In the dead of winter, Jeff Samardzija still feels the itch.
Football will be on TV, and the former All-American receiver-turned-major league pitcher gets nostalgic for the sport.
“When you’re sitting around in January and you haven’t competed professionally in three or four months, that’s when it really wears on you,” Samardzija said with a smile. “You’re chomping at the bit to get going for spring training, and there’s really nowhere to take that anxiety and that energy.”
Baseball wound up the career path of choice for the A’s right-hander, but football will always be in Samardzija’s blood.
What options that lay before him seven years ago as a senior at Notre Dame. Coming off a record-setting collegiate career, there was speculation that the 6-foot-5 Samardzija might be a first-round NFL draft pick.
He wound up signing a five-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, beginning a road that led to his first All-Star selection this season after his trade to Oakland.
In a time when athletes increasingly are picking one sport to specialize in at a young age, it seems fewer and fewer will even be presented the choice that Samardzija had.
Growing up in Indiana, the challenge was simply narrowing down all of the athletic activities that he and his older brother Sam got involved in.
“He was right around four-and-a-half years younger,” Sam Samardzija said. “He could hang out with me and my buddies, but I think he learned early on that if he cried, he would have got his butt kicked maybe by me, or he would have had to answer to my Dad.”
Soccer, baseball, football, basketball, track …. Jeff even tried wrestling for a couple years, and though he admits he wasn’t crazy about the sport, he placed second in a state tournament.
By the time he was attending Valparaiso High School, he had become not only an all-state center fielder but a star receiver.
It led to a football scholarship to Notre Dame. Paul Mainieri, then the head baseball coach at Notre Dame, had never heard of Samardzija until he was recruited by then-Irish football coach Ty Willingham.
“I picked up a periodical that covered Notre Dame football, and it was an article about a receiver from Valparaiso, and all he was talking about was how he wanted to play baseball at Notre Dame,” Mainieri recalled. “So I ran down to Ty Willingham and said ‘Ty, who is this kid that you’re volunteering spots to on my ball club?’”
Willingham agreed to let Samardzija moonlight in baseball, but the compromise was he couldn’t play the outfield, where it was thought he’d be too vulnerable to injury. So Samardzija joined the Notre Dame pitching staff.
Mainieri knew he had someone special when he started Samardzija against Michigan as a freshman. Samardzija walked the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches, then calmed his nerves and struck out the next two batters to escape the jam.
Though Samardzija had trouble working his way up the football depth chart in his first two seasons, Mainieri had designs on Samardzija being one of his top starting pitchers as a sophomore. Before baseball season began that year, Willingham was fired as Notre Dame’s football coach and Charlie Weis replaced him.
“I started him that first game of the year if for no other reason than if Charlie Weis showed up on campus, it was going to be hard as possible to take him off baseball,” Mainieri said.
In Weis’ offense, Samardzija developed into an All-American receiver over his final two years, and by the end of his senior season in 2006, he held Notre Dame career records for catches (179), receiving yards (2,593) and receiving touchdowns (27).
As it came time to make a choice between football and baseball professionally, it was no surprise that Samardzija turned to his older brother for advice. Sam had walked away from a baseball scholarship at Indiana to help look after Jeff when their mother, Debora, died of a rare acute respiratory disease when Jeff was in high school.
Now, as Jeff faced a huge decision regarding his future, Sam and his wife drove to South Bend to talk it over.
“We brought out a dry erase board, and we wrote ‘football’ and ‘baseball’, and drew a line down the middle and listed pros and cons,” said Sam, whose involvement in his brother’s career steered him to become a sports agent.
Both Sam Samardzija and Mainieri say they know that at least one NFL team had Jeff targeted for the first round. Ultimately, Jeff decided his ceiling was higher in baseball. Then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, a close friend of Mainieri’s, had drafted Samardzija in the fifth round in 2006, between his junior and senior seasons of football.
With the Cubs still owning his rights, they signed him to a five-year $10 million contract in January 2007.
Samardzija broke into the majors in 2008 as a reliever and didn’t make the full-time conversion to starting until 2012. Gifted with a fastball that hits the high 90’s, he’s worked hard to improve command of his other pitches. The A’s will have him under team control next season before he hits free agency, so if Oakland doesn’t re-sign Jon Lester as is widely assumed, Samardzija will remain an anchor of the rotation in 2015.
Samardzija, 29, knows all about the dual-sport careers of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan. He also knows they were the exception to the rule when it came to those attempting to succeed in two sports.
“I was committed to myself that if I wanted to be the best at something, I’d have to commit full-time to one,” Samardzija said. “A lot of those careers, they didn’t really turn out the way guys wanted them to. I always wondered, if those guys did pick one, how good would they have been?”