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Not all baseball draftees can resist football's lure

by Tracy Ringolsby
August 26, 2004

DENVER—Todd Helton was a baseball player at heart.

As soon as Helton got to the University of Tennessee he knew his future was baseball.

"That first day of spring practice, when I saw the other quarterbacks . . ." Helton said. "We're talking Heath Shuler, the third pick overall, the first quarterback taken in the (1994) NFL draft. I knew I was going to be a baseball player."

The Rockies' first-round draft pick in 1995, Helton has become one of the best players in the big leagues, a Gold Glove-winning all-star who is signed with the Rockies through 2011, the club even holding an option on 2012.

But what if Helton had stuck with football? Instead of playing out a disappointing Rockies season this time of year, would he be starting another NFL season instead?

Others have found football more appealing. Among the more notable:

The Braves took righthander Ray Guy out of Southern Mississippi in the 17th round in 1972—he also was drafted by the Astros in 1971 and Reds in 1973—but he chose football and became the greatest punter in NFL history.

The Marlins used their second pick in 1992 on righthander John Lynch out of Stanford, and he won the first minor league game in the organization's history, but wound up an all-pro defensive back in the NFL, first with the Buccaneers and now with the Broncos.

The Dodgers used their 38th-round choice in 1969 on Johnny Rodgers, an infielder/outfielder from Tech High School in Omaha. He opted to play football at Nebraska, where he won a Heisman before a nine-year pro career. He played seven seasons with Montreal in the Canadian Football League and two with the NFL's Chargers.

The Expos used their 18th-round selection in 1995 on catcher Tom Brady out of Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., which also produced Jim Fregosi, Barry Bonds and Gregg Jefferies. Brady, however, opted to become a quarterback and has won two Super Bowl MVP and championship trophies with the Patriots in the last three years.

The Mets took shortstop Jeff Gossett from Eastern Illinois in the fifth round in 1978, but he decided to become a punter in the NFL, where he mastered the coffin corner kick.

The Phillies persuaded shortstop Ricky Williams to sign as an eighth-round pick in 1995, but the Phillies also allowed him to play football at Texas. After hitting .188 at the Class A level, Williams focused on football.

The Angels were one of five teams that drafted righthander Brad Van Pelt, taking him in the 13th round in 1972. He, however, ended up an all-pro linebacker. The Tigers also drafted him out of high school in 1969, and he was taken in the since-abolished January portion of the draft by the Cardinals in 1973 and Indians in 1974, and in the June 1973 draft by the Pirates.

Boston used the 13th overall pick in 1969 on Noel Jenke, who did make it to Triple-A in 1971 but then pursued football. He also was drafted in the NFL by the Vikings and in the NHL by the Blackhawks.

The Indians took three shots at signing second baseman Danny White, who wound up with a 13-year career as quarterback of the Cowboys and led them to the 1977 Super Bowl title. Cleveland selected him in the 39th round out of Arizona State in 1973, the third round in 1974 and the fifth round of the January draft in 1975. White also was an Astros first-round choice in January 1974.

Former Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie is convinced the only reason Bubby Brister signed with the Tigers as a fourth-round pick in 1981 was because he signed a letter of intent to Alabama and opted to not play for the Tide. Back then, the SEC did not allow a player to be a pro in one sport and play at the college level in another. By spending a year in the Tigers farm system, Brister collected a signing bonus, got out of his deal at Alabama and was able to play college football after all. The Steelers drafted him from Northeast Louisiana in 1986.

Royals draft choices have included John Elway (18th round, 1979), Bartkowski (33rd round, 1971), Archie Manning (January 1971), Dan Marino (fourth round, 1979), and Deion Sanders (sixth round, 1985).

The Yankees signing Elway as a second-round pick in 1981 was a key to him becoming a Bronco. Because he was a pro in baseball, the Baltimore Colts, who had taken him in the NFL draft, had to trade him or lose his signing rights. If Elway hadn't signed with the Yankees, the Colts would have retained his rights.

The Blue Jays never shied away from a two-sport star. They took current Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio out of high school in the 22nd round in 1981 (he went on to catch at Southern California, where he was a teammate of Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire), and former Super Bowl quarterback Jay Schroeder third overall in 1979.

Tracy Ringolsby is the national baseball writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. You can contact him by sending e-mail to tracyringolsby@baseballamerica.com.

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