The NFL loves tight ends with strong basketball backgrounds. Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham are just a few of the players whose experience on the hardwood helped them become dominant pass-catchers. The tight end/basketball connection is logical—rebounding skills translate especially well to going up and snagging tough receptions.
But a different kind of connection has flown under the NFL radar. What do some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks—guys like John Elway, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson—have in common? Extensive baseball experience. It’s no coincidence, either. Baseball equips an athlete with several mental and physical attributes that are invaluable at the quarterback position. Here’s how baseball helped mold some of the game’s greatest signal-callers.
A huge number of NFL quarterbacks had long baseball careers before arriving in pro football. Here’s a list of notable NFL quarterbacks who were also drafted by the MLB:
- Ken Stabler, second-round pick by the Houston Astros in 1968
- Archie Manning, third-round pick by the Chicago White Sox in 1971
- Dan Marino, fourth-round pick by the Kansas City Royals in 1979
- John Elway, second-round pick by the New York Yankees in 1981
- Steve McNair, 35th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 1991
- Tom Brady, 18th-round pick by the Montreal Expos in 1995
- Daunte Culpepper, 26th-round pick by the New York Yankees in 1995
- Colin Kaepernick, 43rd-round pick by the Chicago Cubs in 2009
- Russell Wilson, fourth-round pick by the Colorado Rockies in 2010
- Jameis Winston, 15th-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2012
A number of lesser-known current NFL QBs—such as Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden and Matt Moore—have also been drafted by the MLB. There have also been great quarterbacks who never got drafted by a Major League team but were stellar baseball players, such as Troy Aikman. Some baseball-playing quarterbacks were so good at hardball that they chose to pursue it instead of football. Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country coming out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School (Saint Paul, Minnesota), but the money in baseball proved too lucrative to turn down.
A Game of Failure
Ted Williams once famously said that “baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of 10 and be considered a good performer.”
It’s true—no sport teaches you how to accept failure quite like baseball. In many ways, it’s an individual sport—there can only be one batter in the box and one pitcher on the mound at a given time. Successful baseball players have the mental toughness to handle individual failure on a regular basis. If you step up to the plate while you’re still obsessing about having struck out in your last at-bat, you’re toast. Confidence and the ability to put a bad pitch, bad play or bad at-bat behind you are the hallmarks of a good ballplayer. When you consider how much mental fortitude the quarterback position requires, you realize that employing a baseball-like mentality on the gridiron can be extremely beneficial.
“You have to continually mentally grind [in baseball],” Russell Wilson told ESPN in 2013. “I think that’s the thing that’s helped me in football, too. The idea of staying focused on one pitch at a time, one play at a time. And also having amnesia. You have to forget about the pitch before, the inning before, your last at-bat. You have to have that type of mentality.” In two summers of Class A ball in the Colorado Rockies’ organization, Wilson compiled a batting average of .229 before heading to Wisconsin to play his senior season of college football. The poise and level-headedness he developed during his brief baseball career helped him become one of the most clutch performers in the NFL.
Another young quarterback who learned about failure on the baseball diamond? None other than the 2015 NFL Rookie of the Year Jameis Winston. Winston was a coveted baseball recruit coming out of high school, and he decided to be a two-sport athlete at Florida State. He struggled at the plate, hitting just .209 in his college career, but his dazzling 1.94 ERA led some to believe he could be an excellent pro pitcher. His current contract with the Buccaneers has a strict “no baseball” clause, but Jameis still carries his baseball mentality with him.
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“Baseball is a failing game, honestly,” Winston told USA Today. “It helps me mentally as a quarterback, because I know some days, I’ve had some terrible baseball games, but the next day I had a great game. It helps me with the situations of playing quarterback because if I throw an interception or I throw a touchdown, I know that’s going to happen; I have to keep moving and keep processing things and get better.”
Baseball requires a cerebral calmness to be successful, making it a perfect training tool for those who play arguably the most mentally challenging position in all of sports.
The most obvious physical commonality between baseball and quarterbacking is that they both require throwing.
But comparing throwing a 5-ounce perfect sphere to throwing a 14-ounce oblong object is apples and oranges, right? Maybe not. While minor differences certainly exist, the throwing motion used in baseball (and by pitchers, especially) uses many of the same muscle groups as the throwing motion used by quarterbacks.
Tom House was perhaps the first man to realize the similarities between a pitcher’s mechanics and those of a quarterback. A former professional baseball player, the 68-year-old House has extensive experience as a pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and San Diego Padres. During his Hall of Fame speech, Nolan Ryan credited House with getting him in “the best shape of [his] life.” But in recent years, House has crossed over into the football world to work with elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton.
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“I’m a rotational-athlete evaluator,” House once told NFL.com. “Pitching, quarterbacking, tennis, golf, hitting . . . all rotational athletes have the same timing, the same kinematic sequencing—hips, shoulders, arms and implement—and, depending on the verbiage, the same mechanics. It’s all the same, in order of importance: timing, sequencing and mechanics.”
A number of well-known quarterbacks who played baseball were indeed pitchers, including Winston, Kaepernick, Marino and Aikman. The timing, mechanics, strength and stability they learned as pitchers likely helped them become better football throwers. “You can overlay a kinematic sequence from Drews Brees and Greg Maddux, and, except for the time it takes to weight-shift, it’s the same sequence exactly,” House told Wired. Even for quarterbacks who were not pitchers, the rotational timing, stability and power they employed when throwing or hitting a baseball helped them develop the same muscle groups that power excellent passers.
Two is Better Than One
Besides the specific mental and physical skills that baseball can help quarterbacks develop, the simple fact that it’s a different sport helped them become better athletes. Being a multi-sport athlete helps to prevent injuries, build better sports IQ and stimulate a competitive attitude. There’s a reason 73.3 percent of the quarterbacks taken in the 2016 NFL Draft played multiple sports in high school.
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John Elway played both football and baseball at Stanford because he loved to consistently put himself in competitive, meaningful athletic situations. “John at that time would rather be competing than going out and throwing the football around when there wasn’t a game involved. He wanted to compete,” Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess told MLB.com. “[Football] was important to him, but it was more important to compete.” That love of competition helped Elway learn how to stay cool during crunch time and become a two-time Super Bowl champion.