Notre Dame Football: What If Jeff Samardzija Had Kept Playing Football?

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterJuly 16, 2014

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 4:  Jeff Samardzija #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish carries the ball during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels on November 4, 2006 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Tuesday night, Jeff Samardzija took part in his first All-Star Game.

Kind of. 

The right-handed pitcher, who was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Oakland A's after being named to the National League roster, was ineligible to play in the game. But his early season efforts—a 2.83 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 17 starts with Chicago—were enough to send him to Minneapolis to take part in the Midsummer Classic, even if he was a man technically without a team. 

For Samardzija, the 2014 season has cemented his reputation as one of baseball's best young pitchers. The 6'5", 225-pounder out of Notre Dame took a while to get there, though, spending six seasons in Wrigleyville before becoming the ace former general manager Jim Hendry thought he signed to a major league contract in January 2007, just weeks after Samardzija played wide receiver for Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. 

Samardzija was relegated to watching the All-Star festivities.
Samardzija was relegated to watching the All-Star festivities.USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs had taken a flier on Samardzija, drafting him in the fifth round just months after he was a consensus All-American wide receiver for the Irish. And after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons made him one of the highest-profile receivers in the country, a five-year, $10 million guaranteed contract made him walk away from football.  

With Samardzija in Oakland as GM Billy Beane makes another unlikely push to the postseason, what better time to look back and wonder what would've happened had the former Irish All-American chosen to play in the NFL?

NFL Draft Stock

How difficult of a decision was it for Samardzija to give up football? Consider that while he didn't come off the board until the fifth round in baseball's draft, he entered 2006 with just about everybody thinking he was a lock for the NFL draft's first round. 

He was in Mel Kiper's top 10 picks (subscription required) on his big board. Former college teammate Tom Zbikowksi, after playing half a decade in the NFL, told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune that Samardzija was "a cross between Plaxico Burress and Keyshawn Johnson—with a mix of Ed McCaffrey just because he’s white."

Samardzija was a two-time Biletnikoff Award finalist, and at 6'5", he had the height that NFL teams covet and the speed and athleticism that helped him score 28 touchdowns over his final two seasons. 

"It was clear to everybody that he was going to be a first-round pick if he'd have stayed with football," college teammate Ryan Harris told me. "If you look at any of the games we played, he was a dominant, dominant receiver for us."

Wide Receivers taken in the first round of 2007 NFL Draft
Calvin JohnsonLions2nd9.32866
Ted Ginn Jr.Dolphins9th2,60411
Dwayne BoweChiefs23rd6,40144
Robert MeachemSaints27th2,80027
Craig "Buster" Davis**Chargers30th5582
Anthony Gonzalez**Colts32nd1,3077
**Out of Football

Looking at the 2007 NFL draft, Calvin Johnson stood out as the dominant receiver available. But a look at the receivers that went in the first two rounds and it isn't hard to think that Samardzija not only would've been taken before most of them, but he'd have likely put up better numbers as well.

After contacting Notre Dame, the school wasn't able to find any official testing numbers, putting Samardzija's true speed and jumping ability into question. So while we're left to wonder just how impressive he would've been in spandex, it likely wouldn't have done anything to hurt his work in shoulder pads

In one of the biggest trades of the year, Oakland traded for Samardzija.
In one of the biggest trades of the year, Oakland traded for Samardzija.USA TODAY Sports

An Accidental Baseball Star

In Samardzija's first two years in South Bend, he looked like a much better baseball player than football player. With Tyrone Willingham as the Irish head coach, Samardzija put up just 24 catches for 327 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons, failing to get into the end zone.

But he showed promise on the mound, and after being named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and leading the pitching staff in wins as a sophomore—even while taking part in Charlie Weis' first spring football practices—former Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri knew he had something special.

But Samardzija's breakout 2005 football season made it difficult for the Irish baseball coach to pry his ace away from Weis. In a profile for Fox Sports, Sam Gardner talked with Mainieri, now the head coach at LSU, about some bartering he did for Samardzija's services with Weis:

Mainieri approached Weis about allowing Samardzija to focus on baseball that spring instead of football. However, the immediate response from Weis, who had  led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl in his first season in South Bend, was not necessarily favorable.

"Charlie looked at me like I had three eyes and said, ‘Why would I want to do that?'" said Mainieri, now the coach at LSU. "And I said, 'Because I think you owe it to this kid to give him the chance to be the very best baseball player that he can be, to find out what he can do in baseball.'

"Because if he’s running pass patterns and getting beat up in spring football practice and then we’re asking him to go out there and pitch on the weekends when he’s not able to do all of the proper side work and preparation, like a true pitcher would be doing, he’s never going to fulfill his true potential. So I thought we needed to let (Jeff) find out if he was good enough to compete at the highest level."

Samardzija made 15 starts in his junior year, making the transition from thrower to pitcher as he went 8-2 for the Irish. The Irish head coach also went out on a ledge with one of his best friends in baseball, then-Cubs GM Jim Hendry, and told him to take a chance on Samardzija. 

"I told Jim that this kid was the greatest athlete I’d ever coached and more than that—I don’t know how you define the word 'it' but he has it,” Mainieri told Fox Sports.

"I had so much faith in this kid that I told my best friend that he’s worth taking the risk on, and so Jim did it. The other clubs probably thought Jim was crazy. Nobody wanted to draft Jeff because nobody believed that Jeff was willing to skip going to the NFL and the big money to go through the minor league system. But I knew this kid, and I knew that he was willing to do it."

A Decision Worth Making

Notre Dame's 2006 team was one of the more talented squads of the post-Lou Holtz era. Brady Quinn survived a draft slide and still went in the first round. Defensive end Victor Abiamiri was selected in the second round. Ryan Harris was taken in the third. Derek Landri, Dan Santucci, and Chinedum Ndukwe were late-round picks. John Carlson, Trevor Laws, Tommy Zbikowski and John Sullivan were taken in 2008.   

But as Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated points out, from Samardzija's draft class, only Harris is still playing football (and after speaking with Harris on Tuesday, even his future is uncertain):

Seven Notre Dame players were drafted in 2007. Samardzija would have made it eight had he not signed a five-year, $7.25-million deal with the Cubs in 2006. Of those seven, only one is still in football (Texans tackle Ryan Harris) and five of the other six had their careers shortened or ended by injury. First-rounder QB Brady Quinn missed three weeks with a concussion in 2012 when he was with the Chiefs. Second-round defensive end Victor Abiamari tore his Achilles with the Eagles in 2011 and hasn’t played since. Fifth-round defensive tackle Derek Landri missed part of 2013 with the Bucs with a sprained MCL and hasn’t found a home since being released in February. Seventh-rounder Dan Santucci’s injury-plagued career effectively ended when he went down with a foot injury for the Bengals during the 2009 preseason. And seventh-round safety Chinedum Ndukwe hasn’t played since re-injuring his knee as a Raider in 2011.

As Samardzija played his senior season on the football field, he knew he had to make a decision when the year was finished. But he didn't let it become a distraction to the team, something Harris said was a credit to Samardzija as a teammate.

"He was a great teammate. A fierce competitor," Harris remembers. "Everybody that played with him—either baseball or football—is just really happy for him."

After some struggles in the minor leagues and early in his days with Chicago, Samardzija has become the pitcher Mainieri and Hendry envisioned. He's also made a lot of money. According to Baseball-Reference, Samardzija has made just shy of $23 million as a ballplayer, including $5.3 million this season.

He's going to make a lot more.

Samardzija reportedly turned down a five-year offer from the Cubs that would've paid somewhere in the range of $75-$80 million.  

That kind of money made the decision to play baseball easy. 

"If Jeff had to make that decision 10 times, every football player will tell you to play baseball 10 times out of 10," Harris said with a laugh. "You can play baseball quite a long time, and it's all guaranteed." 

We'll likely never see Samardzija play football on Sundays. So while we're forced to wonder what could have been, at least there's still YouTube

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.  


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