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U.L.’s Toothpick: The Royals Have Been Great at Drafting Football Players

The NFL draft starts tonight, so let’s get going with your Chiefs draft preview…

Ha! Just kidding, of course. But why would a Royals blog bring up the NFL draft? Because the Royals, in their history, have managed to draft several players who turned down baseball and went on to successful football careers. And also because it’s a good diversion from talking about the struggling offense, which I think we can all appreciate.

Here’s a look at some famous football players who, once upon a time, could have been Royal (and one who actually was).

Steve Bartkowski (33rd round, 1971 June Draft)

In just their fourth-ever draft, the Royals selected a high schooler from Santa Clara, California. It was a pretty good choice, as evidenced by the fact that Bartkowski would be an All-American in baseball at the University of California as a first baseman. Yep, spoiler alert: the high schooler turned down the Royals to go on to college. Bartkowski would have one more chance at baseball; the Orioles selected him in the 19th round of the 1974 draft. But of course he stayed with football, leading the nation in passing as a senior in the fall of 1974, then being selected with the first pick of the 1975 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Bartkowski went on to throw for 24,000 yards, make the Pro Bowl twice, have his number retired by the Falcons, and be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and he probably could have been even better had he not suffered multiple knee injuries in his career. However, he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2014, “It is still my favorite sport. I went to college with a mindset on being a Major League Baseball player, but football emerged.”

Archie Manning (2nd round, 1971 January Secondary Phase)

In just their third year of existence, the Royals used a pick in the January draft on a shortstop from Ole Miss named Archie Manning. The January draft no longer exists; it was solely for previously drafted college players who hadn’t signed. And Manning had several chances to sign before the Royals picked him; Atlanta drafted him in 1967 while he was still in high school, then the White Sox drafted him twice, once in the 1970 June draft and again in June 1971. Manning was already a college football star by then, but he certainly was no slouch on the diamond, as he led the Rebels to the College World Series in 1969. Of course, Manning would stick with football, and the New Orleans Saints made him the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL draft. Manning fell just short of 24,000 passing yards in his pro career, made the Pro Bowl twice, and he also was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Oh, and you might have heard of his two football-playing sons, Peyton and Eli. They turned out to be pretty good quarterbacks too.

Fortunately, the Royals didn’t come up completely empty in their 1971 draft class, as they used their second pick in the June draft on a kid from El Segundo, California: George Brett. They would also come up with Steve Busby, John Wathan, and Mark Littell in the various 1971 drafts.

Dan Marino (4th round, 1979 June Draft)

The 1983 NFL draft is still famous for the number and quality of quarterbacks selected. But four years before then, the Royals selected two future Hall of Fame QBs in the same draft. First up, a high schooler from Pittsburgh named Dan Marino. Unlike Bartkowski and Manning, Marino was drafted as a pitcher. Given his 6’4” frame and rocket arm, I expect he was pretty good at it. But like Bartkowski and Manning, Marino decided to stick with football. He went to his hometown school, the University of Pittsburgh, and then starred for the Miami Dolphins for almost two decades. He made it into the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame after throwing for more than 61,000 yards as a Dolphin.

John Elway (18th round, 1979 June Draft)

Later on in the 1979 draft, the Royals selected a high school outfielder from Granada Hills, California. But John Elway, son of a football coach, was destined for gridiron glory. Elway would go play football at Stanford, although he didn’t give up baseball entirely. He was good enough on the diamond that the Yankees drafted him in the second round of the 1981 draft, and Elway even played in the minors for a season, hitting .318/.432/.464 for Oneonta. Smitten, George Steinbrenner publicly stated Elway would be the Yankees’ starting right fielder by 1985. And unlike the other players on this list, Elway actually considered a baseball career seriously. That’s because the Baltimore Colts made him the first pick in the 1983 NFL draft, and at the time the Colts were football Siberia. Elway had already made it clear he didn’t want to play there, and the leverage his baseball career offered meant the Colts had to oblige him. They dealt him to the Denver Broncos, and the rest is history. Very painful history for Chiefs fans.

The Royals’ 1979 draft wasn’t nearly as successful at baseball as the 1971 draft had been, although they did select Pat Sheridan in the third round, and he would help the Royals win the AL West in 1984 and the World Series in 1985.

Bo Jackson (4th round, 1986 June Draft)

Finally, the Royals selected a football  player who decided to play baseball. Unfortunately, then he decided to go back and play football, got hurt, and a promising career in two sports was cut short. The Royals weren’t the first MLB team to pick Jackson; the Yankees picked him in 1982 but Jackson decided to go to Auburn, where he played football, baseball, and even starred in track and field. In 1986, he was drafted first overall in the NFL draft by Tampa Bay, but when the Buccaneers tried to force him to choose football, Bo turned to baseball. Eventually, Tampa Bay traded his rights to the Las Vegas Oakland Los Angeles Raiders, and that got Jackson back on the football field, where he would get injured in a playoff game, leading to a hip replacement. At least the Royals got something out of this pick, though.

Roscoe Crosby (2nd round, 2001 June Draft)

This is easily the saddest story on this list. Crosby did not find fame in baseball or football. The Royals picked the stud outfielder out of high school in Union, South Carolina. They wanted him to stop playing football, telling him before the draft they would pick him in the first round (ninth overall) if he did. They still gave him a $1.75 million bonus and agreed to pay his college tuition to Clemson (the school was not allowed to give him a scholarship once he signed with the Royals). And they did so knowing he needed Tommy John surgery. But in the spring of 2002, three of Crosby’s friends were killed in a car crash on their way to see him play a minor league game. Two months later, Crosby had the Tommy John surgery. The impact of his friends’ death and the idle time away from sports were a lot for a young man to handle, and Crosby’s emotions swirled out of control. He left Clemson to play baseball, but then walked away from extended spring training in 2003, heading back to Clemson for football. The Royals took him to arbitration to void his contract and eventually won, resulting in Crosby forfeiting $750,000 of his bonus. Soon after he returned to Clemson, Crosby walked away from football too. His downward spiral eventually led to a suicide attempt, which thankfully failed. But this story has a happy ending, even though Crosby never appeared in an MLB or NFL game. Instead, he began working with at-risk youth in South Carolina. He returned to Clemson as a student in 2014, and head coach Dabo Swinney insisted he help coach the football team as a volunteer assistant. Crosby did, and one of the young players he helped counsel was quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is likely to get drafted by an NFL team tonight.

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