Flacco: Top S.J. boys' athlete

Tom Flacco. (Photo by Curt Hudson)

Everything you need to know about Tom Flacco as an athlete and a person was on display in the winter.

He was a football star who could have spent those cold months lifting weights and doing drills to improve his gridiron game.

He also was a baseball star who could have focused on work in the batting cage.

Instead, Flacco played basketball.

He wasn't a basketball star. But he was a valuable member of a good basketball team.

"What Tom brought to our basketball program was a desire and drive to win and never be outworked," Eastern boys' basketball coach Joe Murphy said. "His work ethic, his fire to compete are his greatest assets, and he brought them to our team day in and day out."

Flacco is The Inquirer's South Jersey senior boys' athlete of the year. He commanded the honor because of his sensational play on the football and baseball fields.

He was a star quarterback for a 10-win team that reached the South Jersey Group 5 final in football. He was a star shortstop for a 19-win team that won the South Jersey Group 4 championship in baseball.

But what made Flacco so special as a high school athlete was his insistence on playing three sports and his dogged determination to make an important contribution to a 21-win basketball team.

"He's old-school, a throwback kid," Dan Spittal, Eastern's football coach until he stepped down in April, said in his highest form of compliment.

In an era of increasing specialization, Flacco was an anomaly: a three-sport athlete at a large school who traded his football cleats for his basketball sneakers for his baseball spikes, year after year after year.

"That's what made it go so fast," Flacco said the other day, after Eastern's loss in the Group 4 state semifinals in baseball marked the final event of his Vikings career. "I was always in-season."

There's a vintage culture of old-time sports around Flacco. He is the youngest of a large family (his oldest brother, Joe, is the star quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens) who attributes his athletic prowess to being the kid brother who always was pushed and prodded and pulled along by his siblings.

Flacco spent much of his time during his high school summers hanging out with his family, competing with his four brothers in anything and everything. His Julys were a lot less "organized" than most elite scholastic athletes', unless you count drawing up sides on the beach in Sea Isle City.

But for 10 months every year - four for football, three for basketball, three for baseball - Flacco was a fully focused, steely-eyed competitor for a succession of teams that took up permanent residence in the Top 10 of the South Jersey rankings.

As a 6-foot-1, 185-pound quarterback, Flacco led Eastern to a 10-2 record in his senior year. He passed for 2,782 yards and 25 touchdowns and also ran for 641 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Flacco finished his career with 7,387 passing yards, third on New Jersey's all-time list.

Spittal said the statistics only hint at Flacco's impact on Eastern's program.

"He has that aura that makes everyone around him better," Spittal said. "Tom probably was the best competitor I ever coached. He has that 'it' that you can't coach."

In baseball, Flacco batted .506 with eight doubles, six triples, and 30 RBIs this past season. He led a team with just one returning full-time starter from the 2013 Group 4 state champions - that was him - to another sectional title.

Flacco was selected by the Phillies last weekend in the 36th round of the first-year player draft. He is likely to enroll at Western Michigan on a football scholarship in January.

"He's unlike 99.9 percent of the people in the world," Eastern baseball coach Rob Christ said. "The common fan can watch him play and see his speed, see his athletic ability. But they don't see his competitive spirit, and that's what makes him so special."

Flacco said he was most proud of Eastern's success in his three sports. The football team won 17 games in his last two seasons. The baseball team won 48 games, two South Jersey Group 4 titles, and a state title. And the basketball team won two Olympic American crowns and a total of 45 games.

"The football team made South Jersey, the baseball team won South Jersey, and the basketball team, we should have made South Jersey but we got beat by Cherry Hill East," Flacco said of his senior year, still smarting over a loss in the South Jersey Group 4 hoops semifinals.

In an odd way, it was on the basketball court that Flacco shined the brightest. That clearly was his No. 3 sport. He clearly was a dirty-work guy on a team with players with more polished ball skills.

But Flacco embraced that role. He was the star quarterback who focused on playing defense, the star shortstop who dived on the floor for loose balls, the athlete of the year who brought a lunch pail and hard hat to the gym every day.

"I tell kids all the time, 'You're only in high school once. Do as much as you can,' " Spittal said. "I tell them, 'Look at Tommy Flacco.' "