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All-Area Boys Basketball: And for his next trick...

Allen Huddleston can't hold back his laughter when he starts telling the story. The Merced College women's basketball coach became curious when he saw his nephew, Jarrett Sparks, standing at the front door last week.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior was afraid to go outside.

Why?

Well, Huddleston tells it best.

"One of our neighbors has rabbits," he said. "There was a little white bunny rabbit out in our yard. Jarrett saw it and ran back in the house.

"I'm laughing. My wife is crying. Here's this big football player afraid of a little bunny rabbit.

"First he yelled at it. Then I think he tossed something at it. The rabbit just looked at him.

"He wasn't going outside until the rabbit left."

Sparks admits he wanted nothing to do with the cuddly creature.

"I ran away," Sparks said. "If it's not a regular pet, I'm afraid of it."

Spiders. Snakes.

Even roller coasters give Sparks the willies.

"I don't like the way they make my stomach feel," he said. "I just go to (amusement parks to) shoot the baskets and win the stuffed animals."

It seems so odd that Sparks -- who has put fear in so many players on the football field and basketball courts the last three years -- would be afraid of anything.

Short of winning a section title, Sparks has accomplished just about everything you can at Merced.

He's played on four Central California Conference championship teams -- two each in football and basketball.

Sparks was named the CCC MVP in football this fall and he's won back-to-back MVP awards in basketball.

Now he's become the first area athlete to be named the Sun-Star Player of the Year in football and basketball in the same year.

Since moving with his brother, Justin, to Merced three years ago, Sparks always has been comfortable in the spotlight.

The Sparks family moved from Victorville to get away from a neighborhood that had seen an increase in violence.

Their mother, Rosalind Denson, wanted her boys to grow up in a safe environment and to be around positive male role models -- specifically Huddleston and their grandfather David Denson.

"My grandpa made me play football," Jarrett said. "I listened to him and he steered me the right way."

Jarrett quickly emerged as an elite athlete and earned a football scholarship to Cal.

"I'd prefer to be back home, but I'm glad I got the opportunity to go to college, play sports and get a free education," Sparks said.

"I'm glad I came to Merced. I've made a lot of good friendships here. I did a lot of good things here."

And he was under a microscope.

As soon as the Pac-10 scholarship offers started rolling in, Sparks became a high-profile athlete.

When he missed the football playoffs with mononucleosis, he was on the cover of the Sun-Star sports section.

"He handled all that (notoriety) pretty well," said Merced hoops coach Marcus Knott. "It's easy for kids to get caught up and think they're bigger than life. Jarrett is pretty grounded."

While most people are aware of Sparks' athletic accomplishments, not many know much about him away from sports.

He's quiet.

However, friends who know him talk about his sense of humor.

"He makes me laugh every day," Knott said.

Huddleston can count on the same greeting every time he sees his nephew.

"The way he says hello to his uncle is by slapping me upside my head," Huddleston said.

"He's always clowning around."

It's less than two weeks since his season ended and Sparks already misses basketball.

He'll head to Berkeley during spring break to participate in spring football drills with Cal.

"It's tough because basketball was my first love," Sparks said. "I'll probably always keep playing.

"If I had it to do over again, I'd play more sports. I'd play everything I could in high school.

"I haven't even graduated yet and I miss playing."

Jarrett will not miss the rabbits, however.

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