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Jeff Samardzija content he chose baseball over football

Aug 19, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT

In the dead of winter, Jeff Samardzija still feels the itch.

Football will be on TV, and the former All-American receiver-turned-major league pitcher gets nostalgic for the sport.

“When you’re sitting around in January and you haven’t competed professionally in three or four months, that’s when it really wears on you,” Samardzija said with a smile. “You’re chomping at the bit to get going for spring training, and there’s really nowhere to take that anxiety and that energy.”

Baseball wound up the career path of choice for the A’s right-hander, but football will always be in Samardzija’s blood.

What options that lay before him seven years ago as a senior at Notre Dame. Coming off a record-setting collegiate career, there was speculation that the 6-foot-5 Samardzija might be a first-round NFL draft pick.

He wound up signing a five-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, beginning a road that led to his first All-Star selection this season after his trade to Oakland.

In a time when athletes increasingly are picking one sport to specialize in at a young age, it seems fewer and fewer will even be presented the choice that Samardzija had.

Growing up in Indiana, the challenge was simply narrowing down all of the athletic activities that he and his older brother Sam got involved in.

“He was right around four-and-a-half years younger,” Sam Samardzija said. “He could hang out with me and my buddies, but I think he learned early on that if he cried, he would have got his butt kicked maybe by me, or he would have had to answer to my Dad.”

Soccer, baseball, football, basketball, track …. Jeff even tried wrestling for a couple years, and though he admits he wasn’t crazy about the sport, he placed second in a state tournament.

By the time he was attending Valparaiso High School, he had become not only an all-state center fielder but a star receiver.

It led to a football scholarship to Notre Dame. Paul Mainieri, then the head baseball coach at Notre Dame, had never heard of Samardzija until he was recruited by then-Irish football coach Ty Willingham.

“I picked up a periodical that covered Notre Dame football, and it was an article about a receiver from Valparaiso, and all he was talking about was how he wanted to play baseball at Notre Dame,” Mainieri recalled. “So I ran down to Ty Willingham and said ‘Ty, who is this kid that you’re volunteering spots to on my ball club?’”

Willingham agreed to let Samardzija moonlight in baseball, but the compromise was he couldn’t play the outfield, where it was thought he’d be too vulnerable to injury. So Samardzija joined the Notre Dame pitching staff.

Mainieri knew he had someone special when he started Samardzija against Michigan as a freshman. Samardzija walked the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches, then calmed his nerves and struck out the next two batters to escape the jam.

Though Samardzija had trouble working his way up the football depth chart in his first two seasons, Mainieri had designs on Samardzija being one of his top starting pitchers as a sophomore. Before baseball season began that year, Willingham was fired as Notre Dame’s football coach and Charlie Weis replaced him.

“I started him that first game of the year if for no other reason than if Charlie Weis showed up on campus, it was going to be hard as possible to take him off baseball,” Mainieri said.

In Weis’ offense, Samardzija developed into an All-American receiver over his final two years, and by the end of his senior season in 2006, he held Notre Dame career records for catches (179), receiving yards (2,593) and receiving touchdowns (27).

As it came time to make a choice between football and baseball professionally, it was no surprise that Samardzija turned to his older brother for advice. Sam had walked away from a baseball scholarship at Indiana to help look after Jeff when their mother, Debora, died of a rare acute respiratory disease when Jeff was in high school.

Now, as Jeff faced a huge decision regarding his future, Sam and his wife drove to South Bend to talk it over.

“We brought out a dry erase board, and we wrote ‘football’ and ‘baseball’, and drew a line down the middle and listed pros and cons,” said Sam, whose involvement in his brother’s career steered him to become a sports agent.

Both Sam Samardzija and Mainieri say they know that at least one NFL team had Jeff targeted for the first round. Ultimately, Jeff decided his ceiling was higher in baseball. Then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, a close friend of Mainieri’s, had drafted Samardzija in the fifth round in 2006, between his junior and senior seasons of football.

With the Cubs still owning his rights, they signed him to a five-year $10 million contract in January 2007.

Samardzija broke into the majors in 2008 as a reliever and didn’t make the full-time conversion to starting until 2012. Gifted with a fastball that hits the high 90’s, he’s worked hard to improve command of his other pitches. The A’s will have him under team control next season before he hits free agency, so if Oakland doesn’t re-sign Jon Lester as is widely assumed, Samardzija will remain an anchor of the rotation in 2015.

Samardzija, 29, knows all about the dual-sport careers of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan. He also knows they were the exception to the rule when it came to those attempting to succeed in two sports.

“I was committed to myself that if I wanted to be the best at something, I’d have to commit full-time to one,” Samardzija said. “A lot of those careers, they didn’t really turn out the way guys wanted them to. I always wondered, if those guys did pick one, how good would they have been?”

  1. rcali - Aug 19, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    The NFL has a real problem attracting kids from the suburbs to play football, specifically at the Wide Receiver position. If the league doesn’t do something soon they are going to lose a whole generation of kids to baseball.

  2. philliesblow - Aug 19, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    His story sounds a lot like Kirk Gibson’s, All-American wide receiver that chose baseball. Being a pitcher, Samardzija had a little more injury risk in baseball than Gibson, but even if he had blown out his arm he likely could have still gone back to being a receiver. With all the concussion issues in football, choosing baseball would seem to be the wise choice.

  3. pete2112 - Aug 19, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    Guaranteed contracts help.

  4. sportsfan18 - Aug 19, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    Well, as for money, he’s already made just a tad under $23 million so far playing baseball and he’s going to get overpaid this off season.

    Not sure how much he’ll get, but it’s going to be a lot… like $8 to $10 million a season for many seasons.

    I don’t see how he’d make $100 million in his career playing football and the odds are that he’ll surpass $100 million playing baseball.

    Not that money means he likes playing baseball more than football…

    Only like 9 to 10 men in the NFL have earned more than $100 million for their careers.

    The NFL just doesn’t have many who’ve made that much although more are knocking on the door and well get there soon as the money keeps going up.

    Baseball has like 74 guys who’ve made $100 million or more in their careers and more keep getting added to the list all the time now.

    • jm91rs - Aug 19, 2014 at 12:04 PM

      For comparison, AJ Green is probably going to be getting around a $70 million deal (similar to Patrick Peterson’s new deal as a CB) and no one thought Samardzija was going to be an AJ Green level talent as a wide receiver. I think he’ll probably be getting $100 million or close as a free agent. Samardzija will be able to play longer, for more money, and other than his arm probably being shot after 10-15 years in the big leagues, he’ll probably be significantly healthier than a retired NFL receiver. The choice he made was definitely the right one.

      It’s a shame though that he didn’t try both, I really think the only way that will work in today’s sports is for the player to be a non-QB football player and a starting pitcher in baseball (probably wouldn’t play football until baseball was over for the year, but could at least work out and get into football shape as much as possible). For his marketability, he would be a huge star if he could successfully have done both.

      • bleedgreen - Aug 19, 2014 at 12:21 PM

        AJ Green’s “$70 Million” deal is far more likely to be in the area of $25Million guaranteed. That $70Million number are only attainable if he does things like wins the super bowl by himself 4 years in a row.

      • sportsfan18 - Aug 19, 2014 at 8:22 PM

        @ jm and bleedgreen

        you’re both right.

        Samardzija would not get a deal like A.J. Greene did in football and so many of those big NFL deals end before the player has collected all the money as they just get cut if their production goes down or they get hurt badly.

        If Jeff remains relatively healthy, he WILL earn more than $100 million in his MLB career.

  5. Wesley Clark - Aug 19, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    I would say that he chose wisely. He will make more money playing baseball and the toll on his body (concussions being the big deal here) will be a lot less than a career in the NFL. I really believe that we are going to see a shift in the next decade of parents not wanting their kids to play football if the concussion issue isn’t addressed.

    • thatsnuckinfuts - Aug 19, 2014 at 12:52 PM

      It’s already happened, Youth Football registration has been taking hits yearly and insurance rates for leagues have skyrocketed.

      • thatsnuckinfuts - Aug 19, 2014 at 12:56 PM

        Many youth leagues across the country have already disappeared. Cost too much for insurance, NFL fans who cry about the direction the NFL is going are as clueless as it gets. If they had it their way within 20 years the league talent level would be that of D2 players. They can’t make the connection that without kids choosing football or even having the option that someday the NFL will be affected. Lucky for these mental midgets the owners with their billions have done the research and have taken the league down a different path.

  6. irishlad19 - Aug 19, 2014 at 3:38 PM

    Samardzija made the right choice for all the reasons cited above, money, guaranteed contracts a longer career, less life-long injury issues.
    NFL owners who are smart will be selling soon, at the market top–legal, insurance and medical liabilities are going to hollow-out the sport in the next decade.

  7. delusionalcubsfan - Aug 19, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    The contract that Samardzija signed is no longer allowed by the current CBA. Would he still have chosen baseball if it had been $1MM instead of $10MM? And is the new CBA costing MLB access to potental future stars.

  8. nothanksimdriving123 - Aug 19, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    Not that I’m biased or anything, but if it takes someone more than 5 seconds to choose baseball over football, they should probably choose football.

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