Book excerpt: Uncovering the pursuit of a champion athlete

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Tom Farrey's new book, "Game On: The All-American Race To Make Champions Of Our Children."

Age 1

Bonus Babies

Los Angeles, California

I have come to L.A. looking for sperm.

Strong sperm. Swift sperm. Athletic sperm!

Such a thing does exist, I am told.

"Wanna see?" says Diana Schillinger, lab manager at California Cryobank, a reproductive tissue depository that can be found on the west side of this sprawling city, just a couple miles from the beaches of Santa Monica. With her shoulder-length brown hair, reading glasses, and approachable manner, Schillinger exudes the vibe of a content suburban mom, and right now she is eager to show off the "future people" in her care.
She motions to a techie who is hunkered over a microscope offering a glimpse of the world I wish to enter. More sanitary than sartorial in a blue disposable lab coat and hair net, the techie slides his stool out of the way, making room for me to peer into the eyepiece.

I see eyelashes. No, oops, wait a minute … there they are. Sperm. Sperm everywhere. Hundreds, maybe thousands of sperm. Some move back and forth at a manic pace. Some just meander, like surfers waiting for the right wave. Others are inert. Maybe it's been too long since high school biology class, but I find it amazing that so much life -- so much visibly different life -- could occupy the tiniest dot on a thin plate of lit-up glass. I feel like Horton the elephant discovering the colony of Whos.

"Good sperm are the ones that are not just moving, but moving in a forward progression," Schillinger says. "You don't want them to zigzag. You want the one that's going to get to the egg and fertilize it first."

She smiles at the irony. "It's like an Olympic race."

I see what she means. The most commanding sperm move like Michael Phelps, their S-shaped tails whipping through the neighborhood pond as if it was what they were born to do, all power and elegance. Schillinger cannot tell me who provided the sample, whether or not it came from one of the UCLA athletes who get paid to give weekly. Donor anonymity is a must in her business. But the best sperm at least move athletically, almost in a straight line, staying in their lane, efficiently crossing the grid of squares in the viewing field that helps the techie estimate the number of active, or motile, sperm. Whenever he sees one, he clicks a counter.

This sample has 150, the techie announces, impressed. It will now advance to the next stage in the process where it will be "washed" in a centrifuge, an act of purification that removes the slacker sperm and ensures clients paying $350 a vial get only the very best candidates -- the all-stars, if you will -- of baby creation.

Each vial will include about 10 million sperm. One to two vials will be used in each insemination. Usually, it takes a healthy woman six to eight inseminations to get pregnant. All said, about 100 million sperm will fight for the right to make one baby.

A hundred million and only one winner.

No wonder so many of us believe our children can be special athletes. Just to get born, with or without the aid of a cryobank, they already have beaten enormous odds. At the moment of their first breaths, they are Darwin's champions. And the sperm that wins this hellacious battle for conception gets to its destination, the egg, not by thinking its way through the fluid, but through coordination, fitness, and outstanding physical effort. Life begins with an act of elite athleticism.

And yet, is that all there is? Could it be that some children are born with the genetic stuff to go on to actually become elite athletes? And others just aren't?

It's the first and most important question to ask, as the answer each of us chooses to believe in inevitably shapes the philosophy of youth sports with which we are most comfortable. If you believe, as Scandinavian societies are prone to, that rarified talents are largely inborn, then you might promote a sport-for-all system that invests in the infrastructure of the grassroots and assumes that the natural elite will bubble up from the masses. But if you believe, as many Americans do, that rarified talent is largely an expression of free will, then you would promote an ethos that rewards early initiative and commitment above all else.

Ryan Nece has wrestled with the nature vs. nurture question for a long time.

The former UCLA linebacker, now an NFL veteran in his sixth year, was made the old-fashioned way. Back in the late 1970s, his father, Ronnie Lott, passed his mother, Cathy Nece, in a hallway at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, California -- a working-class suburb about an hour's drive to the east of the California Cryobank. Ronnie and Cathy smiled at each other. He was a sophomore, the rising star on the school's football and basketball teams; she was a senior, the high-spirited daughter of a local restaurateur. They began dating. Four years later, after Lott's sophomore year at USC, Cathy gave birth to a chunky, eight-pound boy with long, curly hair. Ryan entered the world on Feb. 24, 1979, so mellow and happy that he made no effort to swipe away the newborn skullcap a nurse placed on his head.

At the time, Lott was laser-focused on getting his career going, so Nece raised Ryan on her own. Growing up, Ryan talked to his dad now and then and flew up on occasion to attend 49ers games as Lott built his reputation as the greatest defensive back in NFL history. But Cathy was the dominant figure in Ryan's life, and the boyhood she gave him was decidedly free of organized sports. He rode ATVs in the sand dunes of the desert east of San Bernardino; camped in the Grand Canyon; fished amid snow-capped peaks at Mammoth Lake, where his maternal grandpa taught him the values of patience and a steady pole; took family car trips down to Baja California, where he stood next to the Sea of Cortez and tried to imagine the creatures that lived in the deepest blue water. He has fond memories of those years. "I got to be a boy," he tells me, sitting at the dining room table in his mother's cul-de-sac home in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains. "I got to be adventurous in other ways, not just adventurous on the playing fields."

When Ryan was 5, his mother signed him up for T-ball. She gave him a left-hander's mitt.

"Is he lefthanded?" the coach asked.

"No," Cathy Nece said, perplexed.

That's how little she knew about baseball: That righties don't catch with their right hand. It would be the first and last time she would enroll him in youth sports. She wasn't hostile to the idea, she just wasn't going to push or even suggest it. When Ryan finally joined a team again, in fifth grade, it was of his own volition. He announced to her one day that he wanted to sign up for Little League in order to play with his friends. Some of them already had six years of organized baseball experience at that point. They knew how to turn double plays, work the count, and hit to the opposite field. Ryan's best friend, Teddy, had the coolest glove and bat on the market, a batting cage in his backyard, and a father who worked the umps from the stands when he thought a call should have gone his son's way. He seemed determined to get his boy a college scholarship.

His first year in baseball, Ryan was voted an All-Star. Playing for the league's worst team, he made acrobatic catches in centerfield and stole home to seal its lone victory. The next season he hit a home run in his first at-bat, earning the right to be honorary mayor for the day. Success came quickly in other sports, too. On his middle school teams, he was a terror at the net in volleyball, and he was the best athlete on the basketball court. In track, he proved to be the fastest 12-year-old in Southern California. Lott was there that day at the University of Riverside, one of the first times he saw Ryan compete at an elite level.

Ryan remembers his dad being shocked at the result. Whoa. That's my kid?

Lott tells me he can't remember that day -- "Too long ago," he says. But the sense of total surprise would not have been out of character for him or anyone else of that era. It was 1991, a decade before most of the human genome would be sequenced, offering fresh insights on the nature vs. nurture debate. Lott certainly considered willpower to be at the core of his own achievements, which were many: a national championship with USC, four Super Bowl titles with the 49ers, and 10 Pro Bowl appearances. He was known as a ferocious tackler, the rare safety who actually scared running backs. The son of a military man, his technique was to imagine a point five yards behind the ballcarrier and drive right through the obstacle to that target, separating the poor sucker from his snot and, perhaps, the ball. He likened the impact on his own body to repeatedly getting hit with a bat, a sacrifice he was willing to make. Lott was a self-made man in the American tradition of Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller, and Sam Walton, each of whom rose from modest origins to the top of his profession.

For him to see Ryan dominate athletically, instantly, would have been to think … what? That his son's success was his? That his Hall of Fame career was somehow biologically aided, maybe even ordained? Perish the thought. Even today, Lott prefers not to talk about the role of genes in athletic achievement, or the endowment he may have passed on to his son.

"That's not fair to him or to me," Lott says. "As a parent, I just don't think that's something I would even think about." He has that kind of mental discipline.

But the son is a man of his time, too: the first decade of the 20th century, when these questions not only are entertained but sometimes get answered in the same breath. At the dining room table, Nece crosses his large hands, lays them on the table, and bears down to make a point. He flashes a look that is unmistakably, eerily Ronnie Lott. It's that calm, hard-eyed stare of an eagle locked on his target, which in this case is me.

"You know what?" Nece says. "Growing up with my dad not being around much, it was odd. People who remembered him were always like, 'Man, there are so many things you do that are just like your dad. Your mannerisms: the way you talk, the way you hold your hands.' And I wondered, is that innate? Is that something that is just in me?" Nece pauses, finding his resolve. "I now really believe that it is."

Tom Farrey, an ESPN television correspondent and senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is author of "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children" (ESPN Books), an investigative look into the world of youth sports and athlete development that was published in May.