Playing both football and baseball never seemed like such a big deal to Keith Holcombe. It was an annual occurrence at the Holcombe household.
Spring was for baseball. Fall was for football.
“It was kind of like a switch,” he said. “As soon as baseball was over, all-stars and traveling was over, we’d have a little break. Go down to the beach, do stuff like that, kind of relax. Then August rolls around and mom or dad didn’t even have to say anything. You just had a feeling that it was football season.”
He started out like hundreds of kids in Tuscaloosa did. He played tee ball when he was 4 years old, then football when he was 6. He played youth league at Taylorville Ballpark before he went on to high school at Hillcrest.
There was no choosing between sports. He didn’t have to balance his responsibilities between two teams or weigh how much time he’d have.
Alabama at No. 18 Missouri
Schedule: Friday at 1 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m.
Where: Taylor Stadium in Columbia, Mo.
Records: Alabama 18-12 (3-6 SEC), Missouri 22-7 (5-4 SEC)
Radio: 102.9 FM
“It’s just so much fun,” Holcombe said. “It kind of came easy to me. The main thing as a kid, I just had a ball being out there. When I was younger, I could always watch my brother play and see how much fun he was having. I wanted to do that. As a little kid in sports, you watch people make it to the major leagues and I always wanted to do that. That was always a dream for me. That’s every little kid’s dream, to make it to the majors or make it to the NFL.”
Holcombe is closer to realizing that dream now than most children will come. He’s the everyday left fielder for the Alabama baseball team as a redshirt junior. He had a career-high 38 tackles as an inside linebacker for the football team last fall.
This spring is the first time he’s spent a baseball season uninterrupted. It’s the first time he’s truly had to choose: He promised coach Nick Saban he’d spend his first year in 2014-15 acclimating to football. He played both in 2016. Last year, he played baseball until football began. Shoulder surgery at the end of spring practice prevented him from returning to baseball.
Playing both sports tested Holcombe at Alabama in a way that he hadn’t faced before. The day of spring football practice in 2016 was the same day Alabama baseball began a three-game series against Houston. Football practice was scheduled for 3:30, and the baseball game started at 6:30.
There was barely time to make it from one to the other. He was trying to change out of his football uniform as he crossed the street from the Mal Moore Athletic Facility to Sewell-Thomas Stadium.
“Coach (Nick) Saban broke it down and I literally took off running, I went to the locker room to take my helmet off, took off running (for the baseball stadium),” Holcombe said. “I’m sure some people saw me taking my shirt off in the parking lot coming here. Because we had practice, I missed BP here. I took some cuts in the cage and did that, in and out, and I was in the starting lineup that night. Had to get ready to play left field. As you can imagine, that right there could be very overwhelming. …That’s when it kind of hit me: I might need to think this through again.”
That wasn’t ever an issue at Hillcrest, where spring football practice usually started late enough to allow baseball players to finish the season. Other kids might have chosen to focus on one sport once their high school careers began, but Holcombe didn’t. There wasn’t any need.
That helped the football team, which kept its best player on defense. It helped the baseball team, which kept one of its best athletes. It helped Holcombe, too.
“The main thing that I pulled away from playing both is just being mentally tough,” Holcombe said. “You have to be mentally tough if you’re going to play a sport all around.”
The switch between football and baseball can happen almost overnight: Alabama won the national championship in January on a Monday night and traveled to Tuscaloosa on Tuesday. Holcombe was in the batting cages by Wednesday. Saban’s 24-hour rule for victories even applies to national championships when there’s another season coming.
Football seemed like the obvious path for Holcombe for most of his career at Hillcrest. He stood out to defensive coordinator O.K. Bryant when he was a lanky freshman. Holcombe tracked one of the Patriots’ best varsity players in coverage and broke up a pass in practice.
“We were really excited about having him and getting to coach him, because he had that killer instinct,” Bryant said. “He wanted to play. Liked being on the field.”
By his sophomore year his size and speed made him a key piece in Hillcrest’s defense, and in his junior and senior year he scarcely left the field. Baseball took more time.
Hillcrest baseball coach Mark Garner said scouts and coaches didn’t pick up on him until the Patriots played in a tournament in Mississippi that brought some of the best teams in the area together. He beat out a ground ball to second base and scouts took notice.
“We knew he was good and we knew the ability he had, but when they started talking about the projected ability of what he had, we knew it could be something big,” Garner said.
The schools recruiting Holcombe to play football hadn’t even mentioned baseball. He’d been committed to Alabama long before that. No one had ever asked him to choose between sports.
That question may be coming soon. He’s eligible to be chosen for this year’s MLB draft in June. He was drafted in the 37th round at the end of his high school career in 2014 but chose to come to school. Holcombe still has a year of eligibility left in both sports if he chooses to return, which is an option.
“We’d love to have him come back in the fall,” Saban said.
Holcombe still has options. There’s no decision yet.
“That’ll be a decision that is made later on in the year,” Holcombe said “I’m not really focused on that right now. You all have heard me say this a thousand times: It’s baseball season for me right now, so that’s what I’m going to put all my energy into.”
He has a role in both programs and is valued in both locker rooms. Baseball coach Brad Bohannon said Holcombe’s background brings a different set of experiences that help his teammates. Saban speaks of his work ethic. Garner used him as an example to Hillcrest’s baseball team this week. Bryant said he’s “one of those special guys that has come through the program,” and wasn’t speaking only of his football ability.
Holcombe may have started out playing football and baseball like kids all over the country do every spring and fall. When his career ends, it’ll be far beyond where most ever go.
“Keith’s one of those guys you get that you know whatever he does, whatever he chooses to do, he’s going to be successful at that,” Garner said. “Not only is he blessed with the ability but he has the mindset to do the job and he has the work ethic to outwork other folks.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.