Samardzija reflects on choosing MLB over NFL

Giants right-hander had potential as two-sport star at Notre Dame

February 28th, 2018

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On July 25, Jeff Samardzija will observe a personal and professional milestone: the 10th anniversary of his Major League debut.

Samardzija doesn't expect to host an elaborate party or spend the day reminiscing. The time for that, he said, will be when he's a 60-year-old retiree. But sometime that day, as Samardzija's Giants conclude an Interleague road trip in Seattle, the right-hander may pause to appreciate a decision well made.

As a two-sport star at Notre Dame, Samardzija could have pursued a career in the NFL. Instead, about seven months after the Cubs chose him in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft, he signed a five-year contract worth a reported $10 million, on the condition that he commit to baseball full-time. Now Samardzija is about to begin the third season of a five-year, $90 million contract with the Giants.

During a conversation last weekend at Scottsdale Stadium, Samardzija was asked how many college football contemporaries he sees regularly on television during autumn Sundays.

"Marcedes Lewis," Samardzija said of the Jacksonville Jaguars tight end. "[Brian] Cushing -- I played against him. ... Clay Matthews ... Donte Whitner -- I loved playing against him at Ohio State. Arian Foster was another guy. He's done.

"They're all done. Or if they're still there, they're on their way out. And I just signed my new deal. ... Knock on wood, my body's not telling me, 'Hey, you can't do this.'"

Samardzija, who recently turned 33 years old, would have been part of the 2007 NFL Draft class. According to, 95 players have appeared in each of the most recent 11 NFL seasons, from 2007 to present. Of that group, 12 are quarterbacks.

Nearly the same number of baseball players, 92, have appeared in all of the past 11 Major League seasons. (Notably, NFL rosters are nearly twice the size of MLB rosters.)

As a former All-American wide receiver, MLB All-Star pitcher and new father, Samardzija offers a unique perspective on the national discussion surrounding football's concussion crisis, care for pitching arms and specialization in youth sports.

In addition to football and baseball, Samardzija also played three seasons of basketball at Valparaiso (Ind.) High School. Due to Indiana's climate and his summer football obligations, he estimates that he threw no more than 30 competitive innings per calendar year in high school.

"Obviously, you should play as many sports at a young age [as you can]," Samardzija said. "You shouldn't be specializing -- unless it's the kid's choice. If the kid's like, 'This is it, and I want to go all-in,' then so be it.

"But you're only going to be so good, anyway, right? If you choose to get that much better at a young age, then you'll peak earlier. I feel like the best thing for me was -- and in negotiations -- is I could always negotiate that I had a young arm. I still had something to learn. It keeps you young in the grand scheme of things -- maybe not by age, but I had a lot less [wear and tear] on my arm. They can say, 'He's still going to get better.'

"Whereas if you did baseball your whole life, you live in the South, that's all you've ever done -- they've got the book on you. They can tell how the projections are going to go and who you are. I like to keep people guessing."

As Samardzija looks back, he sees two significant benefits of being a two-sport athlete at Notre Dame: contract leverage at the start of his pro sports career and excused absences from football practices.

"There was value in them having to buy me out of football," he said. "Luckily, I was good enough at football that I carried leverage. But you can also just say you love it, and they've got to buy you out of that love.

"It keeps you fresh, too. You don't get burned out on any one thing. I was the type of person that would get burned out if I did the same thing over and over. I always enjoyed a new season in different sports.

"In college, it was great. I was always missing [spring] football workouts. That was another reason I played baseball, too. It was a game every day. I hated practice. Football practice is a slow death. It's the worst. It's repetitive."

Samardzija didn't cite football's injury risk as the determinative factor in his choice to sign with the Cubs. He simply enjoyed baseball more -- on and off the field.

"This is a football country," he said. "I usually get asked in a 'You're an idiot' manner about why I decided to play baseball. People love football, man. They just can't understand having the ability to do it and not do it. It blows their minds.

"I made the decision because when I went and played baseball, I loved it. I didn't know I had that love for the game. But then I went back for my senior year of football [after playing briefly in the Cubs farm system during the summer of 2006]. I was able to weigh the two right next to each other, and it really wasn't even close."

Samardzija said football had been his primary focus from age 7 until college. He attended Notre Dame on a football scholarship. The constant attention to football, Samardzija said, resulted in a "ho-hum excitement level for it" by the end of his time in South Bend. Baseball offered "more excitement every day" and a culture in which he felt more comfortable.

"I like how you're treated in baseball," he said. "You're treated like a man. Show up on your time. It's your career. They don't hold your hand as much as football. That always bugged me about football -- meetings and things like that. I know what I'm doing wrong. You don't need to reiterate it to me that I'm [messing] up.

"From what I've heard, individuality and free-thinking is frowned upon [in the NFL]. Being your own man is not what they want. I think they want people to fall in line, toe the line and not ask questions on why they're toeing the line. Talking to some buddies, I know a couple guys have been told they're too smart for the NFL. In that aspect, [baseball] was the right choice for me. I felt like I had a higher ceiling in baseball and more hunger for it."

One day, perhaps, Samardzija will confront the question many American parents consider: Knowing all he does about the injury risk in football, will he allow his son to play?

"I wouldn't tell him he couldn't play," he said. "That's where I stand on it. I'm not going to drive him to the football field, make him run routes, teach him how to read defenses -- things like that. But if he's at school and his buddies are playing, I'm not going to stop my kid from doing something he loves to do.

"There's consequences at the end of the tunnel for everything, whether it's your knee or your head or your shoulder. In professional sports, you're offering your body up as a sacrifice for the glory you get out of playing the game -- not to mention the money, which is amazing. It's all relative to me. You have to weigh your options in that given scenario.

"If for some reason he loves [football] and wants to do it, I'll probably guide him to be a quarterback or a wide receiver. I got dinged up a couple times, but it wasn't like those guys in the middle, linebackers and running backs. It's tough -- and to not be valued, on top of that. And you have to be that way, as an organization, if you want to win. If you lose a step, you're gone."

Samardzija said he thinks about football friends who've sought professional help in recent years -- not for concussions or drug use, specifically, but "to get back into society," as he described it.

"It's not easy," Samardzija continued. "For a lot of these guys, it's all they've got. All they've done their whole life is football. And then that's gone. Then you still have all that competitive passion and fire, that live-or-die mentality, and it's tough to transition. Then if you did get into painkillers, you're multiplying the factors.

"And no one's cutting them any breaks. No one helps them out. They're not getting help from the teams when they're done playing. The fans aren't giving them any help by appreciating what they did for six years, because that wasn't 12 years and a Hall of Fame career. So, who are you? It's tough."

Samardzija will earn $18 million to pitch for the Giants this year. Only 18 NFL players have salary cap hits in excess of that for the 2018 season, according to the salary database. Samardzija is 68-87 with a 4.10 ERA in his career and believes he's only now approaching his full potential in baseball.

For so many years, Samardzija struggled to throw strikes. Now, with an increasingly consistent delivery, he's able to focus on locating quality strikes within the zone. Samardzija has developed confidence in his curveball, a pitch he didn't begin throwing until two seasons ago.

As of 2014, Samardzija relied on a sinker, split-fingered fastball and slider. Now he's throwing a four-seamer, cutter, sinker, curveball, slider and splitter. And despite leading the National League with 15 losses last year, the overall trend -- especially from an analytical perspective -- was encouraging: Samardzija produced 3.8 Wins Above Replacement in 2017, according to, the second-best mark in any season of his career.

"It's this big painting you put together," he said. "In the end, it gets a little more clear, and it all kind of comes together.

"I enjoy this game. That's the great thing about it: You never quite get a full grasp on it, but it feels great when you get a little bit of a grasp."

And as Samardzija's football peers fade from the professional game, he is able to consider a happier question: With his body offering no suggestion that the end of his career is approaching, how much longer does he want to keep playing the sport he chose?

Samardzija answered with a shrug -- on his own terms.

"Just see what happens, see how long you can go," he said. "To me, that's what it's all about: Where's the end of the wick? Who knows? Let's find out. That's the fun of it all."