In the fall of 2006, USC head coach Pete Carroll and assistant Steve Sarkisian learned of a senior wide receiver and cornerback at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, who went by Mike Stanton.
This senior, whose given name was Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton, was athletically blessed well beyond most 17-year-olds and just so happened to excel at three sports. His assumed craft was baseball, the sport many believed would win the eventual tug of war. He had a heck of a jump shot, too.
But his 6'5", 215-pound build—a frame begging for more weight—craved one thing: football.
"That was one of my schools, and I was very aware of who he was," Sarkisian told Bleacher Report. "He was a big, physical guy who was very competitive and came from a great program. We were very aware of him."
Interest trickled in from universities in multiple sports as Stanton was drafted in the second round—No. 76 overall—by the Marlins in 2007.
With guaranteed money on the table and the opportunity to play baseball professionally there for the taking, Stanton was handed a decision that would ultimately change his life: Take the colossal signing bonus and head to the minors, or stay close to home, attend USC and keep football in the rotation a while longer.
"My high school football coaches worked with NFL guys," Stanton said, citing Justin Fargas and others who shined at Notre Dame. "They watched me play against current NFL guys and believed I could have made it."
Instead of padding his bank account, Stanton shocked the baseball world, choosing to stay a multi-sport star a little longer. He bulked up and became one of the most dynamic tight ends to ever play at the collegiate level. He blossomed into an unguardable weapon in an offense that knew precisely how to take advantage of his speed and size, and over the three years he led USC to two Rose Bowls and 34 wins.
During the offseasons, he hit home runs out of collegiate stadiums that were not built to contain him. Some of his most memorable shots are still talked about in college towns. Somehow, the home runs get even longer each time the stories are told.
His love for football won the war. Stanton declared for the NFL draft after catching 12 TDs his junior year, and he was selected late in the first round by the New England Patriots. He said goodbye to baseball forever.
Stanton became a perennial Pro Bowler and guided the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory in February of 2014. His fourth-quarter touchdown catch over two defenders—a moment that will be shown in excess for generations—ultimately decided the outcome. The play has more than 60 million views on YouTube.
Not long after, Stanton signed the largest contract for a tight end in NFL history. And at 26, with productive years ahead, he remains one of the most dynamic weapons to ever play on Sundays.
Now, open your eyes.
Had Stanton, now well known as Giancarlo, taken the blue pill rather than the red one, perhaps that's how it would have been written.
The quotes above are authentic. The interest from storied college coaches and power programs captivated by Stanton's football potential was real. Stanton himself loved football a great deal. He also had abilities that would have translated brilliantly.
Many football programs stayed clear of the prodigy, simply because they assumed they had no shot to win his commitment. They weren't battling against a rival or another out-of-state power; they were up against another sport—one that could offer a lucrative signing bonus right away.
They weren't wrong to think that way. Had it not been for baseball, Stanton would have been a signing-day sensation.
With offers and interest to play football at places like USC and UNLV, Stanton picked the Marlins cap off the table, declared his commitment to baseball and shut the door on everything else.
"I picked baseball over football because of the opportunity," Stanton said. "I wanted to stick to one sport full-time for the first time in my life."
In November of 2014, after five superb seasons and 181 home runs, many soaring over outfield walls in cartoonish fashion, Stanton inked the most lucrative contract in North American sports history.
Over the 4,745 days under his new deal, Stanton will earn $2,853.88 every hour of every day. The 13-year agreement will pay the 26-year-old $325 million over the course of the deal.
"He could probably still play football," Sarkisian said. "But I think he made a really good choice."
Still, there was a choice to be made. There was a different path that went unexplored.
It has been years since Dayne Crist has connected with his former favorite target, although the two still speak when time allows. The former 5-star quarterback recruit logged hours at Notre Dame, Kansas and in the NFL before trading in his pads for a life in finance. But he will never forget the summer Stanton arrived in Sherman Oaks.
"I remember meeting him for the first time that summer, and he was just a specimen," Crist said. "Mike was just a stud. He was dominant in football, basketball and baseball."
After attending Verdugo Hills High School, Stanton joined Notre Dame High before his junior season. Stanton was known as a baseball prodigy before he became a star in anything else, and Crist witnessed his spectacular batter's-box power firsthand from more than 400 feet away.
During the spring, like many others on the football team, Crist ran track. Oftentimes during practices and meets, Crist and the others on the field would be asked to stop everything without warning. The track would be cleared.
This was the protocol when Stanton came to the plate. With one of the main straightaways of the track field backing up to left field of the baseball stadium, a walkie-talkie was used to alert the track teams every time Stanton stepped inside the batter's box.
Because he cleared the left field fence with such violent ease, the whole operation had to shut down until he was done.
"When kids would come run at our school, they would be confused as to why there was such a long delay," Crist said. "A ball would then plop near the 50-yard line, and we'd just kind of resume what we were doing. It had that great of an impact on everything else."
This past season, according to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, Stanton recorded the majors' two longest home runs, both measuring out at 484 feet.
He also connected on four of the 11 longest home runs despite playing in only 74 games while recovering from a broken bone in his hand.
If you were to design your dream high school tight end, No. 14 of Notre Dame would be it.
He had the body of a tight end. He had the mentality of a tight end. At 6'5", he looked like a dream red-zone weapon for a program breaking in its sophomore quarterback. Then they watched him run.
"He was just put together," Crist recalled. "Very quickly, we realized that he was much more athletic than we were giving him credit for."
Having coached at the school for more than 30 years, Notre Dame head football coach and athletic director Kevin Rooney has won 14 league championships and four CIF championships. He's one of the most respected high school coaches nationwide.
It was up to Rooney to determine how to use Stanton, and like everyone else, he knew little about his new player beyond his baseball prowess when he arrived. That changed quickly.
"We definitely took advantage of his height," Rooney said. "And the thing about him was that he had really good speed."
Instead of simply tossing Stanton on the line, Rooney moved him outside. Despite the first impressions, this was no tight end. This was a wide receiver.
Oftentimes, Stanton was the fastest player on the field.
During his senior year, Stanton caught 29 passes for 745 yards and 11 touchdowns—an average of more than 25 yards per catch. Although he could have simply relied on his physical gifts to get by most high school cornerbacks, Stanton was a route junkie. He dissected film and carefully perfected his patterns off the line.
Looking back at his numbers, it suddenly hit his former coach.
"I'm just wondering to myself why we didn't throw it to him more," Rooney said.
The most intriguing part of Stanton's football life, though, wasn't the time he spent on offense. It was when Notre Dame flipped over to the other side of the ball.
Built like a linebacker, Stanton played cornerback during his junior and senior seasons. To coincide with his production on offense, Stanton finished with 50 tackles and five interceptions his senior year.
"Try putting yourself in that predicament," Crist said. "Imagine you're a typical 5'9" wide receiver in high school lining up against this massive human being. He just absolutely destroyed people off the line."
At wideout, Stanton once matched up against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in the CIF Southern Section Division III title. Sherman attended Dominguez High School in Compton, and Notre Dame didn't have much of an answer for the power on this particular day.
"They gave us a beatdown my junior year," Stanton recalled.
At cornerback, it was up to Stanton to cover Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino tight end Joseph Fauria, who played for the Patriots this past year. He was also tasked with slowing down running back Shane Vereen, the former Valencia High School star who caught 11 passes in New England's Super Bowl victory in the 2014 season.
"My job was to shadow them," Stanton said. "Everywhere they went."
Kicking off the 2006 season against nationally ranked California power Canyon High School, Notre Dame found itself down a touchdown with only seconds remaining in a nationally televised game.
The huddle scattered as the play was delivered from Crist. Before heading out to his spot on the line, Stanton approached his quarterback.
"He grabbed me before the play and told me that I knew where to throw the ball," Crist said. "He told me that if I went anywhere else with the ball, he'd kill me."
Crist skied a pass in Stanton's direction. The wideout, after demanding the opportunity, came down with the extraordinary touchdown. Notre Dame was within a point.
Tying the game was not a consideration. With an opportunity to beat the eventual state champion, Rooney drew up a two-point conversion.
Just like he did moments earlier, Stanton confronted his quarterback shortly before the play. He delivered a direct but similar dispatch: Get me the ball.
Crist tossed up a fade and Stanton soared above the defender to grab it off a cloud. Notre Dame won by a point. Within a matter of minutes, Stanton singlehandedly conquered one of the nation's elite programs.
"I don't think he had an idea of how good he could be at the time," Rooney said. "It took a while to bring that out of him."
All that remains of Stanton's football career are memories shared by a select few and unexplored potential.
"From my experience, he could have played anywhere in the country," Crist said, speaking of his former wide receiver. "With the right coaching and development, who knows where he would have been? He could have very easily played on Sundays."
His decision to cut his football career short worked out brilliantly. There are 325 million confirmations. Beyond the small fortune he will take home over the next decade-plus, Stanton has become his sport's greatest spectacle.
Each and every plate appearance is a singular moment—a rare event that commands the attention of the entire sporting world. It is a track-and-field meet in California all over again.
His at-bats are nightly spectacles—moments of raw power unmatched by anyone in the sport. His home runs cannot simply be defined by runs. It is one of the rare moments when the scoreboard is secondary.
And in the field, he tracks down deep fly balls with a rare bit of violent grace—looking more like Rob Gronkowski than Alex Gordon. He is beautifully out of place. He is a baseball wunderkind, operating in a body that was constructed for something else.
"I felt like he could have had a great future in football," Rooney said. "He's that kind of an athlete. He grew into a prototypical NFL tight end."
Blessed with too many gifts for one lifetime, things have worked out exceedingly well for the young man who used to go by Mike.
It's no wonder why many college football coaches stayed away. They knew.
There is still so much more to come, although those who saw the superstar in this other world—a world that now feels more fantasy than reality—can't help but wonder what might have been.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report.
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