BROOKOVER: Penn State football recruit, top baseball prospect to soon face hard choice

BOB BROOKOVER
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Lonnie White

The roster of sensational athletes to come out of Malvern Prep is long and distinguished, but there appears to be a consensus that the greatest of them all is Lonnie White Jr., a three-sport superstar who might just attempt to pull off the rare feat of playing two of them at the NCAA Division I collegiate level.

Philadelphia Phillies color analyst Ben Davis, a proud Malvern Prep alumnus and the second overall pick in the 1995 draft by the San Diego Padres, cast his vote for White as the best ever. And when Malvern Prep baseball coach Freddy Hilliard was asked to chime in on the matter, he did so emphatically.

"That's a fact," Hilliard said Thursday after Malvern Prep advanced to the Inter-Ac baseball championship game against Penn Charter by beating Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, 11-1. "That's not a slight against the athletes we've had. It's just, honestly, he's the best athlete I've ever been around or seen at this level."

Malvern Prep finished its season Saturday by beating Penn Charter, 6-3, to claim the Inter-Academic League title. White went 1 for 2 with a couple of walks and two RBIs as he finished his senior season by batting .395 with 11 doubles, five home runs and 25 RBIs.

The Friars played only four football games in the fall because of the pandemic, but White made his mark by carrying the football seven times for 95 yards and 3 touchdowns and catching 17 passes for 364 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also had 3 interceptions.

Those are incredible numbers, but when asked about being the greatest athlete in his school's history he reacted with uncomfortable laughter.

"I'm kind of weird about that," he said. "I guess I just don't have the ability to say that I am. I don't like to brag about myself, but it is special to hear that."

Delightful dilemma looms: Equally special is the delightful dilemma that is about to confront the 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior from Coatesville.

He has a scholarship to play football and baseball at Penn State in hand, but he is also likely to be selected in the early rounds of the major-league baseball draft that will take place at the All-Star Game in Denver during July.

Baseball America has White ranked as its 55th-best draft prospect, and he's No. 52 by MLB.com. Picks in that vicinity generally get more than a $1 million signing bonus, and an athlete of White's super ability with the option to play two sports in college could get as much as a $2 to $3 million as an extra incentive to turn pro.

White said he is a Phillies fan, but he'd be happy and honored to play for any team that selected him. The Phillies have the 13th overall pick in the first round and the 49th overall pick in the second round, so they could conceivably have two shots at taking White.

With his high school career coming to a close, White admitted that he is thinking more about the decision that lies ahead.

"Quite a bit," he said after delivering a game-ending double in his penultimate high school game Thursday. "I'm told not to think about it, but it's kind of hard not to. It is what it is. Either way I go, I'm going to be ready for it."

The immediate money he figures to be offered from the team that drafts him has also crossed his mind.

"It does from time to time," he said. "I kind of just want to be comfortable wherever I go."

White is clearly most comfortable competing.

"Whatever he's playing he is enjoying," Hilliard said. "He just loves to play, and that's how he has been his whole life. If you ask him what his favorite sport was, if it was the fall he'd say football. If it was the winter he'd say basketball, and if it was the spring he'd say baseball."

Franklin will let him play two sports: After initially committing to play baseball at Clemson, White changed course in December after visiting Penn State and being told by the Nittany Lions that he'd be given a chance to be a two-sport athlete.

Nittany Lions football coach James Franklin even mentioned him in the same breath as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, arguably the two greatest football/baseball stars in professional sports history.

White's father, Lonnie Sr., a star basketball player at Coatesville High and East Stroudsburg University, still misses watching his son play his favorite sport.

"Very much so," Lonnie Sr. said. "But I understand everything, and I'm cool with it. I'm just happy for him to have this kind of an opportunity. It is unreal. How often does this happen for a kid? We've just always told him that whatever he decides we'll back him 100%."

Worrying about his mother: In addition to dealing with the decision about his own future, Lonnie Jr. has spent much of this season worrying about his mother Reggie, who last summer was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time.

She was also a great athlete, playing softball at East Stroudsburg before continuing her career at a professional level.

"That has been rough," Lonnie Jr. said. "With football, baseball and that, it has been a lot on my mind at once. But she is getting better and that has eased up everything for both me and her and our entire family. I think the cancer is gone."

As a baseball coach, Hilliard admits to being biased about what direction he hopes his star center fielder takes, but he has tread lightly with his advice.

"What I basically tell him is, 'You have to do what your heart wants you to do,'" Hilliard said. "He's going to be successful at whatever he chooses to do, so he should make his own decision without the outside noise influencing him. That has basically been the depth of our conversations."

A chance to be a baseball superstar: Hilliard believes if White chooses baseball, however, he has a chance to become a superstar in a hurry for a variety of reasons.

"I get offended when people say, 'Oh, he's a raw baseball player,'" Hilliard said. "He's not. He's a very polished baseball player that gets pigeonholed because of the fact he is such a good athlete. He knows what he's doing out there. It's not like he's just some big, fast kid.

"He's a terror in both sports, and our basketball coach would probably tell you he could be a college basketball player if he had spent more time playing that sport, too. But there are probably 15 kids on Alabama's [football] depth chart that look just like Lonnie. There's not one kid in high school baseball that looks like him in center field. I think scouts see that too. He looks like a big-leaguer right now with his body and size, the speed and the arm.

"My take on it is he's a one-in-a-million baseball player. I told him I could see him being an all-star center fielder quicker than I could see him getting his head beat up at receiver. But if anybody can do both, it's him. The only thing I get concerned about is that it's Penn State football. That's their primary sport up there. If he's not in spring ball, how's that going to fly? Are they going to be OK with it? He can do it. There's no doubt in my mind that he can do it and be successful at both."

A "good person:" Hilliard also believes his best player is a lot more than a superstar on the field.

"I met him when he was 10 years old, and I saw what a good person he was then," Hilliard said. "He is still that person, and that's hard because when you're the best player on the team your whole life and everybody is praising you, sometimes your ego can get big. His parents never allowed him to become that kid, and that's a credit to them and also a credit to Lonnie. He walks through the hallways here, and everybody knows how special he is. But he doesn't act that way, and that's why all the kids in this school love him so much."

And now they will watch to see what's next for the greatest athlete in Malvern Prep history.