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It could have changed NFL forever: the day the Royals drafted Elway and Marino

Kansas City drafted two hall of famers in the 1979 MLB draft. They just happened to excel in a different sport

The 1979 Major League Baseball Draft was not particularly prosperous for the Kansas City Royals. They did not find their next great shortstop or big first baseman. Their top choice was a pitcher named Atlee Hammaker whose best years were as a San Francisco Giant. Most of their other picks were young men who would never breathe the air of a big league clubhouse.

And then there were those two Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

John Elway and Dan Marino.

At the time both were teenagers in their last days of high school Elway in Los Angeles and Marino in Pittsburgh already committed to college football careers that would ultimately build their fame. Since both Elway (Stanford) and Marino (University of Pittsburgh) had yet to play a college football game, their NFL futures were hardly certain. The Royals, who picked Marino in the fourth round and Elway in the 19th, were offering professional contracts and a path to the major leagues. What if they had gone for the money? Imagine how different the NFL would have been in the 1980s and 1990s if the men who sit fifth and sixth on the leagues alltime passing yards list had chosen baseball over football?

Could the Denver Broncos still have won three Super Bowls without Elway as their quarterback and later the teams executive vice-president? Might the Miami Dolphins have remained one of the leagues most glamorous franchises if Marino had given up on football at 19?

John Schuerholz, who was then the Royals scouting director, thought he had a chance to lure both players to baseball, especially Marino, who he envisioned as a big league third baseman. In a phone conversation last week he told the Guardian the teams use of a fourth-round pick on Marino, listed on draft records as a pitcher, shows how well we thought of him. Even though Marino had already committed to being Pitts quarterback for four years, Shuerholz thought he might have a better future in baseball.

Ill tell you this that I havent told anyone in an interview before, Schuerholz said. After we drafted [Marino] I spoke to his dad several times. In those days if you signed a professional baseball contract you couldnt play another sport. Mr Marino, rightly as a concerned dad, said: He loves baseball but if he signs with you that will cost him his scholarship. I told him: Mr Marino, I will gladly reimburse the amount if you tell me what it is. We were willing to work with him to let him go to college.

Im sure Dan was telling him Dad I can play in the major leagues, Schuerholz continued. They talked about it as a family and ultimately decided they were more comfortable with Dan following a football path.

Over the phone, Schuerholz paused: I cant debate those two made a bad decision.

Hardly. Marino played 17 years in the NFL, went to the playoffs 10 times, played in a Super Bowl and threw for 61,361 yards. Had he signed with the Royals as a third baseman he would have been stuck in Kansas Citys system behind the teams own Hall of Famer, George Brett.

But Marino did have baseball talent. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he went 23-0 as a pitcher at Pittsburghs Central Catholic High School and hit better than .500 as a shortstop. The schools baseball coach, Joe Emanuele told the Post-Gazette that Marino would have been a first-round choice in baseball if he hadnt already committed to play football at Pitt. I figured if he went baseball in one-and-a-half or two years he would be playing in the major leagues. He was so fast and had such a good arm, the Royals wanted him to play center field, Emanuele told the paper.

Elway was an excellent baseball player at Granada Hills. A United Press International story from 1979 said many scouts thought it was his best sport, which, given Elways football career, is amazing. Before they drafted him, the Royals brought Elway to Anaheim to work out before a game against the then California Angels, taking grounders and inserting him in a batting practice group with Brett and Royals team-mate Jamie Quirk, who watched as Elway hit several booming home runs.

They said: talk this guy into playing baseball, Brett said years later. We didnt do a very good job, thank God, because he probably would have taken my job.

Eventually, in 1981 the New York Yankees drafted Elway in the second round and he actually played the summer between his junior and senior years of college for the Yankees Class A team in Oneonta, New York where he hit .318 with four home runs, 25 RBI and 13 stolen bases in just 41 games. His eight outfield assists are a testament to the power of his right arm. At the end of summer he headed back to Stanford where he finished second for the Heisman Trophy and became the first overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, ending his baseball career. Marino, who did not respond to an interview request, was selected 27 picks later by the Dolphins.

John
John Elway played for the Yankees before his senior year at Stanford, hitting .318 with four home runs. Photograph: David Madison/Getty Images

Elway has been out of the country with this family the last two weeks and could not be reached to talk about his drafting by Kansas City. He did, however, discuss his baseball life in 2011 with the Yankees team magazine.

I think about that all the time, Elway told the magazine when asked if he wondered what would have happened if he had chosen baseball over football. Even though my football career turned out the way it did, to be dead honest with you, if there is one thing I would have liked to have done it would have been to be a Yankee. I look at the legacy that [owner George] Steinbrenner has left there, which is one in which they do everything they can to win baseball games and championships and Im in awe. I really dont think what it would have been like to play baseball, I think about what it would have been like to have played for the Yankees.

As an executive, Schuerholz was always known for taking big chances. This summer he will be inducted into baseballs Hall of Fame for his work as a general manager building both the Royals and Atlanta Braves into perennial playoff teams. The fact Marino and Elway were big football prospects wouldnt have frightened either he or Joe Burke, who was Kansas Citys general manager at the time. If he thought they could play baseball he was going to pursue them.

Its not that they were football players and we were enamored with their football careers and knew that in eighth grade they had played baseball, he said. Our scouts knew they could play baseball. Our scouts believed in their abilities to play in the major leagues and win championships.

In fact, 1979 wasnt the first time the Royals picked two future star quarterbacks in the same draft. Schuerholz was a junior member of the teams scouting department when they took Mississippis Archie Manning father of Peyton and Eli in the second round round of the 1971 draft and then took soon-to-be California star Steve Bartkowski in the 33rd round. Bartkowski is actually one of three players the Royals drafted who were also first overall selections in the NFL draft. In 1975 the Atlanta Falcons made Bartkowski the drafts first pick, Elway was taken first by Baltimore in 1983 only to be traded to the Broncos when he refused to sign with the Colts. Three years later, Schuerholz took Auburn running back Bo Jackson in the fourth round of the baseball draft, weeks after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the No1 pick of the NFL draft. Jackson didnt sign with the Bucs after he felt the team lied to him when it said a trip to the teams facility had been cleared by the NCAA. It hadnt and he nearly was declared ineligible for his senior season of baseball.

Then there was the football player he wanted to draft but didnt get the chance. In 1978 he fell for a Michigan State wide receiver named Kirk Gibson so much that he had already reached a tentative contract deal with the player. He wrote Gibsons name on a card as Kansas Citys top choice but lost him when the Detroit Tigers picked the outfielder 12 picks before. Gibson was only available that late in the first round because a Seattle Mariners scout named Jerry Krause (better known as the architect of the 1990s Chicago Bulls) had failed to convince the teams owner, actor Danny Kaye, to gamble on Gibson surviving a final year of college football without getting hurt. But thats another story.

We loved the football stars who had athleticism and that football mentality, Schuerholz said.

Because football is such a violent sport, footballers who played baseball tended to be more aggressive than their baseball-only counterparts, more willing to work and run harder. Gibson and Jackson, for instance, were relentless competitors who crashed into walls and dived into bases without a thought of injury. Schuerholzs voice still grows soft as he talks about Jackson more than a quarter of a century after the players feud with Tampa Bay delivered him to the Royals.

He could run faster than any major league player, Schuerholz said. He could throw the ball farther than any major league outfielder and he could hit the ball farther than any major league hitter.

Of course, Jackson was drawn back to football in 1987 when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders. For four years he joined the Raiders after his Royals season was finished, rushing for 2,782 yards in 38 games and famously running over Seattles Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football. But he dislocated his hip in a 1991 playoff game and developed an infection that forced him to retire from football and to be released by the Royals.

If he had never played football he could have been a Hall of Famer in baseball, Schuerholz said.

But just like with Elway and Marino and Archie Manning and Steve Bartkowski football kept getting in the way.

And thats unfortunate. Because while football history would be significantly different had Jackson not gone to the Raiders, Elway to the Broncos and Marino to the Dolphins, no 1980s base runner would have been foolish enough to run on a Royals outfield of Jackson, Elway and Marino.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2017/jun/13/john-elway-dan-marino-1979-mlb-draft-kansas-city-royals

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