Monte Harrison is a star in waiting … but will he choose baseball or Nebraska?

05/30/2014 3:11 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

On a sunny but mild afternoon in early May, a collection of nearly 20 major league scouts stands together near the bleachers at the Lee’s Summit West High School baseball field. Almost in unison, they open their notebooks and click their ink pens ready as senior Monte Harrison digs into the right-handed batter’s box.

He whiffs on a first-pitch curveball in the dirt.

“Bubba Starling,” a scout says.

The comment is meant in jest, but it’s hard to ignore the comparison. Three years ago, Starling, then a senior at Gardner Edgerton High School, was the talent-oozing outfielder from Kansas City who drew a crowd of scouts every time he took the field.

It’s Harrison’s turn.

One pitch after the quip draws a laugh, Harrison laces a line drive over the second baseman’s head, then effortlessly glides around the bases for a stand-up triple. The scouts snap their stopwatches.

“First. Round. Talent,” one says.

“Yeah," another responds. “But does he even want it?”

Harrison calls the baseball field his haven, but it’s more than that. It’s his ticket to stardom, fame and a potential seven-figure fortune.

If he wants it.

Major League Baseball has invited Harrison to attend the draft Thursday in New Jersey. Baseball America, a national website devoted to covering prospects, identifies Harrison as the best athlete in this year’s draft and one of the top overall outfielders.

If that’s the route he chooses.

Nebraska isn’t giving up. Like Starling, Harrison signed with the Cornhuskers, ready to become a rare two-sport athlete on the football field and the baseball diamond. Football coach Bo Pelini has stated his plans to immediately plug Harrison, a four-star wide receiver, into the starting lineup as a true freshman.

If he wants the spot.

A sporadically sophomoric and unpredictable 18-year-old, Harrison is seven weeks from the deadline to make his life-altering decision.

“I have to be a kid that grows up fast because making big decisions — especially with everyone in your ear telling you this or telling you that — means you have to learn on the fly,” Harrison says. “It’s ultimately my decision what I really want to do in life.”

Harrison believes his life is defined by a man he barely remembers.

Recently, he went to a tattoo artist and had his father’s name, Jack, permanently inked on his left wrist. The tattoo is surrounded by a rosary and a cross.

Jack Harrison died 12 years ago. Monte was six years old. The death prompted Michelle Francis to sign up her two sons — Monte and older brother Shaquille — for neighborhood sports teams.

They started with baseball.

“I wanted them to have some more male influences in their lives,” Francis says. “Someone to help me keep them out of trouble.”

The long-term outcome is decorated with success. Monte blossomed into a three-sport star who made The Star’s All-Metro first team in basketball, football and baseball. Shaquille is playing Division I basketball at Tulsa.

The short-term results were less promising.

When Monte was in the fifth grade, he got into a fist fight with a classmate over a kickball game on the school playground. He was suspended from school, and his mom forced him to sit out a baseball tournament.

It wasn’t his first altercation. And it wouldn’t be his last.

Francis found it to be a constant battle to keep her youngest son out of trouble, and it proved equally difficult to keep him focused on his grades. Lee’s Summit West baseball coach Jay Meyer threatened to sit Harrison out of practices and games his freshman season because he refused to put more effort into his classwork.

“I was immature. Very immature,” Harrison says. “I would always do stupid stuff, always getting into trouble, always hanging out with the wrong people. Me and my brother, we were little home wreckers.”

When Harrison was in the third grade, he and Shaquille turned the living room into a playground. They dressed in full pads and played one-on-one, no-holds-barred tackle football.

Until the game ended with holes in the wall.

“We got a whooping for that,” Shaquille says while laughing. “Mom got the belt out for us, and we never did it again.”

Francis discovered sports provided the best outlet for Monte’s aggressive, destructive behavior.

Shaquille is two years older than Monte, but Francis wanted them to play together. Her only option was to force Monte play with the older kids.

He was young, but he was talented. He enjoyed the chance to play with Shaquille.

And there was one more bonus.

“Not having a father, I felt like I had to teach myself how to be a man. Looking back on it, sports taught me a lot of that,” Harrison says. “Would my life be different if he was still here? Would I have acted differently? I don’t know. Maybe.”

Danan Hughes played six years in the National Football League, all of them with the Kansas City Chiefs.

In 1992, a year before he joined the Chiefs, Hughes faced a similar fork-in-the-road decision that Harrison is likely to encounter this summer.

Hughes was a two-sport athlete at the University of Iowa, and he was subsequently selected in the third round of the 1992 MLB Draft. He stuck with football.

It wasn’t an easy choice. Hughes played baseball and football growing up, competing against some of the best young athletes in the nation, though he “never saw one like Monte,” he says.

After his career with the Chiefs ended, Hughes began coaching his son’s traveling baseball team. Harrison was the team’s premier player.

“We would travel to Georgia, New York, Myrtle Beach — all over the country — and he’s the best athlete everywhere we went,” Hughes says. “We’re in Georgia, and there’s 256 teams, and he’s the best athlete there.

“It confirmed everything I already knew. This kid was the epitome of a star.”

Hughes is fond of anecdotes.

There was the time he saw Harrison dive for a ground ball while playing third base, then throw the hitter out from his knees. There was the time Harrison asked him permission to hit left-handed, then bomb one over the outfield fence.

There was the time Hughes pulled out the radar gun when Harrison was on the mound. The gun showed 86. Monte was 14.

Lee’s Summit West football coach Royce Boehm was sitting in his office one afternoon last fall when his phone rang. He recognized the number. It belonged to Nebraska head football coach Bo Pelini.

“Don’t tell me I have another Bubba Starling on my hands,” Pelini said.

In 2011, Starling was picked to lead the Nebraska football program back to national prominence. The sixth-rated quarterback in the nation after rushing for 31 touchdowns for Gardner Edgerton, Starling spent the summer in Lincoln, Neb.

But the Royals selected him fifth overall in the 2011 MLB Draft and then shelled out a team record $7.5-million signing bonus.

Starling’s college football career was over before it even started.

Harrison may be next.

Boehm says Harrison is destined to play in the NFL on Sundays — should he opt for that route — after he scored 28 touchdowns for the Titans, who won the Missouri Class 5 state championship. Lee’s Summit West lost only once last season — a 42-35 defeat to Class 6 state-champion Blue Springs. In that game, Harrison caught 15 passes for 188 yards and scored three touchdowns.

“That kid is the best player I think I’ve coached against since I’ve been at Blue Springs,” said Wildcats coach Kelly Donohoe, who has won four state titles and coached against highly-recruited talents like Tony Temple, Blaine Dalton and Nathan Scheelhaase. “We tried everything against him. That kid is special.”

There are some within Harrison’s circle who believe he could play major Division I basketball, too. The hardwood turned into a setting for his highlight reel this season. He won the dunk contest at the Greater Kansas CIty All-Star Challenge, hurdling a teammate for one slam and going between his legs for another.

That athleticism may be less obvious on the baseball field, except to Major League scouts. Asked what drew his eye to Harrison, a scout for an American League West team responded, “Just look at him. You don’t see many guys like that on a baseball field.”

The scouts’ analysis of Harrison is that he’s a potential five-tool center fielder — he can hit for power, hit for average, steal a base, make a play with his glove and gun someone down on the basepaths with his arm.

But they’re falling in love with his do-whatever-it-takes-to-win attitude — a innate trait he shares with his brother.

“I see a guy that can win you a game in a variety of ways,” the head scout for one National League team says. “And I see a guy that’s hungry to prove it.”

Many mock drafts have pegged Harrison as a late first-round selection Thursday. Tampa Bay, which picks 20th, is thought to be particularly interested. The Royals have the 17th choice.

The 20th overall selection last year agreed to a signing bonus that exceeded $2 million.

But Harrison holds the ultimate bargaining chip. If he doesn’t like his landing spot — or the ensuing offer — Nebraska is waiting.

“That’s a worry,” an American League Central scout says. “That’s something we, as an organization, spend a lot of time trying to find out. We were in the same boat with Bubba Starling here a few years ago — asking ourselves the exact same questions. The Royals took a chance on him. You have to give them credit.

“Maybe it’s our turn. Maybe this is the kid we take a chance on.”

Starling entered the weekend batting .196 with Class A-Advanced Wilmington. He’s a long way from Kauffman Stadium.

That’s not a concern for Harrison.

“I don’t follow anything anyone else does,” Harrison says. “Everyone doesn’t have the same situation as me. I’m my own man. I pretty much tell myself I’m a trend setter.”

When it comes to his future, Harrison isn’t giving anything away. He refuses to discuss the draft with even his closest friends.

A week before Lee’s Summit West lost in the Class 5 postseason, Harrison arrived at practice an hour early, took a seat atop the dugout bench and stared out toward the baseball diamond. In the midst of a year in which he can’t escape the constant calls, text messages and letters, he has come to appreciate these quieter moments.

“I could see myself doing this,” he says, breaking the silence.

And spurning Nebraska?

Harrison smiles.

“I guess you’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Reach Sam McDowell at smcdowell@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @samcdowell11.

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