As the NFL prepares to play its conference championship games on Sunday, it seems like the perfect time to reminisce about what might have been for some former Major League stars.
Most fans know of two-way stars like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who spent time in both the NFL and MLB, but what about the guys who gave up potential NFL careers? in their quest to play professional baseball?
What follows is a look at just 10 former big leaguers who either played college football in some of the nation’s most prestigious programs or gave up big scholarships to get to The Show.
If not for a freak injury, it’s possible Mantle – a seven-time World Series champion – would have spent his career chasing the Lombardi Trophy. A star returning to high school, he had previously received a scholarship offer from the Oklahoma Sooners football powerhouse as an underclassman. Everything changed when a 14-year-old Mantle was kicked in the lower leg by a teammate during football practice. When his ankle swelled and he developed a high fever, Mantle’s parents rushed him to hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with osteomyelitis, a life-threatening bone disease that had been made worse by the injury. Although doctors initially thought they would have to amputate the leg to save his life, a second opinion suggested treating him instead with a brand new drug called penicillin. The swelling subsided within a week, but Mantle never played football again, instead settling for a Hall of Fame baseball career that included three MVP awards.
Before becoming a Major League Baseball trailblazer, Robinson was a four-sport star at UCLA, where he wrote in baseball, football, basketball and track and field. Surprisingly, he struggled a bit on the diamond, hitting 0.097 in 1940 – but he was sensational on the football pitch. Robinson was the nation’s leading punt returner in 1939 and 1940, while also leading UCLA in passing, rushing, and scoring as a senior. His name remains high in the UCLA football record books, including for most yards per carry by any player in a single season (12.2).
So this one is admittedly a bit of a stretch. Winfield makes the list because he was, after all, selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the 1973 NFL Draft – but he hadn’t played football since the youth leagues. While Winfield was a dual-sport athlete at the University of Minnesota, his favorite sports were baseball and basketball. Along with winning the College World Series MVP award in his senior season, Winfield also helped lead the Golden Gophers to a Big Ten basketball championship.
Winfield’s athletic prowess led to him being drafted by four teams in three sports in 1973: the San Diego Padres (MLB), Atlanta Hawks (NBA), Utah Stars (ABA), and Vikings (NFL). Winfield acknowledged that he never considered the offer to play football. In fact, he always intended to play baseball, although he admits to using the basketball option simply as a bargaining chip in his talks with the Padres.
Long before hitting one of the most iconic home runs in MLB history, Gibson was catching Michigan State‘s attention as one of college football’s best receivers. He led MSU in receiving for three consecutive seasons from 1976 to 1978, and he left as the school’s all-time leader in receptions (112), receiving yards (2,347) and receptions. touched (24). Gibson was named to the All-America team as a senior in 1978 – the same year he received All-America honors on the baseball field. Gibson was selected by the Tigers with the No. 12 pick in the 1978 draft, and he went on to hit 255 home runs during a 17-year career with the Tigers, Dodgers, Royals and Pirates. He won the 1988 NL MVP Award and was a two-time World Series champion.
Before becoming a five-time All-Star and the Rockies’ all-time leader in just about every offensive category, Helton played quarterback alongside — and, for a brief period, ahead — Peyton Manning at University. of Tennessee. Helton received a scholarship to play both baseball and football for the Volunteers, and he spent his first two seasons supporting Heath Shuler, who became the third overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Colquitt started the following season as a starter, but when he got injured early in the season, it was Helton — not Manning, a proper freshman at the time — who got the call. . Ultimately, Helton was taken with the No. 8 pick in the 1995 MLB Draft, and he became the Rockies’ all-time leader in hits, home runs, RBIs, doubles , total goals, points scored and games played. Manning, meanwhile, assumed the starting role the following year and never looked back on his way to the Pro Hall of Fame.
Many believe the Big Hurt could have easily inflicted its pain on NFL defenders instead of MLB pitchers. Thomas, one of the nation’s top tight ends out of high school, attended Auburn University on a football scholarship, although it was agreed he would also play baseball. However, after suffering an ankle injury in his first season of football, Thomas made the decision to focus on baseball full time. Pat Dye, Auburn’s head football coach at the time, fully supported the decision – even continuing to honor his football scholarship – and has publicly stated that he believes Thomas would have been immortalized in Canton, as opposed to Cooperstown, if he had stuck with football.
Mauer is one of the few players on this list who hasn’t played college football – but he certainly could have. The Twins legend threw for 5,528 yards and 73 touchdowns in two seasons as the starting quarterback for Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Considered by most recruiting experts to be the best quarterback in his class, Mauer seemed set to follow in the footsteps of 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke – who also played baseball and football at Cretin-Derham Hall – by committing to Florida State in May 2001. Less than a month later, however, the Twins selected Mauer with the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft — and he never made it to Tallahassee.
When the Reds selected Dunn in the second round of the 1998 MLB Draft, both parties were aware of his intention to play football at the University of Texas. A star quarterback at New Caney High School in Texas, Dunn signed a deal with the Reds to play minor league baseball this summer before returning to Austin to prepare for the football season. He eventually redshirted his first season behind starter Major Applewhite, but Texas then asked Dunn to move to tight end after receiving a commitment from star rookie QB Chris Simms the following year. Dunn instead opted to focus entirely on baseball, making his MLB debut in 2001 and his first All-Star appearance in 2002 en route to hitting 462 career home runs.
Prior to winning the 2002 World Series as a member of the Angels, Erstad was part of an undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers football team that won the 1994 national title. Erstad was one of the best bettors in the country, with averaging 42.6 yards per punt, while going 10-for-10 on extra runs and scoring three field goals for the 1994 club. He finished that school year hitting .410 with 19 homers and 76 RBIs for the school baseball team the following spring. Erstad was named co-First Team All-American and Big Eight Player of the Year, as well as a Golden Spikes Award runner-up. He was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Angels following that impressive 1995 campaign, ending his Husker career as the school record holder for most hits (six), runs ( six) and RBIs (six) in a game. ; most hits (103) and total bases (194) in a single season (1995); and most career hits (261).
Although he won that national title in Nebraska, Erstad scoffed at his football career after being involved in a violent collision with Braves catcher Johnny Estrada at home plate in 2005. When asked if a such hard play was indicative of his footballing mentality, Erstad said: “I was not a football player. I was a bettor.”
Samardzija is one of the few players on this list who may have had a better college career on the grill than on the diamond. Playing in one of the nation’s premier football programs, Samardzija capped off his football career with consecutive 1,000 yard seasons for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He wasn’t too bad on the mound either, going 16-3 and a 4.13 ERA in his final two years.
He was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft, although many believe he would have gone higher had it not been for the uncertainty surrounding his football career. Samardzija then caught 78 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns for Notre Dame that fall, establishing himself as a projected first-round pick in the ensuing NFL Draft. Shortly after the football season ended, however, he fully committed to baseball, signing a five-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs.