Last week the Texas Rangers drafted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson during the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft at the conclusion of baseball’s winter meetings. It wasn’t entirely a gimmick to garner attention by the Rangers, since Wilson has previously played professional baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization prior to playing in the NFL. But I doubt that the Rangers have high hopes of convincing Wilson to change sports at this time, considering his current success as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Or even persuading him to play baseball during the football off-season.
But don’t automatically rule out any possibilities. As improbable as it may sound, in fact, there is some history of cross-over between the two sports by professional athletes. Two of the most noteworthy examples are Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, both of whom played in Major League Baseball and the NFL at the same time. There have also been a number of other two-sport players, although not as successful in both. Nevertheless, being able to play professionally in two sports requires exceptional athleticism.
Russell Wilson was first drafted out of high school by a Major League club in 2007, in the 40th round by the Baltimore Orioles, but he chose to attend college. In 2010, while playing baseball at North Carolina State University, he was selected by the Rockies in the fourth round. He played two seasons of Single-A ball as a second baseman, but managed to hit only .229 and five home runs in 93 games. At the same time, he was also playing football at NC State. In 2011, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 2011 to play football, where the Seahawks drafted him in the3rd round in 2012.
When Bo Jackson left Auburn University in 1986, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Not wanting to play for the hapless Bucs, he opted to pursue professional baseball with the Kansas City Royals who had drafted him in the fourth round that year. He was called up to the big league club in September 1986, and he went on to play eight seasons in the Major Leagues, including one All-Star season in 1989. In 1987, the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL drafted Jackson in the seventh round, and he played with them for four seasons, including one All-Pro season. Jackson was successful in using his power and speed in both sports. As an outfielder, he hit 31 home runs one season, and as a running back, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry during his career. However, his career in both sports was cut short when he was plagued by hip injuries. He actually attempted a brief return to baseball after hip replacement surgery.
Deion Sanders was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 1988 Major League Draft in the 30th round and began his professional baseball career that season. He was the fifth overall pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 1989 NFL draft. He began playing both sports in 1989, and once hit a Major League home run and scored an NFL touchdown in the same week. Sanders was later signed by the Atlanta Braves, where he played in the 1992 World Series. In all, he played nine seasons in the Majors and fourteen seasons in the NFL, where he was voted to the Football Hall of Fame as a cornerback and kick returner.
Brian Jordan played three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons as a defensive back, while he was also pursuing a professional baseball career. He switched permanently to baseball after his 1991 NFL season, and wound up playing fifteen seasons in the Majors as an outfielder, including one All-Star season and one appearance in the World Series.
Football Hall of Famer John Elway signed to play baseball with the New York Yankees organization in 1982 after being drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts as the first overall pick in the 1982 draft. Elway refused to sign with the Colts and used a season in baseball to defer his arrival in the NFL so that he could sign with a different team. In one season of Single-A ball with the Yankees, he hit a respectable .318 in 42 games. In 1983, the quarterback signed with the Denver Broncos for whom he went on to play sixteen seasons, including two Super Bowl championships.
A second-round Major League Draft pick out of high school in 1990, Chris Weinke tried his hand at professional baseball for six seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization before starting his college football career at age 26, playing for Florida State University. The quarterback was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 2000 and later played four seasons in the NFL. Weinke never appeared in a Major League Baseball game.
Ricky Williams played four seasons of professional baseball while attending college at the University of Texas on a football scholarship. In the Philadelphia Phillies minor league organization from 1995-1998, Williams never played above the Single-A level, and wound up dropping the sport after he was selected as the fifth overall pick of the New Orleans Saints in the 1999 draft. Williams played eleven seasons in the NFL, rushing for over 10,000 yards in his career and making the All-Pro Team in 2002.
An All-State football and baseball player at a Louisiana high school, Josh Booty chose baseball after being drafted by the Florida Marlins as the fifth overall pick in the 1994 Major League Draft. He played in only 13 big league games over three seasons with the Marlins and finally gave it up to return to football. He played quarterback for two seasons at LSU in 1999 and 2000. Booty was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 6th round of the NFL 2001 draft, but never played in the NFL’s regular season.
The most recent Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2012, and he also plays baseball at Florida State University. A pitcher/outfielder on the 2013 Seminoles team, Winston, who says he plans to play baseball again this coming spring, was quoted as saying he “wanted to be better than Bo Jackson.”
The above examples of two-sport stars all occurred in the past 30 years. Going further back to the 1950s and 1960s, some Major League Baseball players who enjoyed stellar college football careers included Jackie Jensen, Carroll Hardy, Harry Agganis, Chuck Essegian, and Jake Gibbs.
Other former Major Leaguers who also played professional football include Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, Ace Parker, and Tom Yewcic.
So don’t count out Russell Wilson just yet. If he and his Seahawks teammates win a Super Bowl this year, he just may be looking for his next challenge to be in baseball.