Earlier this month, the topic was broached on social media: Name the best high school athlete you’ve ever seen in person.
Anyone who has spent a bit of time around high school athletics in Texas understands the complexity of that subject, given the plethora of star power this state has produced. That talent exists in the form of Hall of Famers, all-pros and champions — plenty of whom began discovering their brilliance when competing for their high schools.
As sports reporters, sometimes we’ve been fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor and cover these generational talents before they blossom into household names, and ultimately our choices as the best high school athletes we’ve seen in person.
Kendrick E. Johnson
After covering high school athletes full-time in Lufkin, West Monroe, Beaumont/Houston and the Metroplex, I’ve had the opportunity to cover many special athletes in a variety of sports — names like Matthew Stafford and Deionte Thompson on the boys side and London Culbreath, Alexis Morris and Jayda Coleman on the girls side. I’ve seen some special talents.
But the two that stand out the most are Dez Bryant from Lufkin and Alexus Henry from Bridge City.
I had to honor of covering Bryant his sophomore and junior years where he was laying the foundation of morphing from a manchild into a player who at one time some considered the best wide receiver in the NFL.
I got to watch Bryant play 10 games live in high school while covering him in his sophomore and junior seasons working at KTRE-TV in Lufkin. Bryant had at least one touchdown in every game, including a highlight-reel, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone against Southlake Carroll in a classic regional final playoff game at Floyd Casey Stadium.
Bryant went on to be and NFL Pro Bowler and is currently the all-time receiving touchdown leader for the Dallas Cowboys.
On the girls side, I have to give it up to Henry. In one year, she set a state high jumping record, won district MVP in basketball and was all-state in volleyball. Furthermore, she was a cheerleader who played basketball and volleyball just for fun.
Henry is the first female in The University of Texas at Arlington history to win an NCAA title — something she accomplished when she won the high jump at the 2018 NCAA Championships. She recently closed her standout career by becoming the most decorated female track and field athlete in UTA history by being a four-time All-American.
Surprising as it might sound in hindsight, the first time I saw Allen alum Kyler Murray attempt a pass — a throw that preceded three consecutive state championships, a Heisman Trophy, and a future in professional football or baseball — the sophomore quarterback was intercepted.
That was on Nov. 9, 2012 as the then-first-year signal-caller was winding down an unbeaten district run against Plano Senior. Murray was still developing as a passer at that point, going just 6-of-12 for 59 yards through the air, but his mobility was already miles ahead. He ran for 167 yards on more than 9 yard per carry that night in a too-close-for-comfort 35-34 victory in what was just win No. 4 of Murray’s budding career.
Thirty-eight more victories followed without a loss, sparking a dynastic run for the Eagles in one of the singular high school careers of any football player in state history.
As Murray’s skill set grew, learning how to fully weaponize his arm to match his legs, he became Texas high school football’s ultimate cheat code. No matter the scheme or the talent on defense, Murray always finished one step ahead.
Just as impressive as the numbers and the accolades were the moments that fueled them. Murray’s career wasn’t without some postseason adversity, but he conjured the crunch-time magic to topple the odds each time — be it helping erase a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to DeSoto in the 2013 state semifinals or turning a 28-10 deficit to Skyline into a 42-6 blitzkrieg to close out the 2014 semifinal.
Only two times in state history has a high school football game drawn a crowd of more than 50,000 people — Allen’s 2013 and 2014 state title wins. The latter of those two games, a 47-16 rout of Cypress Ranch, had a crowd of 52,308 on hand to watch the final game of Murray’s career.
With 4:16 left, Murray made his final walk to the sidelines. Along the way, a standing ovation and chants of “Kyler” filled the stadium in a visual that still sticks with me to this day.
It was the perfect coda to a near-perfect high school career — one that I was fortunate enough to have a press box seat for from 2012-14.
Dating myself here, but when I started the high school sports beat, the bar was pretty high after just covering Ricky Williams during his Heisman Trophy run while I was at the University of Texas.
Not even counting those athletes I have had a chance to see once or twice over the years, there have been numerous local products that have gone on to successful college and professional careers in every sport we cover.
This question has been posed often over the years, and while it does make me dig deep in the memory bank, the answer always comes back to Rowlett graduate and current Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Marquise Goodwin.
It isn’t just that Goodwin is in the rare percentile to play multiple seasons in the NFL, it is that football is not even his best sport.
At one point in time, Goodwin was considered to be one of the best long jumpers, not just in this country, but the world. Goodwin was a four-time state qualifier and three-time state champion in the long jump at Rowlett, but he went beyond that, winning gold medals in the triple jump and 4x100 relay and silvers in the 100 and 200 meters in leading the Eagles to back-to-back team state championships in 2008 and 2009.
A short time after setting the state record in the long jump (26-1 1/4) in Austin, he claimed the national high school record with a mark of 26-10 at the U.S. Junior Championships.
Goodwin continued to balance his dual-sport career at Texas, making an immediate impact as a freshman on the football team that played for a NCAA championship and also stringing together three consecutive Big 12 championships and two NCAA titles in the long jump.
In June 2012 at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Goodwin achieved a lifetime dream, dramatically uncorking a personal-best mark of 27-4 in his final jump to win the long jump and earn a spot at the Olympics. Goodwin entered tied as the No. 1 qualifier at the London Games, but finished 10th overall.
Though he has not ruled out another attempt at the Olympics, Goodwin, who many consider the fastest player in the NFL, has spent the last seven seasons with the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, recording 140 receptions for 2,323 yards and 13 touchdowns. In May, he was traded to Philadelphia.
For all his success as a professional football player and Olympian, if I was asked who was the best person I ever covered, my answer to that question would likely be Goodwin, as well.
No wide receiver in the 15 years that I've covered high school football can create separation better than Rockwall alum Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Called a "once in a generation talent" by former Rockwall head coach Rodney Webb — now the coach at defending Class 6A Division II state runner-up Denton Guyer — Smith-Njigba is the most polished route runner that I've ever seen.
Go route. Curl route. Fade route. He can do it all. N
o wonder Ohio State signed 6A's all-time leader in receiving yards.
Smith-Njigba's 5,414 career receiving yards are third all time in Texas behind Frisco Lone Star's Marvin Mims (5,485) and Burnet's Jordan Shipley (5,424), according to Dave Campbell's Texas Football.
Quickly generating a strong rapport with sophomore quarterback Braedyn Locke, Smith-Njigba took the Yellow Jackets fans on a magical run a year ago. He finished with 609 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns in five playoff games to help lead Rockwall to its first appearance in the state semifinals since 1987.
In a win for the ages against state power Allen in the second round of the playoffs at AT&T Stadium, Smith-Njigba made a one-handed catch while having two feet inbounds for one of his six touchdowns in a 60-59 victory. Two weeks later in the state quarterfinals, Smith-Njigba showed his versatility, taking the direct snap and diving over linemen for one of his six touchdowns in the Yellow Jackets' 59-42 come-from-behind win over Prosper.