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Every sports fan in America’s got an opinion on whether Kyler Murray should play baseball or football. But there are precious few — maybe five or six, max — who have actual knowledge of what it’s like to face such a momentous decision.
Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson stand as America’s preeminent two-sport athletes. But another one from their era lived through a situation more closely matching Murray: former Florida State quarterback/New York Knicks point guard Charlie Ward. Like Murray, Ward was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with questions about his size. Like Murray, Ward faced the choice of present versus future wealth. But unlike Murray, Ward turned away from the NFL, instead choosing to go with the NBA — he’s still one of only three Heisman Trophy winners never to be drafted by an NFL team — and his story’s both a guideline for Murray and a fascinating what-if.
Charlie Ward’s stunning 1994
Blessed with preternatural hand-eye coordination and an all-encompassing competitiveness, Ward, who grew up in Georgia, knew from an early age what path he would pursue. “If I could have been a pro athlete in first grade, I would have,” Ward told Yahoo Sports. “I would have liked to just focus on being an athlete. But I had other things to do before I could become that athlete.”
He picked Florida State in part because then-coach Bobby Bowden allowed players to compete in more than one sport. Future Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson played both basketball and football at FSU, like Ward, and other football players ran track or — in the case of a guy named Deion — played baseball. During Ward’s four seasons, the Seminoles finished fourth, fourth, second and, finally, first in the country.
Over the course of a remarkable seven months from December 1993 to June 1994, consider what Ward did: won the Heisman, led Florida State to its first-ever football national championship with an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska, suited up for the ‘Noles basketball team and played 16 games, joined the Jacksonville Hooters of the United States Basketball League for a showcase stint, then got picked by the New York Knicks in the first round of the NBA Draft.
You think the hype around Kyler Murray is deafening? Imagine if Murray was a possible first-round NBA pick. NBA Twitter and NFL Twitter would tear each other apart. ESPN would create an entire separate channel dedicated to following his exploits. His “Decision” would do triple the ratings of LeBron James’ version.
Ward faced scrutiny of his own thanks to the praise he drew coming out of Florida State. Former University of Miami football coach Dennis Erickson once called him “the greatest college quarterback I have ever seen.” The late NBA scout extraordinaire Marty Blake once said “Charlie is the best point guard in America,” which may have been a bit over-the-top considering his draft class included a guy named Jason Kidd, but you get the idea.
At FSU, Ward possessed surpassing talent, easy athleticism, a strong work ethic, an imaginative playmaking ability, zero off-field controversy — everything an NFL team could want, it seemed, except the one thing he couldn’t control: his height. Listed at 6’2” but more like six-even, Ward, the conventional wisdom ran, wouldn’t be tall enough to see the field. Sound familiar?
“I didn’t put all my eggs in the NFL basket because I knew going in that I was going to be a third- or fourth-round pick because of [my] height and size that were in question,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I knew those variables weren’t going to change in any form or fashion. So I made the decision that I was going to play basketball as well. I didn’t give that up my senior year.”
“Most kids lie and tell you they’re only interested in the NFL,” then-San Diego Chargers director of player personnel Billy Devaney said in 1994. “I admire Charlie’s honesty. He admitted he had NBA aspirations. That may have cost him a spot in the draft.”
“Regardless of intangibles, [draft judgment] was more based on physicality,” Ward says. “There’s really nothing that was going to change that, even if I’d gone to the combine and done those necessary things.”
(Weird bit of bar trivia: Ward actually did get drafted by two professional leagues, but it wasn’t the NFL and the NBA. No, the Brewers and Yankees both drafted him at various points in his college career, not because he had any baseball aspirations, but as a Hail Mary gamble because he’d played some baseball in high school. Anyway, back to the matter at hand.)
What if Charlie Ward played today?
Ward doesn’t deal in hypotheticals, but let’s do it anyway. The 1994 NFL draft saw two quarterbacks go early — Heath Shuler (6-2) to the Redskins and Trent Dilfer (6-4) to the Buccaneers. No quarterback went in either the second or third rounds, so let’s look to the fourth, roughly the spot where Ward was projected to land. And, well … it wasn’t exactly a land of buried Tom Brady-esque gems.
Perry Klein, drafted 111th overall by the Falcons, played two games and suffered more sacks (2) than completed passes (0). Doug Nussmeier, drafted six spots later by New Orleans, spent five years holding a clipboard for the Saints and Colts, playing in eight total games and throwing one touchdown against four interceptions. (Gus Frerotte, who would have some success, went in the 7th round to Washington.)
Ward, on the other hand, went to the Knicks in the NBA Draft’s first round, 26th overall, part of a class that featured Kidd, Grant Hill and Juwan Howard. Ward would go on to play 10 seasons in the NBA, score nearly 4,000 points, reach the playoffs six times and earn $34.3 million in salary.
Yep, seems like Ward’s gamble paid off. But what if he were the same player, in the same situation, facing the same choice today? A six-foot-tall Heisman Trophy-winning national champion choosing between the NFL and the NBA would incinerate Twitter, for one thing, and he’d almost surely go high in the first round. But which way would Ward lean?
“It’d be a tougher decision than the one I had because the mindset has changed,” Ward says. “Now smaller quarterbacks get an opportunity to make it in the first round. During [my] time, it wasn’t even a thought that could happen.”
Ward on Murray: ‘Times have changed’
Which brings us to Murray, who’s (at least) two inches shorter and one national championship behind Ward, even though he’s got a matching Heisman. Murray had $4.6 million on the table had he stayed with baseball; he’ll return or forfeit almost all of that. But if he’s picked in the first round of the NFL draft — which would be unprecedented for a 5-10 quarterback — he’d be looking at a fully guaranteed payday ranging from $8.6 million for going No. 32 to New England all the way up to $35.3 million for going no. 1 to Arizona, according to a CBS Sports breakdown.
CBS Sports projects Murray’s break-even point at about No. 39, the seventh pick in the second round, based on guaranteed contracts. If he plays out the four years and the fifth option year of his rookie deal, assuming no renegotiations, he’d hit the market again a year or so before he could expect to start making real money in baseball.
That economic reality, to Ward, made Murray’s decision easier. “I don’t know if it was tough [for Murray to go with football], for the simple fact that there are a lot of factors before you can make it to the majors for him to pick baseball,” Ward says. “I don’t know how long it would have taken to get to the majors, but with a good [NFL] draft grade, he could go in the first round. It’s now just a matter of him doing the necessary things and preparing himself to move up the draft board.”
There’s a moment in the recent Deion Sanders “30 for 30” documentary when Sanders wonders what might have happened had he stuck with baseball rather than football. Ward says he’s had no such moments, and he’s comfortable with the decision he made back in 1994. “We can say what-if about a lot of things,” says Ward, who now coaches high school basketball in Tallahassee, Florida. “But I’m just grateful I did have the opportunity to pursue that goal to play in the NFL and the NBA. Not too many athletes get those options, to do those things you dreamed of as a kid.”
As for Murray, Ward hopes he’ll have a similar mindset, staying with his choice and riding it out regardless of what happens in the early going. “Most young quarterbacks struggle. I haven’t seen one yet that hasn’t come in and had some struggle,” Ward says. “Hopefully he’s made his decision, and made his way to where he can be on an NFL team and make an impact, and he doesn’t have to worry about [thinking of trying to jump to] baseball because he’s struggling.”
Regardless of where Murray goes, Ward believes it’s a step forward for shorter quarterbacks, even getting consideration for a first-round pick. “Times have changed,” he says. “These smaller guys can get drafted in the first round. I’m happy for these guys.”
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