Jeff Samardzija Could've Been an NFL Star, but MLB Gave Him $120M Minus the Pain

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 10, 2017

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija warms up prior to a spring training baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

One by one, they've faded away. Almost all of Jeff Samardzija's football-playing peers. Calvin Johnson. Brady Quinn. Reggie Bush. Matt Leinart. The names flip by as if from a ragged stack of football cards, relics from a bygone era.

They are still young men, all in their early 30s. But the sport of football has very little patience for 30, an age when it is quick to usher its own off to the broadcast booth, or to charity work, or home to families. Someplace, anyplace, that is not on the field.

Meanwhile, here in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse and just getting warm in the second season of a five-year, $90 million deal, Samardzija pauses from completing a crossword puzzle long enough for me to take inventory of his body. Fingers? Pristine. Knees? One piece. Hips? Check.

He smiles knowingly as I poke and prod, no medical license in sight. Long ago, he determined a civilized career in baseball easily outstrips the bumper-cars life of playing in the NFL. Reinforcement of that decision took some time. It wasn't until Johnson unexpectedly walked away from the Detroit Lions in March 2016 that Samardzija felt like the pigskin finally had stopped taunting him.

"Signing this contract was big for me," Samardzija, who has started the season 0-5 with a 5.44 ERA, tells B/R. "I'm not a big money guy or anything, but when there is a definitive moment you can point to and say, 'This is when it made itself a better decision,' you can relax.

"I'm not fighting that ghost anymore, trying to live up to not playing football. Which is tough, man. Baseball is tough enough, and then to throw more on your shoulders to perform better for a reason that's only in your own head is tough. It was good to kick that."

Samardzija always thought he and Johnson were mirror images. They were in the same draft class. They finished one-two in the 2006 Biletnikoff Award voting for the college football's best receiver, Johnson winning with Samardzija right behind him. ("He was robbed," Brady Quinn, Samardzija's quarterback at Notre Dame, tells B/R. "He should have won. He had a better year.") Their senior seasons in '06, Samardzija and Johnson were spotlight players when Notre Dame, then ranked No. 2 in the country, opened with a pulsating 14-10 victory over Georgia Tech.

"I was always a big fan of watching [Johnson] play," Samardzija says. "To watch him go down a couple of years ago for a finger that really didn't look too good, seeing pictures of it, it's different.

Jeff Samardzija caught 78 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Notre Dame in 2006.
Jeff Samardzija caught 78 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Notre Dame in 2006.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"It helps me in my decision, and how I sleep at night."

How Samardzija sleeps at night is in one piece, and at peace. Nothing throbbing, nothing swollen and no residual pain from yesterday's game…or the one before that…or last week's full-pads practice.

And how he wakes up each morning is without any surgical scars, and with no need for painkillers.

"I don't watch a lot of baseball, but it's good to see his name when I do," Johnson tells B/R. "Hey man, I remember that guy because we were the tops at our position at the time.

"It's cool because football, as much as it gives, it takes away a lot, too. If the fact that he can sleep better at night knowing his body is going to be better off playing baseball than football, then that's a good thing."

It was 10 years ago that Samardzija would have gone high in the NFL draft, likely as a late first-round or early second-round pick. But the Chicago Cubs got to him first, with then-general manager Jim Hendry and his assistant, Randy Bush (still with the Cubs front office today), laying a recruiting pitch on Samardzija that would have been the envy of any college football program.

Not only do baseball careers last far longer than football careers, they emphasized, but baseball contracts are guaranteed. The NFL's aren't. Though you'll likely spend a couple of years in the minor leagues, they told him, and though you'll probably be frustrated at times, your earning power eventually will be far greater in baseball. And the MLB players' union is a strong force, they noted, far better than the NFL's, which you will find to be another enormous benefit.

"Jim Hendry and Randy Bush did a great job of vocalizing to me the positives of baseball, and that's black and white," Samardzija says. "A lot of times, you don't like to talk about money and things like that, but good negotiators and good front office guys who meet with me understand that I like straight talk. Just tell me how it is, and I can make a decision from there.

"They told me a lot of good things about baseball, and now the older I get and realize they weren't lying, it's pretty cool."

Samardzija is 32 now, but he's far from planting himself in somebody's broadcast booth. In his 10th major league season and with his fourth organization, each day continues to deliver a new possibility. Lifetime, he is 59-76 with a 4.08 ERA. Talk to scouts and they rave about his stuff while pointing out the potential he still hasn't reached. In his debut season in San Francisco last summer, he went 12-11 with a 3.81 ERA over 203.1 innings pitched.

Samardzija threw 203 1/3 innings for the Giants last season after signing a five-year contract in December 2015.
Samardzija threw 203 1/3 innings for the Giants last season after signing a five-year contract in December 2015.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

"He carried a heavy load of quality innings for us last year," Giants manager Bruce Bochy says. "I like Shark and what he did for us.

"He's a tough competitor. Maybe he got that from football."

When he cut the cord with that other sport, Samardzija eliminated an irreplaceable piece of his life. He knew he would miss the spectacle of game day, all of those college football Saturdays that he treasured and all of those NFL Sundays that he never would experience. Daydreaming maybe was the most difficult part, because he couldn't tame all of those wild thoughts, and he sure as heck had questions piling up that couldn't be answered.

The Cubs picked Samardzija in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB draft (149th overall). After his senior season at Notre Dame, he signed a five-year, $10 million deal. One predictable stipulation: If he returned to football, he would have to pay most of that money back to the Cubs.

At the time, Quinn was not shocked by Samardzija's decision.

"Jeff was always going to be successful whatever he chose," says Quinn, now a college football and NFL analyst for Fox Sports. "The type of athlete he was, his determination, whether it was football or baseball, he was going to be successful.

"Obviously, the financial aspect of baseball was better. He saw that, and you're seeing that now."

As Samardzija pitches today, ensconced in the Giants rotation, his smile comes easy and things are comfortable. But it certainly wasn't always this way. From 2008-10, the Cubs kept calling his number on fly patterns that routed him from the major leagues to the minors.

Whatever he did in the Cubs' systemstart, relievehe couldn't find permanence in the bigs. Meanwhile, Johnson reached his first of six NFL Pro Bowls in 2010. Bush's New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. That so many of his former football measuring sticks were thriving wasn't making it any easier.

"Really, '09 and '10 were tough years for me," Samardzija says. "That's probably the closest I ever came to heading back to football. But having the confidence of the front office at the time, and that was Jim Hendry, Randy Bush and Lou Piniella as my manager, all the feedback I kept getting from them was fight it out, it's going to be a rough go in the beginning because you're so far behind."

Though he debuted in the Cubs' system in 2006 with Class A affiliates in Boise, Idaho, and Peoria, Illinois, he skipped the Instructional League that fall for his senior season at Notre Dame. At that point, football always had been the dominant sport for Samardzija, shading the sunlight from the rest of his life.

After appearing in only seven games in 2010 before the Cubs sent him to the minors, Samardzija entertained the idea of trying to hook on with an NFL team.
After appearing in only seven games in 2010 before the Cubs sent him to the minors, Samardzija entertained the idea of trying to hook on with an NFL team.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

"You miss a lot," he says of playing catch-up in baseball. "So I needed to learn a little bit more, have faith that there was a reason [the Cubs] signed me, and sometimes you've got to have that behind you to push you through the tough times."

And few tested him more than a meeting with Piniella in April 2010. The Cubs were in New York for a series against the Mets, and though he had broken camp with the big club, Samardzija was summoned into the manager's CitiField office and told he was being optioned back to the minors. Again.

Not since he walked off the field for the final time at Notre Dame following a 41-14 Sugar Bowl drubbing by Louisiana State University on Jan. 3, 2007, had football looked so temptingly nostalgic.

"That's probably the closest I got," Samardzija says. "I was 25, still felt good, was still in shape and there was still a demand for me. [Football] teams were calling all the time.

"But for me, it came down to that moment where I didn't always want to be in the middle. I didn't want to give a little time to baseball, have it not work out, go to football and be behind because I hadn't played in three years and then be mediocre at that."

He had paid attention as others tried to play two sports, only to sink in the quicksand of indecision.

There was Drew Henson, the University of Michigan quarterback who pulled the ripcord on a sputtering minor league career in the New York Yankees' system for the NFL, only to bounce from Dallas to Minnesota to Detroit as he failed to catch up with his bright football past.

And there was Chad Hutchinson, the Stanford University quarterback who struggled in the minors with the St. Louis organization, pitched in three games for the Cardinals in the bigs, re-directed his career to the Dallas Cowboys, flamed out, played briefly for the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe to sharpen his quarterbacking mechanics, and then signed with the Chicago Bears but lasted less than a season.

Onetime Cardinals prospect Chad Hutchinson saw his NFL career end in less than three seasons with the Cowboys and Bears, for whom he compiled a 3-11 record as a starting quarterback.
Onetime Cardinals prospect Chad Hutchinson saw his NFL career end in less than three seasons with the Cowboys and Bears, for whom he compiled a 3-11 record as a starting quarterback.TONY GUTIERREZ/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I had an opportunity to talk with Hutchinson's brother [Trevor, who briefly was a pitcher in the Miami Marlins' organization], who told me Chad always wished he would have stuck it out in baseball for six or seven years to give it his due diligence," Samardzija says.

"I always remember things like that. But it's tough when you get sent back to Triple-A for the fourth time and you do have a football career in the back of your mind."

When the NFL phoned in 2010, sharks sniffing blood in the Shark's baseball waters, he broached the idea with his agent.

"And then every time I'd sleep on it, I'd wake up the next day and realize I didn't want to quit something just because it wasn't going well," he says. "The Cubs committed a lot to me as a team, and to take the $3 or $4 million they'd given me to that point and then walk without giving them anything in return didn't sit too nice with me, either. I owed it to them to show what I can do, and I owed it to myself, too.

"It's easy to run when things aren't going well. And I didn't want that to be my story."

So when the leaves fell, he numbed himself to the familiar faces gyrating in touchdown dances on his flat screen. And he persisted in authoring a baseball story that would leave him fulfilled.

In 2011, Samardzija went 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA in 75 relief appearances (no starts) in his first full big league season. The biggest difference? He finally, consistently started controlling his fastball, improving his WHIP to 1.295 (from 1.760 and 2.121 the previous two seasons, respectively) and his walks-per-nine-innings to 5.1 (from 9.3 in 2010). At last, the decision to mothball his helmet and shoulder pads started to look good to him. 

But even as he earned a permanent spot in Chicago's rotation in 2012, he still saw the NFL, and especially Johnson, in his peripheral vision for the next several years. At least, until football, as is its way, began to eat its own and devour his peers.

"Calvin was a tough one for me because we were on the same path and we both made some good money at similar points in our careers, and then he left a lot on the table to retire, which should tell you about his situation," Samardzija says. "He's a tough dude. … He's a gamer and he loves the sport and it still got him."

Johnson earned more than $100 million during his NFL career. But when he retired after the 2015 season at the age of 30, it was following knee and finger surgeries and with nagging pain in his ankle.

"I got aches and pains all time that aren't ever going to go away," Johnson says. "But that's part of it."

Calvin Johnson surprised many around the NFL when he retired after only nine seasons.
Calvin Johnson surprised many around the NFL when he retired after only nine seasons.Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Samardzija, through the end of his current Giants deal, is guaranteed to clear somewhere in the neighborhood of $123 million in his career, according to Baseball Reference. His contract runs through the end of the 2020 season, when Samardzija will be 35.

"The way the NFL draft was back then, you really didn't know what guys would make," Quinn says. "It was harder to predict. Jeff got a $10 million deal and was looking at another $4 or $5 million when he was done playing football."

With a couple of option years set to kick in once he left Notre Dame, Samardzija's first baseball contract potentially was worth north of $15 million.

"You would have had to be in the top 15 picks in that year's NFL draft to get $15 million guaranteed," Quinn says. "You were looking at it saying, 'It makes sense.'"

Detroit picked Johnson second overall in that '07 draft. Cleveland drafted Quinn 22nd the same year. Samardzija, of course, went undrafted because he had already signed with and committed to the Cubs.

Nine years later, after 83 career touchdown receptions and 11,619 yards receiving, Johnson suddenly was gone.

"As much as you love a sport, and I don't want anybody to think I don't love that sport, but the amount of energy you have to put into it just to get to the season…." Johnson says. "All the energy, all the pain, sweat and tears that go into it, the amount I had to put in to get me to where I had to play, it was more taxing on me physically and mentally than it was good for me.

"It just got to the point where I tipped over the scale. The pain and energy wasn't fun anymore, just to battle. I got a messed-up finger that keeps on getting smaller by the year the more I use it. It's bone on bone.

"I was able to do well for myself, make a statement in the league. I had a heck of a time doing it, but at the end of the day, it's about me and my family and being comfortable and being fun. And it wasn't."

Samardzija speaks fondly of Johnson and treasures the memory of that 2006 Notre Dame-Georgia Tech season opener. Johnson caught seven passes for 111 yards and one touchdown that Saturday; Samardzija caught six throws for 74 yards, including a key 42-yard third-quarter reception to help set up Notre Dame's winning touchdown.

"I haven't talked to him since we played," Samardzija says. "He's been up in Detroit. Hopefully we can reminisce a little bit, cross paths and talk about some good times. He was fun to watch, and fun to play against, too."

Some in the NFL believe Samardzija may have been selected before the end of Round 2 in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Some in the NFL believe Samardzija may have been selected before the end of Round 2 in the 2007 NFL Draft.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Says Johnson: "I remember speaking to him before that game. That's the last time we really spoke. I followed him, because you always want to see what the best at your position can do."

Now starting every fifth day for the Giants, Samardzija's own 6'5", 225-pound body is remarkably intact. He emerged on the other end of his Fighting Irish days with zero surgeries and few of the shocks and abrasions that cause a 32-year-old body to feel as though its 62 when it awakens each morning.

And today, while Johnson has become nearly invisible, Quinn and Leinart have been out of football for almost five years already and Marshawn Lynch, who was at Cal while Samardzija was at Notre Dame, retired from the Seattle Seahawks last year (though he will try to make a comeback this fall with the Raiders). Bush, meanwhile, rushed for minus-3 yards for Buffalo last year.

Where he once willfully avoided football highlights or news alerts on his phone, Samardzija now wistfully pays attention.

"I've been able to be more of a football fan in recent years," he says. "There was sort of a wall there for awhile so I could commit to baseball and give it everything I had without wondering. Now that I'm about 10 years out, it's a little easier to reminisce and be a fan now and watch those guys."

One thing he does not do is cringe with the release of each new medical study revealing the long-term damage that concussions deliver, and the havoc that is wrought by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive, degenerative disease that has been discovered in the brains of deceased football players such as Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Ken Stabler and Mike Webster.

There are many reasons why Samardzija is happy he chose baseball over football, but he says these are not among them. He has little patience for sideline commentaries fired off by those who have never rushed for a yard in a football player's cleats.

"I think if you talk to these guys individually, it's not like you don't know what you're getting into as a professional, especially as a football player," Samardzija says. "I think when you take the approach that you're doing this for your family because you have the opportunity to help out generations after you ... I think it's a little bit different when you sacrifice a part of yourself to help your family. And I think a lot of fathers and mothers have made that decision over the generations.

"It's not always about yourself. There are other reasons you do things, and I think that's what you have to look at. If you give everything you have for 50, 60 years of this life and you help out your family and better them when you're gone, then I think that's important."

Having been in both arenas, Samardzija admits that he looks at it differently than so many others.

Yes, Samardzija knows football is a risky business. But, so, too, are so many other ways to make a living.

He remembers the "spottiness" of his own concussions "because your memory isn't really working at the time."

How many concussions?

"Diagnosed, zero," he says, offering the knowing smile of a man with experience. "Probably a handful. It's hard to tell, because there are small ones and there are big ones. There are these fad topics that get brought up because they're easy to talk about and they're controversial because everyone has different opinions on them. Really, the only ones that need to be asked are the players themselves.

"Do I think they need to be compensated a little more for the sacrifices they make? Absolutely. I think the owners are making plenty of money to where they can increase the salary cap, they can guarantee a little more money to these guys. As an owner, when you're making money hand over fist and you have the power they have because the union isn't as strong because of the turnover in players, I think the owners need to do a little bit more and the league needs to do a little bit more to where when these guys are done playing, they never have to work again.

"Because they've given their bodies and their heads to the league and to the fans, and I think [owners] need to be a little more appreciative of what those guys sacrifice."

Samardzija is one of the lucky ones, not only because so far, concussions notwithstanding, his body is in one piece, but because he had choices. 

After spending most of his life in the Midwest, Samardzija says he is enjoying the change his move to San Francisco has brought.
After spending most of his life in the Midwest, Samardzija says he is enjoying the change his move to San Francisco has brought.Stephen Lam/Getty Images

"It's funny, I always look at Jeff as a football player because that was my experience with him," Quinn says. "But he's a competitor. I'm sure a lot of other baseball players played other sports, but I don't know if they're as good as Jeff is at the others. … He could have easily been a two-sport athlete. That's the crazy thing. How successful he is in baseball, and how successful he could have been in football, too."

Part of success, though, hinges on making smart decisions. By resisting the temptation to toggle back and forth between sports as a professional, Samardzija gave himself the chance to excel in one. Paying attention to the stories of Henson and Hutchinson was instructive. As Henson, now a scout for the New York Yankees, told B/R in 2015, his everlasting regret is that he didn't have the patience to allow his baseball career to develop.

Now what has Samardzija's attention in the football world are the last remaining links to his Notre Dame recruiting class. Of those who came in with him, tight end Anthony Fasano, who played for the Tennessee Titans last season, and Ryan Harris, the left tackle on Denver's Super Bowl 50 title team, are the only two left standing in the NFL.

As those chapters close, Samardzija's latest is still fresh, new and just beginning in San Francisco.

"I love it. I'm excited about the change, you know?" he says. "I went to Notre Dame, grew up in Northwest Indiana (Valparaiso, Indiana). I played for the Cubs, so for 30 years of my life I was essentially home. And I loved it, and it was great. But sometimes it's good to get away and see what else is out there.

"To be on the West Coast playing baseball, I have no complaints. San Francisco is an awesome city. It's very genuine. It's on the cutting edge of what's going on socially and technologically. There are just a lot of things going on. It's a cool city that entertains me, and keeps me stimulated."

Says Johnson: "Yeah, it's good to see him doing so well in baseball. I'm going to have to tune in and see if I can catch him."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.