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Heisman Trophy winning quarterbackmust choose between football, baseball

scottteaser-215x160Kyler Murray’s armored car has arrived at the proverbial fork in the road. Either direction he chooses will result in that Brink’s truck being stuffed with enough dinero to last several lifetimes. In the coming weeks Murray must decide whether to keep the $4.7-million signing bonus the Oakland A’s have given him and pursue a Major League Baseball career. Or give it back, and bank on even greater riches afforded quarterback prospects chosen in the first round of the National Football League draft.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare—the Bard, not the former All-American halfback from Notre Dame—Murray must decide whether to QB or not QB. Does he want to hit fastballs or wide receivers? Does he want to become the next Rickey Henderson or the next Russell Wilson?

This is a little more difficult than those RPOs—run-pass options—he executed while winning the Heisman Trophy last fall with the Oklahoma Sooners. By Feb. 15—the date pitchers and catchers report to the A’s spring training complex in Mesa, Arizona—he’ll need to decide whether he wants to be an outfielder or a quarterback. The only certainty at this point is that he won’t be allowed to be both.

On Monday, Murray announced he would enter April’s NFL draft. Many project him as a first-round pick. Even if he were selected at the bottom of the round, he stands to make more money than he would with the A’s. The Baltimore Ravens chose quarterback Lamar Jackson in that No. 32 slot last year and offered him a $5-million signing bonus, plus another $9.5-million guaranteed. Those figures are expected to rise slightly this year, so Oakland is going to have to sweeten the pot a lot to keep Murray in the fold. There’s risk involved with any deal. For buyer and seller. Some NFL scouts are concerned the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Murray won’t be able to withstand the pounding of defensive behemoths. This, despite the fact Drew Brees, Baker Mayfield and Wilson have proven smaller QBs can enjoy big-time success. The A’s also are taking a gamble on a raw talent who has never swung a bat in the minor leagues.

Murray’s fork-in-the-road story is fascinating, but hardly unprecedented. There have been many hot-shot quarterbacks who’ve faced similar options. Perhaps the most famous of these was Denver Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who spent the summer prior to his senior year at Stanford playing for the New York Yankees’ Class A affiliate in Oneonta. Before becoming a Broncs Bomber, Elway seriously considered becoming a Bronx Bomber. The Yankees selected him 52nd overall in the 1981 draft, six spots ahead of eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. I covered several of Elway’s New York-Penn League games in 1982, and the baseball talent was obvious, as he batted .318 with four homers and 25 RBI in 42 games. I remember one play, in particular, when he fielded a ball off the wall at Utica’s Murnane Field and rifled a throw to home plate to nail a runner attempting to score from second base.

Elway returned to Stanford that fall, and burnished his credentials as the best quarterback prospect. The then-Baltimore Colts selected him first overall in 1983 (the same draft that produced Jim Kelly and Dan Marino), but Elway wanted nothing to do with wacky Colts owner Robert Irsay. Yankees boss George Steinbrenner was so smitten with the quarterback that he offered him a $900,000 signing bonus to continue playing baseball. Elway wisely leveraged that option to force Irsay to trade him to Denver. Clearly, Elway made the right decision, but it’s fun to speculate what might have been had he stuck with baseball. My late friend, Mike Fennell, who played with him in Oneonta and later became a Yankees bullpen coach, believed Elway would have blossomed into an MLB All-Star. Elway’s left-handed swing would have been tailor-made for the short, right-field porch at Yankee Stadium.

Sammy Baugh, a legendary NFL quarterback who played a season as a good-field, no-hit shortstop with the Rochester Red Wings in 1938, is another prominent signalcaller who gave pro baseball a shot. So did Wilson, the current Seattle Seahawks star. Interestingly, MLB teams also have drafted the likes of Tom Brady, Tim Tebow, Ken Stabler, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Vick, Johnny Manziel and Marino. And current NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes also contemplated making a living throwing a round ball with seams rather than an oblong one with laces. Not surprising, considering Mahomes’ dad, also named Pat, spent 11 seasons as a big-league pitcher. The younger Mahomes was a high school baseball phemon in Texas, once throwing a 16-strikeout no-hitter and clubbing a three-run homer in the same game.

Of course, there also was Drew Henson, a two-sport scholastic sensation from Michigan, who wound up giving baseball and football a go at the highest levels, and striking out in both. He had a single in nine at-bats in the big leagues with the Yankees, and threw a total of 20 NFL passes, with one touchdown and one interception, in parts of two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions.

Should Murray choose baseball, he would join the 31-year-old Tebow as former Heisman winners toiling in the minors. Tebow is expected to open the season with the Syracuse Mets (formerly Chiefs), and could play against the Wings at Frontier Field. But, unlike Tebow, who spent parts of five seasons in the NFL, the 21-year-old Murray is regarded as a serious prospect. As far as longevity, baseball would seem to be the way to go. But although it might be less dangerous, the path to baseball’s big leagues is more difficult, filled with more failures than successes while toiling in the anonymity of the minors.

Ultimately, Murray should base his decision on which sport he loves best rather than which one will be most lucrative. I’m intrigued to see how this unfolds.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. 

2 comments

  1. How could you possibly omit Bo Jackson, who proved you can do both!

  2. Good read. TY Scott.

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