10 who picked diamond over gridiron

February 11th, 2023

A version of this story originally ran in January 2022.

As another Super Bowl approaches, this seems like the perfect time to reminisce about what could have been for some former Major League stars.

Most fans are familiar with two-way stars like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who spent time in both the NFL and MLB, but what about guys who gave up potential NFL careers in their pursuit to play professional baseball?

The following is a look at just 10 former big leaguers who either played college football at some of the most prestigious programs in the country or passed up big-time scholarships in favor of making it to The Show.

Mickey Mantle

If not for a freak injury, it's possible Mantle -- a seven-time World Series champion -- would have spent his career pursuing the Lombardi Trophy. A star running back in high school, he had already received a scholarship offer from the football powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners as an underclassman. That all changed when a 14-year-old Mantle was kicked in the lower leg by a teammate during a football practice. When his ankle swelled and he developed a high fever, Mantle's parents rushed him to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with osteomyelitis -- a potentially fatal bone disease that had been aggravated by the injury. Though doctors initially believed they would have to amputate the leg to save his life, a second opinion suggested to instead treat him with a then-brand new drug called penicillin. The swelling went down within a week, but Mantle never again played football, instead settling for a Hall of Fame baseball career that included three MVP Awards.

Jackie Robinson

Prior to becoming a trailblazer in Major League Baseball, Robinson was a four-sport star at UCLA, where he lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track. Surprisingly, he struggled a bit on the diamond, hitting .097 in 1940 -- but he was sensational on the football field. Robinson was the nation's leading punt returner in both 1939 and '40, while also leading UCLA in passing, rushing and scoring as a senior. His name remains prominently featured in the UCLA football record book, including for the most yards per carry by any player in a single season (12.2).

Dave Winfield

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 youth leagues. While Winfield was a two-sport athlete at the University of Minnesota, his sports of choice 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 championship in basketball.

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 has acknowledged that he never actually considered the offer to play football. In fact, he always intended to play baseball, though he admits he used the basketball option simply as a negotiation tool in his talks with the Padres.

Kirk Gibson

Long before hitting one of the most iconic home runs in MLB history, Gibson was garnering attention at Michigan State as one of the top receivers in collegiate football. He led MSU in receiving for three straight seasons from 1976-78, and he departed as the school's all-time leader in receptions (112), receiving yards (2,347) and touchdown receptions (24). Gibson was named to the All-America Team as a senior in '78 -- the same year he received All-America honors on the baseball diamond. Gibson was selected by the Tigers with the No. 12 pick in the 1978 Draft, and he went on to hit 255 home runs over 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.

Todd Helton

Prior to 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 time, ahead of -- Peyton Manning at the University of Tennessee. Helton received a scholarship to play both baseball and football for the Volunteers, and he spent his first two seasons backing up Heath Shuler, who went on to become the No. 3 overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jerry Colquitt began the next season as the starter, but when he went down with an early-season injury, it was Helton -- not Manning, a true freshman at the time -- who got the call. Ultimately, Helton was taken with the No. 8 pick in the '95 MLB Draft, and he went on to become the Rockies' all-time leader in hits, home runs, RBIs, doubles, total bases, runs scored and games played. Manning, meanwhile, assumed the starting role the following year and never looked back on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Frank Thomas

Many believe the Big Hurt could have just easily inflicted his pain on NFL defenders instead of MLB pitchers. Thomas, one of the top tight ends in the country coming out of high school, attended Auburn University on a football scholarship, though it came with the agreement that he would also play baseball. After sustaining an ankle injury during his freshman football season, however, Thomas made the decision to focus full-time on baseball. Pat Dye, Auburn's head football coach at the time, fully supported the move -- even continuing to honor his football scholarship -- and has gone on the record saying he believes Thomas would have been immortalized in Canton, as opposed to Cooperstown, had he stuck with football.

Joe Mauer

Mauer is one of the few players on this list who did not play football collegiately -- but he certainly could have. The Twins legend threw for 5,528 yards and 73 touchdowns in two seasons as the starting quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn. Considered by most recruiting experts to be the top quarterback in his class, Mauer looked poised to follow in the footsteps of 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke -- who also starred in both 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.

Adam Dunn

When the Reds selected Dunn in the second round of the 1998 MLB Draft, both parties knew of his plans to play football at the University of Texas. A star quarterback at New Caney High School in Texas, Dunn worked out a deal with the Reds to play Minor League baseball in the summer before returning to Austin to prepare for football season. He ultimately redshirted his freshman season behind starter Major Applewhite, but Texas then asked Dunn to switch to tight end after receiving a commitment from star QB recruit Chris Simms the following year. Dunn instead opted to switch his focus entirely to baseball, making his MLB debut in 2001 and his first All-Star appearance in '02 on his way to hitting 462 career home runs.

Darin Erstad

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 top punters in the country, averaging 42.6 yards per punt, while also going 10-for-10 on extra points and kicking three field goals for the '94 club. He rounded out that academic year by hitting .410 with 19 homers and 76 RBIs for the school's baseball team the following spring. Erstad was named a first-team All-American and Big Eight Co-Player of the Year, as well as a Golden Spikes Award finalist. He was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Angels following that impressive '95 campaign, finishing 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).

Despite winning that national title at Nebraska, Erstad poked fun at his football career after being involved in a violent collision with Braves catcher Johnny Estrada at home plate in 2005. Asked if a hard-nosed play like that was indicative of his football mentality, Erstad said: "I wasn't a football player. I was a punter."

Jeff Samardzija

Samardzija is one of the rare players on this list who may have had a better collegiate career on the gridiron than the diamond. Playing at one of the premier football programs in the country, Samardzija capped his football career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He wasn't too bad on the mound either, going 16-3 with a 4.13 ERA over his last two years.

He was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft, though many believe he would have gone higher if not for the uncertainty surrounding his football career. Samardzija proceeded to catch 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 committed fully to baseball, signing a five-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs.