 relay, shot put, high jump and triple jump to increase his agility, speed and stamina.

"We're certainly going to miss his leadership skills," Lawrence football coach Joe Martilotti said. "He leaves a big void in our program. It's tough to replace a kid who is successful at everything."

Connetquot feels the same way about Higgins, who transformed himself into a difference-maker in three sports.

"He's as tough as they come," Connetquot football coach Mike Hansen said. "A real emotional leader who motivated his teammates."

Higgins led Connetquot to the Suffolk Class AA baseball title and into the Long Island championship game, where the Thunderbirds lost a heartbreaker in extra innings to Calhoun, 6-5. Higgins, a 6-2, 185-pound righthander who went 8-0 last year, hopes his explosive fastball leads them back to the Long Island title game.

"We have some unfinished business and a great team coming back," Higgins said. "I'd like to see us win the state title."

Before he could get back to baseball, Higgins was a key component in the resurgence of Connetquot football. After he went through a 1-7 junior season, his 45 receptions for 800 yards, including eight touchdowns, sparked a 7-0 start to the Suffolk Division I regular-season title.

"He was the go-to guy in big spots," Hansen said. "He has such strong hands and rarely dropped a pass. He was so aggressive, he'd get any pass thrown in his direction."

"Football couldn't have gone any better. What a great run," Higgins said. "It was an awesome experience."

Higgins said the major influence behind his athletic career is his father, Matt, who pushed him to succeed.

"We all need someone to look up to, a role model," Higgins said. "That would be my dad, who worked on the counterterrorism squad in New York City and always found the time to stay in great shape and come see my games. He was a motivator and an inspiration. When he pushed too hard, my mom [Marie] was there for support."

Higgins also pointed to Connetquot's Hall of Fame baseball coach, Bob Ambrosini, and the intensity he brings to the more cerebral game for helping him keep his composure in tough spots on the mound.

"Ambro has football-like intensity in baseball," Higgins said. "I love it."

Robinson and Higgins are the high-octane type, and their only offseason -- and it's hardly that -- has been the summer. Even then, they lifted weights four or five days a week for football, traveled to open gyms for basketball and played baseball.

These well-rounded athletes will look back and know they had the full high school experience. And all those memories for Robinson and Higgins wouldn't be possible if they had chosen to be sports-specific.

They will line up for the last time on the same team when they represent Long Island in their final high school event -- as members of the Long Island football senior all-star team against New York City in the Empire Challenge June 18 at Hofstra.

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