History shows J.T. Tuimoloau has rare shot at playing two sports at Ohio State
The alarm went off impossibly early inside John Lumpkin’s hotel room.
It was 5:30 a.m., and the Ohio State tight end, who had just helped the Buckeyes earn their first Rose Bowl win since 1974, had to get to the Los Angeles airport. On Jan. 2, 1997, Lumpkin had to get to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and try to help the men’s basketball team pull off an upset win against the No. 8 Wolverines at Crisler Arena.
The flight got him to Detroit, and Lumpkin made the 30-minute drive west, got a little bit more rest at the team hotel and arrived in time for warmups. He then chipped in four points and a rebound in 10 minutes as unranked Ohio State, having lost 18 of its past 19 Big Ten road games, pulled off a 73-71 stunner.
How’s that for a span of roughly 48 hours?
“That was one of the highlights of my life right there, being able to play in two major collegiate sports within a 48-hour period,” said Lumpkin, who is vice president of wealth management for Morgan Stanley in Dayton. “I don’t know how many people have done that.”
Ohio State has one man on campus who is planning to try. Freshman defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, the nation’s top football recruit according to 247Sports.com, is entering his first football season with hopes of joining the men’s basketball program at season’s end. It’s a possibility football coach Ryan Day and basketball coach Chris Holtmann have discussed and one that will be revisited as the year progresses.
“I’m sure ultimately it will come down to what the young man and his family really want to do,” Holtmann said. “He’s a good player, but I’m not going to stand in the way of a national championship or first (NFL) pick.”
If Tuimoloau does play both sports at Ohio State, he would be the first since Nate Salley played in 10 games for the basketball team during the 2002-03 season after helping the football team win a national championship. He'd be only the fifth in the past 41 years.
Salley lettered in football from 2002-05 and in basketball for the 2002-03 season. Lumpkin lettered on the gridiron from 1996-98 and, although he played basketball for four years, earned a letter only for the 1994-95 season.
Neither was quite as prolific as Rickey Dudley. He lettered in basketball from 1992-95 before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick in 1996, having lettered in football from 1994-95. Lumpkin did play with him — in both sports — during the 1994-95 academic year.
Lumpkin said he was a bigger recruit in basketball than football and recalled meeting with Purdue coach Gene Keady before picking Ohio State because of the opportunity to play on the gridiron and on the court. During his recruitment, Salley met with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and North Carolina’s Matt Doherty.
“The older I get, I really appreciate that I’m able to say I played football and basketball in college,” Salley said. “Even though I only played that one year, that’s something I can always be proud of. When you go into the real world, people see things like that on your resume and they understand that you have a different level of work ethic.”
That’s especially true in the modern era.
Dual-sport athletes were once common
The early days of Ohio State athletics were dotted with men who played both football and basketball.
And yet, even in the 1930s the times were changing. On Dec. 18, 1938, The Dispatch featured an article headlined “Big Ten athletes seem short on versatility.” The article focused on an annual Associated Press poll regarding the league’s best all-around athlete and concluded that multi-sport athletes were becoming scarce.
“Now, though, three-sport men are practically extinct and even two-sport performers are as rare as old-fashioned buckwheat cakes,” the story read.
There were Buckeyes such as Wes Fesler who could seemingly do it all. A first-team football All-American for all three years during which he was eligible to compete (1928-30), Fesler was also a three-year letter-winner in baseball and basketball. In 1931, he earned All-Big Ten honors on the hardwood. J. Edward Weaver, who would become Ohio State’s athletic director from 1970-77, played football and basketball from 1929-31.
Weaver, ironically, succeeded Richard Larkins, who lettered in football from 1928-30 and basketball from 1929-31. He was also captain of the basketball team during his final season.
Although he didn’t earn a letter, Art Schlichter played eight games for the basketball program during the 1978-79 season and scored 22 points. He was an All-Ohio player in both sports as a prep athlete and planned to play both at Ohio State but spent only his freshman season doing so. Midway during basketball season, he told The Dispatch he was feeling fatigued from the grind, describing himself as “run-down” all the time.
“I get tired going through everything,” he said in a story published Feb. 13, 1979.
Although there were dozens of multi-sport athletes up through the end of World War II, it was a rarity by Schlichter’s arrival. In addition to Lumpkin, Dudley and Salley, Tony Eisenhard played football from 1997-99 and appeared in seven basketball games during the 1996-97 season, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 52 minutes of playing time.
Others arrived with the intention of doing both but couldn’t pull it off. Rick McFadden transferred from Ohio State to Akron in 2002, in part so he could play basketball. He played three seasons with the Zips, and he’s now an assistant men’s basketball coach at Duquesne. Bam Childress, who like McFadden was in the 2000 recruiting class, and Terrelle Pryor, who signed with the Buckeyes in 2007, expressed hope of playing both sports but wound up sticking to just football.
Tuimoloau could have some company in the coming years. Lebbeus “L.T.” Overton, the nation’s top football recruit in the 2023 class, visited Ohio State during the weekend of July 24.
He holds offers from the Buckeyes to play both sports. College coaches can’t discuss specific players until they are signed, but men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann said his staff keeps lines of communication open with Ryan Day in such situations.
“The football staff has had conversations with us and (if they have) said, ‘This man has genuine interest in it,’ we’re open to it,” Holtmann said. “We just had another one this past weekend while we were on the road with a potential dual-sport player.”
What does it take?
Playing both sports obviously presents a slate of difficulties. As a tight end, Lumpkin was listed at 6 feet 8, 268 pounds during his freshman football season. After playing his first basketball season for the Buckeyes, he returned to coach John Cooper at a svelte 230 pounds.
“I remember coach Cooper was like, ‘Yeah, that’s just not acceptable,’ ” Lumpkin said. “You shed so much weight because you’re constantly running.”
As a freshman, Salley said during football season he would keep up his basketball skills on the court on Cannon Drive adjacent to Morrill and Lincoln Towers. Two days after beating Miami in the football title game, he was on campus ready to play basketball for coach Jim O’Brien.
He just didn’t know how to get into Value City Arena.
“I remember walking around trying to find the door to get in, and I remember hearing a basketball bouncing around like they were in the practice gym,” he said. “I started banging on the door, and that’s how I ended up getting into my first practice. I was determined.”
Conversation between Day and Holtmann will be vital in Tuimoloau’s case, both Lumpkin and Salley said. Lumpkin said there was an understanding that basketball coach Randy Ayers was essentially borrowing him from Cooper, and Salley said he appreciated that both O’Brien and football coach Jim Tressel kept true to their word and allowed him to do both. Salley’s lone regret, he said, is that after deciding not to return for a sophomore year on the hardwood, he simply didn’t show up rather than personally inform O’Brien.
“One of the coaches is going to have to be more understanding than the other one,” Lumpkin said. “He should have those conversations with both of them so that it doesn’t get uncomfortable, because it will.”
Salley ultimately stopped playing basketball because, as he went through his second football season, he realized the NFL was a realistic possibility and did not want to take the risk of being injured. Lumpkin dealt with a stress fracture that cost him his entire sophomore basketball season, the result of the physical toll that came with playing both sports.
During his freshman year, Lumpkin said the trainer for the basketball team warned him about an impending physical wall he was going to hit. After a year of playing against Matt Finkes and Mike Vrabel in football practice, Lumpkin said he felt fatigued during a basketball practice a few weeks in only to collapse in the locker room. Fluids and rest took care of the symptoms.
“I would suggest that he (Tuimoloau) mentally prepare himself for what the difference in the conditioning level is in basketball than what it is in football,” Lumpkin said. “You’re not prepared for it, I’m telling you.”
Communication is key. The physical toll is real. The challenges are numerous, but both Salley and Lumpkin agreed: If Tuimoloau feels like he can play both sports, he should sprint after it like it’s a Michigan fumble.
Or like it’s an Indiana center chasing down a lob pass.
“Pace yourself where you can and keep your health as a priority, but if you feel like you can go for it, man, go for it and do it,” Salley said. “Get comfortable being uncomfortable and being on the go consistently. If you feel like doing it, do it, because you don’t have another chance to do it.”
Dispatch librarian Julie Fulton contributed to this report.