Mark Story

Mark Story: UK basketball 7-footer, Willie Cauley-Stein, outgrew football dreams

Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 TDs as a wide receiver during his senior year in high school.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 TDs as a wide receiver during his senior year in high school. Herald-Leader

The most intriguing college football prospect in the country is on the University of Kentucky campus right now.

Of course, he is playing basketball.

Throughout this pre-season, John Calipari has talked up the potential and athleticism of 7-foot freshman big man Willie Cauley-Stein.

Amazingly for one so tall, Cauley-Stein at this time last year was a wide receiver tearing up the highest classification (6A) of Kansas high school football for Olathe Northwest High School.

"He was the number one receiver in Kansas," Olathe Northwest football coach Todd Dain said Thursday. "No other receiver in the state had the year he had."

In 2011, Cauley-Stein had 64 catches for 1,265 yards with 15 touchdowns and averaged 19.7 yards a reception while helping his team (5-5) to the playoffs. He even played some cornerback.

The mind boggles at the idea of seeing a 7-foot football player.

"You might think a guy of his size would look like a baby giraffe out there on the football field," said Tod Palmer, a sportswriter at the Olathe News. "Willie looked more like a gazelle."

Last week at UK basketball media day, one had the sense Cauley-Stein might still be wearing shoulder pads had his body not grown so darned tall.

When his former Olathe Northwest football teammates started tweeting about the start of their 2012 season "I got almost depressed because I wasn't playing (football) anymore," Cauley-Stein said.

Aspiring quarterback

Cauley-Stein was raised by his grandparents (Val and Norma Stein) in the tiny Kansas hamlet of Spearville (population: 773). It is a place so small, the local high school plays eight-man football.

Yet one could still aspire to big football dreams there. "Between eighth grade and my freshman year, my coach said I could potentially be a Division I quarterback," Cauley-Stein said. "When I heard that, I thought I might not even play basketball anymore."

At that time, after experiencing an Anthony Davis-like growth spurt, Cauley-Stein stood 6-6. "I was perfect (size), perfect for a quarterback," Cauley-Stein said. "I was thinking if I didn't play basketball, I could spend all my time in the weight room and work on quarterback stuff."

An older Spearville teammate convinced Cauley-Stein not to give up basketball by pointing out the school might have a chance to win a state title if he continued to play hoops.

Cauley-Stein stayed with basketball and continued to grow. Through AAU hoops, he became close with Shavon Shields, the son of ex-Chiefs All-Pro offensive lineman Will Shields. Eventually, Cauley-Stein's grandparents and mother, Marlene, agreed to allow him to move in with the Shields family in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe.

Though he was now pushing 6-10, Cauley-Stein showed up at his new high school, surveyed the competition and decided he could still be a starting quarterback. This even though he was ineligible for sports the first semester of his junior year due to Kansas high school transfer regulations.

"I got out there and threw the football and I was better than their starting quarterback," Cauley-Stein said, "but I couldn't play. I was sick."

As Cauley-Stein's basketball recruiting profile grew, pressure mounted on him at the start of his senior year not to play football lest he suffer an injury that could derail a promising hoops future. "My AAU coaches were like, 'I don't think it's a good idea you are playing (football),'" Cauley-Stein said, "especially after Kentucky (basketball) came in on me."

Yet the dream of being a star quarterback was strong, and Cauley-Stein said no to those suggestions. Then, his QB goal at last at hand, a more experienced QB transferred to Olathe Northwest and Cauley-Stein was moved to wide receiver.

"I was mad. ... When they changed me to wide receiver, I was real salty about it," Cauley-Stein said.

A D-I football player?

One would think opponents would go at the legs of a 7-foot receiver on every play. Before his team played rival Olathe East, Cauley-Stein says some of the opposing players contacted him through Facebook and Twitter to tell him they planned to do just that.

"They were going to come after me, try to hurt me or tear my ACL," Cauley-Stein said. "I was like, 'OK, let's be real. They're probably not going to do that. For one, I'm bigger than you. Two, I'm faster than you.' So nothing happened. The whole year, nobody ever really hit me in the legs."

If you were a high school football coach with an NBA center-sized wide-out, one might think you'd throw fade patterns to him on every play.

"We did that some, but Willie would go across the middle, run slants, digs," Dain said. "He was a little raw, but he made big strides in his route running. And he was the biggest hitter on our team."

At the end of his senior football season, Cauley-Stein was named to the Kansas All-State First Team Top 11.

Yet his football emergence came long after his basketball recruiting profile had blown up huge. Instead of football coaching titans such as Bill Snyder and Bob Stoops coming to scout his football games, it was John Calipari and Frank Martin (then head hoops coach at Kansas State) who came.

Could Cauley-Stein have played Division I football?

"I don't think there is any doubt he could have," said Dain. "We had a slot receiver who ran a 4.4 40. Willie was faster than he was. If he'd really dedicated himself to football and refined his route running, I think he could have been big-time."

Palmer, the Olathe sportswriter, thinks so, too. "He has amazing hands and he could blow by people," he said of Cauley-Stein.

Instead, Cauley-Stein accepted that body type is destiny. There is a lot more history of 7-footers thriving in hoops than football, after all.

From football, Cauley-Stein said enhanced toughness and improved "hands and feet" are what will carry over to basketball at UK.

Earlier this month, on a visit home to Kansas, some strangers asked him his name. After he replied, Cauley-Stein says the people lit up in recognition.

Yet, they did not say, "You play basketball for Kentucky." They did say, "You're that football player, right?'"

Said Willie Cauley-Stein: "I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I used to be.'"

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