Patrick Mahomes had to make a choice while he was still a high-schooler.
He was a three-sport star in Whitehouse, Texas, who had college opportunities in football and basketball and had pro scouts buzzing about his talent on the baseball diamond. The days of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson are long gone: If you want to be a pro athlete, it requires -- at some point -- deciding which sport you want to pursue.
Mahomes wanted a challenge, so he picked the sport that came least naturally to him, the one that required the most mental investment. Despite being the son of former MLB pitcher Pat Mahomes, Patrick picked football, shrugging off his ability to fire a 95 mph fastball.
"God didn't make a whole lot of arms like the one he put on Patrick Mahomes," sad Adam Cook, Mahomes' high school coach.
His choice looks like the right one so far. Mahomes briefly stuck around on the diamond at Texas Tech, but he hung up his glove for good and threw for more than 9,700 yards and 77 touchdowns in his two seasons as a full-time starting quarterback. He was the nation's passing yards leader in Texas Tech's pass-happy offense in 2016 and could become a first-round pick in next week's NFL Draft.
Mahomes is well acquainted with the world of professional sports. His father was one of the first to make his young son a mainstay in clubhouses during his decade in Major League Baseball (he spent time primarily with the Twins, Red Sox and Mets). Pat Jr. would shag fly balls in the outfield during batting practice as a preschooler, leaving his dad's teammates worried about the young athlete getting hurt.
"If he's playing you in a game of Uno, he wants to beat you," Pat Mahomes Sr. said. "He just has that mentality."
Junior grew up as a passer in an Air Raid system at Whitehouse and continued that in Lubbock, where the system has been setting passing records on a near-annual basis since Mike Leach implemented the Air Raid in 2000.
As a freshman pushed into duty by injury, Mahomes had very little leeway to alter Kingsbury's calls at the line. He earned a little more freedom as a sophomore, but by Year 3, Kingsbury viewed his quarterback as an extension of himself and gave him freedom to do nearly anything he saw fit on the fly.
"Linemen seem to block a little better and receivers seem to catch a little better when Patrick's around," Cook said.
The "system quarterback" label felt more apt in the Air Raid's early days, when under-recruited passers with below-average arm strength used a barrage of short, quick throws to scheme their way to 4,000-yard seasons.
It's become less accurate as spread offenses inside the college game have evolved, but NFL success for spread quarterbacks has still been elusive.
Last year, Jared Goff became the No. 1 overall pick after three years under former Leach assistant Sonny Dykes, but he was inactive for more than half the season before throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven games. Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman under Kingsbury at Texas A&M, was Cleveland's first-round pick in 2014 and struggled on and off the field. He's currently a free agent. Geno Smith endured a draft-day free fall in 2013, and started 29 games in his first two seasons with the Jets but has just one start since after throwing 34 picks to just 23 scores.
Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden were both first-rounders in 2012 and despite early success for Griffin, neither has looked anything close to a reliable NFL starter. Baylor's run-first offense is vastly different from Texas Tech's Air Raid, but simplistic reads heavily reliant on downfield throws are nothing like any system an NFL team would run.
While the Air Raid is a spread offense, not all spreads share commonality with the run-averse tendencies of wide-open schemes far simpler than what quarterbacks will face at the game's highest level.
"It's such a case-by-case basis," Kingsbury said. "We saw a pretty good performance by Dak (Prescott) this past year. He transitioned pretty seamlessly. I don't buy the arguments that spread guys are going to struggle at the next level."
Kingsbury experienced the difficult transition himself. He left Texas Tech as The King, throwing for more than 12,000 career passing yards. As a senior, he threw 45 touchdown passes. The Patriots made him a sixth-round pick in in 2003, but opportunities behind a guy like Tom Brady are rare. By 2006, Kingsbury was out of the league.
Today's NFL is different than the one Kingsbury tried to crash. Mahomes, too, is different than nearly all of his Air Raid predecessors.
Cam Newton is the poster child for an evolving NFL. Carolina adapted its offense to its Heisman Trophy-winning No. 1 pick and turned him into an MVP, borrowing concepts directly from Gus Malzahn's playbook at Auburn. They gave him space to make plays with his legs and tweaked the passing game to allow him to make similar reads as he made on the way to a national title under Malzahn and head coach Gene Chizik in 2010.
Some coaches in today's NFL are more willing to adapt, but that's largely dependent on the level of investment a team has in a player. If you're a sixth-round pick like Kingsbury, no team is going to make wholesale changes to its schemes to suit the skill set of a player who might not make a 53-man roster.
It's also dependent on a coaching staff's competency and flexibility. Mahomes' success could come down, most simply, to whoever ends up picking him.
"An NFL team can make it as hard as they want for a quarterback to transition," Kingsbury said. "If they want to say, 'Hey, you're going to do it exactly how we do it. You're going to be under center every play, nothing but drop back and turn your back on the play action, recalling protections.' Yeah, that's going to be a hard learn. But if you're going to rely on a young guy early, play to his skill set and what you watched on film his entire career, he can play at a high level pretty quickly."
Mahomes has been preparing for his next step in earnest for years.
For the past two seasons, he'd work with Kingsbury before and after practice on taking snaps under center and refining his footwork on drop-backs. Before that, Mahomes had never taken a snap under center.
After leaving Texas Tech, he spent the pat three months in San Diego at the EXOS facility working with quarterback coach Mike Sheppard, who spent two decades as an offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and receivers coach at a variety of spots around the NFL after nearly two more decades as a college coach.
"He was excited to learn about NFL pass protections, how they read some of the passes he's going to learn," Sheppard said. "Different styles that different coaches have, reading and reacting to coverage. He was hungry."
Days on the coast began with 60-90 minutes of conditioning and weight work. They'd head to a local high school field to work on drop-backs and footwork before reviewing and discussing the previous day's homework alongside fellow draft prospects Wes Lunt and Cody Keith. Some days, it was learning more about coordinating eight-man protections. Before the combine and individual workouts with teams, it was coaching on how to answer the questions NFL teams would soon pose.
Later, they'd work on live reps, firing at stationary targets or live receivers after full-speed three- and five-step drop-backs. Sheppard paid close attention to where his passers' eyes went and assured their feet and arms stayed consistent and fundamentally sound.
"We were demanding," Sheppard said. "You're training the motion from the minute you pick up the ball. If you're not throwing that way, you're training something else. If you're going to throw it, you have to throw it the same way all the time allows you to adapt and be fundamentally sound. If you're out throwing it like you're on the beach or in the park, you're training a bad rep."
Mahomes took on the challenge of going all-in on the football field, but transitioning from an Air Raid quarterback into an NFL quarterback will be his toughest challenge yet.
It's a bit like learning French in college and being asked to learn Russian once you're in the NFL. You've proven you have the tools and skills to do one thing, and though that success suggests promise at a new, similar task, there's no guarantee you'll be as adept in a new context.
Past failures from Air Raid QBs with big numbers mean Mahomes carries skepticism about others like him into the league. But at 6-foot-3, with an arm that's drawn comparisons to Brett Favre and better than average mobility, Mahomes possesses natural gifts many of his predecessors lacked.
"Patrick is as well equipped to be an NFL QB as anyone," Sheppard said. "The strong arm, he comes by it honestly from his dad. He's athletic, smart, good size. He's accurate. His upside is huge, he has the intangibles. But it's real important he ends up with the right fit and the right system."
That part of Mahomes' career can't be chosen.
But only a few years after pushing all his chips in for football, he's closer than ever to a chance to cash in on the choice that altered his course forever.