They were playing on Monday Night Football. And he was in Scranton or Richmond or Durham or wherever it was, playing baseball after having foregone a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Drew Henson was Kyler Murray before Kyler Murray. And as Murray's impending early entry into the NFL draft following his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Oklahoma further complicates his football vs. baseball decision, the stakeholders in his career are trying to better understand the true strength of each sport's allure.
The Oakland Athletics chose Murray with the ninth pick in the 2018 Major League Baseball draft and lavished him with a $4.66 million bonus. They still believe he will play baseball. NFL teams are frothing over his college tape and giving themselves every reason to look past his 5-foot-9 frame. They're convinced he will play football.
"A lot of it comes down to what's in your heart, what's your passion, what you can be excited to do for this next chapter of your life," Henson told ESPN in a phone conversation Thursday. "Do you like watching film more than you like hitting in the cage? Are you willing to give two seasons to staying in small towns and hotels and grinding it out and struggling and playing in front of 500 people when guys you dominated in college are playing on Monday Night Football?"
Henson's hypothetical is Murray's reality. And when the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday night first reported that the A's expect Murray to declare for the draft, the months of questions about his fitness to play quarterback in the NFL at 5-9 and 180 pounds almost vanished. In their stead came assessments of more and more evaluators who were grading him a first-round NFL talent -- "magic," as executives told ESPN's Adam Schefter. Plus the video of Kliff Kingsbury, the new coach of the on-the-clock Arizona Cardinals, saying months ago he'd take Murray with the No. 1 pick in the draft. As the football set celebrated Murray's symbolic step toward leaning in its direction, one A's fan and baseball blogger was so dismayed she sent a vicious tweet about Murray and wound up getting fired.
This is the power of Kyler Murray, an athlete whose dynamism convinced the A's to spend the ninth pick in the draft on him with fewer than 250 college at-bats to his name, a dynamo whose athleticism didn't just allow him to function while standing behind an offensive line at Oklahoma that averaged 6-4, but turn in an all-time-great season with 4,361 yards, 42 touchdown passes and just 7 interceptions. It is good to be loved, and Murray has dual -- and dueling -- paramours with boundless ardor.
The only question is to whom Murray will reciprocate. Whichever path Murray chooses between now and the Feb. 15 report date to A's spring training is potentially rich with fulfillment, success and money. They are also wildly disparate.
FROM THE BEGINNING, the Oakland A's understood the risk. No matter how much money they guaranteed Kyler Murray, no matter how much his father, Kevin, wanted him to play baseball, no matter how enticing they made the prospect of his secondary sport becoming his primary, football would always be the temptress on his shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in his ear, trying to coax him back into the huddle. The public revelation about Murray entering the NFL draft, then, did not faze them. Just because Oakland expected it did not send the organization into a panic.
The A's have spent well more than half a year now trying to answer Drew Henson's hypothetical. The solution, or at least their best crack at a solution, is multipronged, illustrates the care they've put into Murray's success and offers a sense of what the next few years of his baseball career might look like.
It starts at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona, in mid-February, when every major league player, and those like Murray with invitations to big league camp, arrive for spring training. A football-to-baseball transition necessitates far more than adjusting from oblong ball to tapered, cylindrical bat. Murray hasn't swung a bat since June, so the A's training staff needs to write a specific protocol for him to progress at a languid-enough pace that he doesn't pop an oblique muscle and sideline himself for a month.
Special treatment would define the Kyler Murray Baseball Experience, should he choose it. Non-roster players in major league camp are typically shipped back to the minor league side in early March. The A's plan for Murray to stay with the big leaguers until they leave for their season-opening series in Japan. Every little lagniappe helps when asking Murray to leave behind 86,112 raucous fans at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium for California League crowds that max out around 3,000.
Certainly when he signed his deal Murray understood the grind of baseball -- not just its day-in, day-out nature but the transition from stardom to relative anonymity. Part of it plays to Murray's personality -- the harder he works, the sooner he could leave Class A Stockton. Murray also is used to playing superhuman on the football field, and with his lack of baseball experience and the older players with plenty of it in the Cal League, even his wonderful raw tools can't promise anything close to the same success.
Extracting someone from the warm embrace of QB1 is a daunting proposition, and football is betting on Murray's addiction to what he knows. And what he knows is that in the modern game, the quarterback is all-important, and in the draft, talented quarterbacks do not slide. It takes only one team to look past Murray's height, focus instead on everything else he does and offer the perhaps-instantaneous gratification that baseball simply cannot match.
Consider the past few drafts. In the early stages of 2016 draft analysis, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were not thought worthy of the top 10. They went first and second overall. In 2017, the thinking on the top quarterbacks was late first round. Mitchell Trubisky went second overall, Patrick Mahomes 10th and Deshaun Watson 12th. In the most recent draft, Baker Mayfield was a surprise first overall pick, with Sam Darnold third, Josh Allen seventh and Josh Rosen 10th. Worries about Mayfield's size and Allen's accuracy and Rosen's dedication dogged them -- and did nothing to tank their draft stock. Teams move mountains for quarterbacks, and Murray's talent happens to be mountainous.
It's not enough to convince some front-office officials. "The height is a major concern, obviously," said one executive who projected Murray as a second- or third-round pick. His slight frame, which allows him spectacular speed but leaves him prey for leviathan defensive linemen ready to feast, worries others. Still, NFL assessments on Murray are incomplete. Some teams have yet to study him, in part because he hadn't declared for the draft and in part because of his stated commitment to baseball.
Enough buzz exists to warrant Murray exploring the draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both think Murray is likely to go in the first round. As more elements of the college game permeate NFL offenses, not only does the transition become less onerous -- as Murray's former teammate Mayfield showed -- but the possibility of designing an offense to mitigate Murray's shortcomings is entirely feasible.
"He is as small as we have ever seen," one NFL evaluator told ESPN's Mike Sando. "He is smaller than Russell Wilson, but like Russell, he is smart. You see the baseball player in him -- he gets down, does not take big hits. As the NFL game goes more toward the college game and as the rules limit how defenses can hit, there may be a place for him because he is talented.
"He is the wild card who could go early, but we just don't know."
It's easy to suggest Murray follow Mayfield's road map. Both, after all, are undersized, Heisman-winning quarterbacks from Oklahoma who showed exceptional accuracy and skills in college. The path to stardom, let alone starting, can be circuitous, and college performance does not necessarily correlate with professional success.
The opportunity, on the other hand, is clear for those pegged as potential future quarterbacks. The Browns planned for Mayfield to sit his rookie season; he wound up leading them to five wins in their last seven games. Darnold started from the jump. Rosen, Allen and the last pick of the first round, Lamar Jackson, each finished the season as his team's first-string quarterback. That followed Trubisky, Watson and Wentz playing as rookies. Sitting for the majority of a season, as Mahomes and Goff did, is more the exception than the rule now for first-round quarterbacks.
The strength of Murray's first-round grade by some evaluators could be put to the test. While the expectation is that he will declare for the draft, would he go to the NFL combine? And if so, what drills would he do? And how would his performance there persuade or dissuade teams from considering him in a spot that would guarantee him as much money as Oakland did?
As much as Murray's draft-declaration plan screamed football, the A's are far from conceding defeat. They still see Murray as their center fielder of the future until he says otherwise. They know that because he missed instructional league while playing football, he's behind on simple aspects of the team's development process, like learning the A's hitting program. This year would be a crash course in baseball. If they didn't think he could handle it, they would not have sacrificed the ninth pick in the draft to a player with off-the-charts risk.
If all goes well -- i.e., Murray chooses baseball -- the A's hope he can handle the transition to the Cal League and maybe, just maybe, move up to Double-A Midland by the end of his first season. Because he is Kyler Murray -- because he is faster and stronger and better athletically than everyone at almost everything -- the A's believe he's capable of making up whatever deficiencies may exist in a shorter window of time.
With a successful first season, the notion of Murray ascending to the major leagues by 2020 is not far-fetched. It would probably be too quick, maybe even something that could stunt Murray's development, and yet the A's are not nave enough to dismiss that even if Murray is in the big leagues, football is always there, whispering, coaxing and tempting without so much as trying.
"IT'S THE TOUGHEST decision I've ever had to make. Easily," Drew Henson said, and nearly two decades after he chose the New York Yankees over the University of Michigan football program and, eventually, the NFL, he still sounded conflicted.
"You work so hard as long as you can remember for opportunities in what you love," he said. "Mine happened to be sports. And then you find yourself in a situation where one is just going to abruptly end. You've had nothing but extreme success, and the thought of walking away, when you're 20, 22 years old, that's a big thing to try to swallow. People say, 'Which one do you like better?' I think people who like one sport better than another choose sooner. When it's truly 50-50, you don't look at either that way. You love both so much. It's a daunting idea to process all that and take every option into account and try to make an educated, intelligent decision when you're barely legal drinking age."
Henson was 21 when he left Michigan -- and, as Buster Olney then wrote in The New York Times, "a chance at winning the Heisman Trophy" -- to sign a six-year, $17 million guaranteed deal to play third base in the Yankees organization. He was the archetypal quarterback at 6-5 and 220 pounds, good enough to split time at Michigan with a quarterback named Tom Brady. When he analyzed the choice, Henson took into account injury risk factor, career longevity,guaranteed money, future earning potential, lifestyle, travel and so much more.
"I tried to look inside," he said. "What are you most comfortable with? Where do you see yourself happiest 10 years down the road? What do you wake up most excited to do?"
Henson landed on baseball, and baseball did what it has done to so many athletes with otherworldly talent: It chewed him up. He spent the 2002 season at Triple-A before debuting for the Yankees in September. He stagnated at Triple-A the next season and logged his only big league hit, a single to center field, in what would be his last baseball game, Sept. 28, 2003, against the Baltimore Orioles. By 2004, he was a quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys.
Perhaps that's still a path for Kyler Murray. He's 21 years old. He could try baseball, see if he loves it, if he's good at it. It's safer. It would fulfill his pledge to the A's. It's the sort of challenge Kyler Murray has faced before. Someone suggests he can't do something -- too short this, too slight that -- he shows them, and everyone else, otherwise.
Or he could simply follow his heart, as Henson suggested, and which Henson thinks leads clearly in one direction. "I do think at the end of the day he's going to play football," he said. A certified baseball agent now, Henson said he has spoken with football agents who more and more believe Murray is leaning football.
"The big thing about football is his height," Henson said. "It's the only detriment you could possibly asterisk. And it's a legitimate something to discuss. But coaching staffs are doing a better job these days fitting what they do to the skill set of their best players, especially the quarterback. It's an issue, but not a major issue. You see these amazing athletes who transition from college to the NFL. The speed translates, but it's not the same. You're not ripping off 70-yard runs twice a game off a draw. A little of that style of his game would be taken back, but it's everything else that makes it work. He goes through his reads. He's extremely accurate. He's got every tool that you want. He's won. He's always won."
By the time Kyler Murray makes his decision, he'll have won again. Because this is his choice, his destiny, his free will. There may be pressure, but that's fine. As spring training approaches and the next decision looms, he'll do exactly what he did all fall as he took snaps from shotgun: survey the landscape, narrow down his options and hope he picks the right one.
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