Irish baseball star promises he'll return to gridiron
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When Jeff Samardzija runs, stopwatches click.
When Jeff Samardzija pitches, radar guns blink.
|Living a Double Life|
2003: 7 rec., 53 yds., 0 TDs
2004: 17 rec., 274 yds., 0 TDs
2005: 77 rec., 1,249 yds., 15 TDs
2004: 5-3, 2.95 ERA
2005: 8-1, 3.89 ERA
2006: 8-2, 4.32 ERA*
The Notre Dame pitcher is fast with his right arm, heaving a baseball in the mid-to-high 90s.
But the swiftest multitasker in college athletics cannot be rushed into choosing his future. He won't declare himself a football player, even though ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks him the No. 7 prospect overall (and No. 1 receiver) for the 2007 NFL draft. He won't declare himself a baseball player, even though Baseball America ranks him the No. 20 collegiate draft prospect and No. 36 overall prospect.
Jeff Samardzija is a two-sport guy until further notice -- and that's after dropping basketball following his graduation from Valparaiso, Ind., High School, and ignoring his father's pleas for him to take up hockey.
So if you're impatiently anticipating Samardzija becoming athletically monogamous, pull up a chair and watch him play the field -- diamond, gridiron, whatever -- a while longer. He's leading a double life and enjoying it.
"Five years from now what I truly want to be doing is both," Samardzija said Friday, after pitching half of Notre Dame's seven-part miniseries of an NCAA Tournament opener, a 16-inning, 5-4 loss to College of Charleston. "There's ways I can do it. That's the little kid in me that wants to keep doing everything I can. Hopefully I'll put off making that decision as long as I can."
These are the decisions Samardzija has made to date: He will continue to pursue his business degree, fresh off a 3.0 grade point average semester; he will play pro baseball this summer, probably in the Penn League; and even if he's taken in the Major League draft and offered a pile of cash later this month, he will return to South Bend in the fall to play football for the Fighting Irish.
"From the beginning, no matter what was happening with baseball, the No. 1 thing in my mind was playing football," Samardzija said. "I've got a lot obligated to coach [Charlie] Weis and my teammates. That's who I'm out there playing for.
"I'm obligated to my baseball teammates, too, but nothing could take me away from playing football. No amount of money is going to buy me away from it."
There are spirals to chase from Brady Quinn come August, and a potential national championship to pursue. Notre Dame is not a realistic title contender without the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Samardzija, who blew up in year one under Weis to the tune of 78 catches for 1,274 yards and 15 touchdowns -- all single-season Irish records.
Prior to that, Samardzija was underused and underappreciated by Ty Willingham. That led Jeff's dad, Sam, to apologize to his youngest son for pushing him in the direction of the Golden Dome. No apology was necessary, Jeff assured him, but Sam still felt compelled to encourage Weis to give his son a chance to show what he could do last spring.
It won't shock you to learn that Weis doesn't appreciate backseat coaching.
"We didn't hit it off very well at the beginning," said Sam, a salt-of-the-earth guy of Serbian descent who had already heard a bunch of hollow talk from Willingham's coaching staff during Jeff's first two years at Notre Dame.
Now Samardzija is a campus cult figure, drawing a record crowd of 3,507 to Eck Field in late April to see him pitch against Rutgers -- and to grab up posters of "Shark," as he's known, wearing shoulder pads with a bat across his shoulder.
And now Weis and the Samardzijas love each other. Weis gave Samardzija the leeway to put baseball first this spring, missing nine of the 15 spring football practices, and his star receiver responded by guaranteeing he'd be back to wear a gold helmet one more season.
The resulting agreement has seen Samardzija's baseball stock skyrocket.
"He's becoming a pitcher more every outing," Sam Samardzija said. "Before he was just a thrower."
Samardzija was something of a longshot to even make Notre Dame baseball's traveling squad as a freshman. But once there, he became a freshman All-American, racking up a 5-3 record and a 2.95 earned-run average.
Last year, while devoting most of his spring to football, he went 8-1 with a 3.89 ERA. This year, the ERA is higher (4.32) but the record is 8-2 -- and he's never been a hotter prospect.
He began the season as Baseball America's No. 94 college prospect and has vaulted to No. 20. And Friday at Cliff Hagan Stadium on the University of Kentucky campus, the radar guns were a virtual firing squad behind home plate while Samardzija faced the Cougars. About 20 pro scouts were on hand, and at least one of them clocked Samardzija at 95 mph.
But if the guy's fastball was in a hurry Friday, then so were his hands at one juncture that eventually loomed large in this game. Samardzija was called for a controversial balk with runners on second and third in the bottom of the second inning, sending in a run. Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri took the field to complain, and Samardzija was so thrilled he fired his glove into the dugout between innings.
The Irish were leading 3-1 after that. But when Samardzija made his one bad pitch of the night in the bottom of the sixth, surrendering a three-run home run that tied the game and touched off an unexpected epic -- the 16-inning game tied for the second-longest game in NCAA Tournament history -- the balk retroactively became huge.
"I guess I didn't come to a complete stop," Samardzija said. "It's kind of a tough call, but as a player you have to overcome it. As a pitcher you've got to take the fall for that, because that run turned out to be a big play in the game."
Samardzija has more skills than consonants, and that was another one on display: poise. Even after a crushing loss that pushed the Big East champs into the loser's bracket and left the dugout positively grim, Samardzija calmly answered every question, granted every autograph request and posed for every fan picture.
"I'm real proud of him," Sam Samardzija said. "I've always been proud of him, but I'm happy for him. He's doing something I never thought be could do."
The question is how long Jeff Samardzija will lead this overachieving double life. Don't expect a quick answer.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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