15 MLB Players You Never Knew Played College Football

This article appeared in The Sportster on October 2, 2016.

If you have a TV, radio or internet access, you may have heard that Tim Tebow recently signed a contract with the New York Mets to try his hand at baseball. Though his NFL career never took off, he was one of the most dynamic college football players the sport has seen in recent years.

While at Florida, Tebow threw for 88 touchdowns (against just 16 interceptions) and ran for another 57 scores on the ground. He also won two National Championships, the Heisman Trophy and just about every other award a quarterback could receive.

Despite his incredible athleticism, Tebow’s chances of making an MLB roster are extremely thin. He was already 29 years old when he took his first professional baseball swing; of course, he sent that pitch over the left-center field wall.

However, even at his relatively advanced age, Tebow can draw inspiration from other athletes who were once on college football rosters and wound up playing Major League baseball. Perhaps most famously, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson starred on the gridiron at Florida State and Auburn, respectively, before combining to play 1,335 MLB games.

Many of the following players had distinguished baseball careers (three are in the Hall of Fame). All of them, like Tebow, spent part of their college years on a football field.


Jeff Samardzija has had his share of ups and downs in the majors. Though he led the American League in hits (228) and home runs (29) allowed a year ago for the Chicago White Sox, he signed a five-year, $90 million contract during the offseason with the San Francisco Giants. Samardzija also made the All-Star team while pitching for the Cubs in 2014. But before he ever threw an MLB pitch, he was a star wide receiver for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In his junior and senior seasons alone, Samardzija combined for 155 catches, 2,266 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns (one rushing). In 2005, he was a consensus All-American, along with stars such as Vince Young and Reggie Bush. This year, Samardzija has won 12 games for the Giants, who are fighting for an NL wild card spot.

Adam Dunn retired from baseball recently after a very good run with five teams (most notably, the Cincinnati Reds). He was one of the best power hitters in the game during the 2000s, slugging 462 home runs over the course of his career (2001-2014). During one five-year stretch in his mid-20s, Dunn hit at least 40 homers and walked over 100 times each season. While at the University of Texas, he was a backup quarterback for the Longhorns, behind Major Applewhite. At one point, the team tried to convert him into a tight end, but Dunn eventually decided to quit football and stick with baseball going forward. After ascending through the minor leagues, Dunn crushed 20 HRs in just 55 AAA games and was deemed ready for “The Show” at the age of 21. After 2,001 career regular season games, he finally made the playoffs as a member of the Oakland A’s, but didn’t make an appearance in the postseason.


With the ability to play all three outfield spots, the Chicago Cubs’ Matt Szczur has carved out a solid reserve role with the best team in baseball this year. In 181 at-bats, he has five home runs, 29 runs and a .711 OPS. But whatever he accomplishes in his baseball career, it will be hard to match the success he had on the football field while attending Villanova. Over 47 college games, Szczur had 3,288 yards from scrimmage and 28 touchdowns. He even added 1,690 yards and two scores returning kickoffs, as well as 206 yards with five TDs passing. Szczur also won the Division I FCS National Championship in 2009 when the Wildcats went 14-1. Now, he’s on a Cubs team that has won over 100 games and is hoping to erase a 108-year title drought in a few weeks.

One of the most versatile defensive players baseball has seen in the past 20 years, Mark DeRosa appeared in over 100 games at each of four different positions: third base, second base, right field and shortstop. He retired following the 2013 season with 100 home runs and a .751 career OPS. Though his team only won one of the seven postseason series DeRosa played in, he was a .358 hitter with a .980 OPS in 22 playoff games. At the University of Pennsylvania, he was the team’s starting quarterback for two years – one of which was an undefeated season. During his first season running the Quakers’ offense, DeRosa had a game against Holy Cross in which he went 23-31 with 285 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone. Though he rarely enjoyed such heroics during his baseball career, he was a very useful player on several contending clubs.


Seth Smith has had an underrated MLB career so far. The current Mariner has a 113 OPS+ with double-digit home runs seven times in the past eight seasons. During a brief, but memorable, rookie season in 2007, Smith had five hits in eight at-bats and then singled off of Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka in the World Series. But several years prior to that, he was a quarterback in the SEC. If you don’t remember Smith’s time at Ole Miss, that’s because he was backing up future two-time Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning. Currently with his fourth big league team, Smith has stated that he wants to coach football when his baseball years are behind him. In 2016, Smith’s 63 RBI are a career-high and his 16 home runs are one off his personal best.

Very few people in baseball history were as speedy as Vince Coleman. He made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985 and hit the ground running…literally. Coleman won the 1985 National League Rookie of the Year and led the NL in stolen bases in each of his first six seasons. By the time he retired in 1997, he was sixth all-time in steals with 752. While at Florida A&M, Coleman used one of his legs for something other than running; he was the football team’s punter. After college, he signed with the Washington Redskins, but the team wanted him to utilize his speed as a wide receiver. Coleman wanted to remain a punter, however, so he left the team and started playing for one of the Cardinals’ minor league affiliates.

In 1992, Phil Nevin was taken first overall in the MLB Amateur Draft by the Houston Astros. After bouncing around three teams, he settled in with the San Diego Padres and his career began to take off. Nevin had his best season in 2001 when he had 41 home runs, 97 runs, 126 RBI and a 158 OPS+. Over 12 years, he played third base, first base, outfield and catcher for seven franchises and hit over 200 HRs. Before hitting all those dingers, Nevin was a kicker and punter at Cal State Fullerton. In three years there, he averaged 40.1 yards per punt and made all 69 of his extra points. However, Nevin only put 31 of his 55 field goal attempts through the uprights (56.4%), including a dreadful 7-19 in his final year at school.


In 2000, Darin Erstad became just the second player (along with Wade Boggs) to amass 240 or more hits in a season since 1930. (Since then, Ichiro Suzuki joined the club…twice.) That year, Erstad also set personal bests in home runs (25), runs (121), RBI (100) and stolen bases (28). Two years later, he won a World Series ring and scored what proved to be the game-winning run in Game 7 for the Anaheim Angels. During the playoffs, he was a .339 hitter and had at least one hit in 26 of his 29 career postseason games. But he also won a title while playing football for legendary coach, Tom Osborne, at Nebraska. In 1994, the undefeated Cornhuskers won a National Championship; Erstad was the punter (42.6 yard average) and part-time kicker on the team.


While at Richmond, Brian Jordan was a two-time All-American football player. Besides playing defensive back, he also returned punts, including an 84-yarder during his senior year. In the NFL, he spent three years in the Atlanta Falcons’ secondary, leading the team in tackles one season and accumulating four sacks, four fumble recoveries and five interceptions. In 1992, Brian Jordan quit football to focus on baseball and he never looked back. Over 15 seasons, he had 184 home runs, 755 runs, 821 RBI and 119 stolen bases. Though Jordan never won any Gold Gloves, he was a strong defensive outfielder; his 2.2 defensive WAR led the National League in 1996. In 1999, he had 23 HRs, 100 runs and 115 RBI while batting cleanup for an Atlanta Braves team that reached the World Series.


During Steve Garvey’s MLB career, he was a 10-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner and the 1974 National League MVP. The first baseman collected 200 or more hits six times and retired with 272 home runs, 1,143 runs and 1,308 RBI. Garvey appeared in five World Series (winning one of them) and had a .910 OPS in 55 career postseason games. Even before he reached the majors, he seemed destined to have a great baseball career; at Michigan State, he hit a grand slam in his very first collegiate at-bat. While he was in East Lansing, he also played defensive back for the school’s football team. In 1967, he had 30 tackles, but the Spartans finished the season winning just three of their 10 games.

In 1988, Kirk Gibson hit what is perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history. Despite winning the National League MVP that season, Gibson was unable to start Game 1 of the World Series because of two leg injuries. However, he was called upon to pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with a runner on base and his Dodgers trailing by a run. On the mound was future Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley. Gibson lunged at a pitch and somehow muscled it over the right field wall before limping around the bases as manager Tommy Lasorda ran all over the field looking for someone to hug. Though Gibson hit 255 regular season home runs, nothing he did would ever top that moment. But if you grew up in the state of Michigan during the 1970s, you may recall that he played wide receiver for Michigan State, as well. In four years there, he averaged 21.0 yards per reception, hauled in 24 touchdowns and rushed for two more.


For his career, first baseman, Todd Helton, blasted 369 home runs with 2,519 hits, 1,401 runs and 1,406 RBI. His .953 OPS may seem inflated because he played his home games in Denver’s Coors Field, but his OPS+ (which accounts for ballpark factors) was an impressive 133. In 2000, Helton led the National League in hits (216), doubles (59), RBI (147), batting average (.372) and OPS (1.162). And yes, Barry Bonds played that year. Before he ever swung a bat in professional baseball, though, Helton was a quarterback at the University of Tennessee. Though he only had 484 passing yards and four touchdowns, there was a good excuse for his limited playing time; the Volunteers’ starter was Heath Shuler (#3 overall pick in his draft) one year and Peyton Manning the next.


One of the most important athletes of the 20th century was Jackie Robinson. When he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he broke baseball’s color barrier and MLB has since retired his #42 jersey across the entire sport. Over a 10-year career, Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year, the 1949 NL MVP and a batting title. He averaged 95 runs per season and twice led the league in stolen bases. Robinson spent his college years at UCLA, where he was on the baseball, basketball, football and track teams. In his two seasons playing football at school, he threw for 449 yards and ran for 954 more, leading the nation in yards per carry in 1939. For good measure, Robinson twice had the country’s best punt return average.

Inducted into Cooperstown in 2014, Frank Thomas was one of the best MLB players during the 1990s. He won back-to-back American League MVPs, had nine straight seasons with 100+ runs and 100+ RBI, won a batting title and led the AL in OPS four times. And that was all before Thomas turned 30. He finished his career with 521 home runs and a 156 OPS+. While at Auburn, Thomas broke (and still holds) virtually every batting record in school history. He also played football, joining the Tigers the season after Bo Jackson had graduated. Thomas was a tight end, but only posted 45 yards receiving; an injury prior to his sophomore year forced him to focus on baseball. In hindsight, that seems like it was a pretty good decision.


MLB’s inaugural Hall of Fame class included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. “Matty,” as he was known, won 373 games with a 2.13 ERA (135 ERA+) over 17 seasons. He led the league in wins and WHIP four times each and ERA five times. Mathewson’s 95.3 WAR is more than Warren Spahn, Pedro Martinez or Nolan Ryan accumulated during their respective careers. In short, the former New York Giant hurler is a baseball legend. Prior to all of that, at the end of the 19th century, Mathewson was a fullback, kicker and punter at Bucknell. During his three years playing for the Bison, he scored 13 touchdowns and drop-kicked eight field goals. In one game, he ran for a 65-yard TD and returned a kickoff 70 yards for another score.

(photo by clare_and_ben)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *