Brandon Weeden's long, strange trip from minor-league baseball leads him to NFL

SAN FRANCISCO – Brandon Weeden remembers the precise moment he knew he was done with baseball, a realization that hit him like a brisk gust of wind to the face – and redirected him onto a path toward becoming an NFL quarterback.

Pitching for the Class A High Desert Mavericks in June of 2006, Weeden handcuffed a Lake Elsinore hitter with an inside fastball, then recoiled instinctively as the bat cracked and the barrel came flying back toward the mound. A 6-foot-4 flamethrower once drafted in the second round by the New York Yankees, Weeden couldn't believe what happened next on that chilly Southern California night.

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"I remember everything," Weeden recalled last Thursday at a restaurant in San Francisco's Union Square district, where the former Oklahoma State quarterback was enjoying a quick getaway in advance of this week's NFL draft. "Fourth inning, 1-1 count, I throw a 92-mile-an-hour fastball in, off the plate. The guy swings and the barrel of the bat comes right back at me.

"I flinch and look back, thinking the second baseman's gonna make a play – and the ball goes over the right-centerfield fence. Not five feet over, either, but 15 feet over the fence!"

Translation: Tell it goodbye … Weeden's pitching aspirations included.

"I'm looking up going, 'Are you [expletive] kidding me? This is a joke.' I was hot."

Six years later, Weeden's draft stock seems to be heating up, to the point where the 28-year-old passer could be gone by the end of Thursday night's first round. With teams like the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns actively seeking quarterbacks – and with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III seemingly locked in as the top two picks to the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, respectively – Weeden and his former Big 12 rival, former Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, are enticing consolation prizes who could get snapped up earlier than expected.

The opinions on Weeden vary greatly, partly because of a perceived lack of mobility, and largely because he is so much older than the typical quarterback prospect. While some talent evaluators view him as a second-day selection, meaning he'd last until the second or third round, one front-office executive for an AFC team believes Weeden could go as high as eighth overall, to Miami.

"He won't pass [the Dolphins]," the executive insisted. "He's for real. Great dude, talented, mature, a leader, smart as hell."

And if Weeden were six years younger? "He'd go top three. Back-to-back-to-back."

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Yet others who've evaluated Weeden aren't convinced he's in that Luck/RGIII category. "It's not just his age," said one offensive coordinator for an AFC team. "To me, there's something else that keeps me from getting excited. He throws a nice ball, but I'm not sold that he can move all that well, or that he has that fast-twitch ability to get the ball out when the pressure comes. And I don't see him as one of those big, strong guys who'll break a lot of tackles in the pocket."

Added a personnel executive for an NFC team: "He has a lot of arm talent, but he's not a real good foot athlete. He can throw it, but he's more of a pocket passer. If you've got a real good offensive line, he could flourish. If not, I think he'd have a hard time."

Other teams expected to consider picking the 220-pound Weeden include the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. With the exception of the Broncos, who signed Peyton Manning last month, there'd be a strong temptation to let Weeden compete for a starting job as a rookie.

After all, his biological clock is ticking.

"Literally, I feel 21," he said. "My body's fresh, from the five years I played baseball and the first three years at Oklahoma State, when I barely played. The approach I'm taking is, I'm gonna compete. It's a big adjustment to that level. With my age and maturity, I think I can make that jump."

If so, Weeden will complete an unconventional ascent that even he didn't see coming as a high school freshman.

"At age 14, I was 5-7, 130," Weeden recalled. "I was on this national championship [youth] baseball team, and I was the smallest kid on the team – and the only kid on the team who didn't hit a home run. I hit eighth or ninth in the order. I wasn't very good.

"Back then, I was a runt. In high school I was playing second base, 'cause I wasn't throwing the ball hard, and I didn't play football as a freshman, cause I would've gotten killed. When I finally started pitching, as a sophomore, I was throwing knuckleballs and curves."

Weeden grew nine inches over the next three years, and by his senior season his fastball was clocking out in the 95-mile-per-hour range. The Yankees – the team he loved as a child – made him their first overall pick in the 2002 draft, and the team's financial offer was good enough to keep him from accepting a baseball scholarship to Oklahoma State. Weeden, who'd blossomed into a star quarterback at Edmond Santa Fe High School, would have walked onto OSU football team had he gone to college in '02, and he never completely abandoned the dream.

"From the time I was 18 years old," Weeden said, "I knew that if I had a bump in the road with baseball, I could always go back and play football."

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Weeden spent five seasons in the minors for three organizations – the Yankees, Dodgers and Royals, never ascending above Class A ball. He struggled with injuries to his pitching shoulder and had an ERA of 5.39 or above in each of his final three campaigns.

Suffice it to say he was not especially fond of the minor-league lifestyle.

"When I was in the South Atlantic League [with the Columbus Catfish from 2004-05], the shortest bus trip was four hours, and the longest was 18 – from Columbus, Ga. to Lake County, Ohio. And on that particular trip, which we began after a night game, I was scheduled to start at noon on the day after we arrived. That was brutal.

"There was [usually] air conditioning on the bus, but there was a 50-50 chance it wouldn't work. Sometimes the bus would break down in Georgia … Guys would be playing music, talking loud and taking their shirts off. If pisses me off just talking about it."

By 2006, Weeden was sharing a house in Adelanto, Calif., with seven Mavericks teammates, living in what he called "the Twilight Zone" and going nowhere fast.

"Sometimes there were less than 100 people at the games," he recalled. "I was miserable. The town sucked. I couldn't get anybody out. The wind blew out, about 45 miles an hour, every night. In the bullpen, which was in left field, guys would throw up their jackets and they would blow out to where the leftfielder played. I had a five-something ERA and I was giving up broken-bat homers.

"I was like, 'I'm over it.' "

Weeden enrolled at OSU and was redshirted in 2007; the following year, as a freshman, he threw three passes. In '09, Weeden came off the bench to rally the Cowboys to a victory over Colorado. He finally won the job before his junior season, starting his first game in nine years in the 2010 opener and flourishing from the start. He put up huge numbers, won 11 of 13 starts and earned All-Big-12 first-team honors.

As a senior, Weeden got even better, leading the Cowboys to a 12-1 campaign that included victories over Tannehill, Griffin and Luck (in the Fiesta Bowl). His arm strength and accuracy would seem to set him up for a successful NFL career, depending upon where he ends up and how quickly he gets an opportunity to compete for a job.

Given the uncertainty surrounding his draft position, Weeden turned down the NFL's invitation to join 26 other prospects in attending the proceedings at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Instead, he'll watch with family members and friends from his parents' home in Edmond, Okla., thus eliminating the possibility of joining past green-room sufferers Aaron Rodgers, Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart.

"It's a cool opportunity [to go to New York], but I don't want to be stuck in the green room forever," Weeden said. "There are too many unknowns. If I was a lock for the first round, it would be another story. But I watched [Rodgers, Quinn and Leinart] and felt bad for them … and I didn't want to be that guy."

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After all, unlike on some of those miserable nights in the minors, many more than 100 people will be watching.

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