By Tim Casey
CHICAGO -- Seven years since Jeff Samardzija's last football game, the Cubs' pitcher is constantly reminded about his days as an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame. On Monday night against the White Sox, the 6-foot-5 Samardzija proved he still has exceptional hands, yet NFL teams and fans shouldn't get their hopes up: He is all baseball, all the time.
For a brief moment, though, he provided a glimpse of what he showed every Saturday as a junior and senior in college. With one out in the fourth inning, he caught a chopper over his head with his bare hand and threw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was charged with an error after he couldn't hold on to the ball. Samardzija was asked about the last time he made an over-the-shoulder grab.
"Probably in the  Sugar Bowl," said Samardzija, referring to the final football game he played. "For a touchdown, of course."
Samardzija displayed his sense of humor despite another sensational individual performance that concluded without a victory. He threw a career-high 126 pitches, lasted nine innings, allowed three hits and no earned runs and even broke up a no-hitter with a leadoff double in the sixth inning.
Still, he finished with a no-decision after a 3-1 loss to the White Sox in 12 innings. He is now 0-3 with a 1.62 ERA, second-best in the National League. He has allowed three runs or fewer in all seven starts. And yet, Samardzija isn't feeling sorry for himself.
At 29, he is having the best season of his career at the ideal time. He's eligible for free agency after next season. So far, he and the Cubs haven't agreed on a long-term contract, leading to speculation that the team might trade him this year to get maximum value. Regardless of where he ends up, he's likely to sign a deal for tens of millions of dollars, justifying a surprising decision he made seven years ago.
Projected as a first-round selection in the 2007 NFL draft, he instead signed a five-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs. Now, thanks to his recent success and the increasing attention on concussions and long-term health concerns associated with football, he looks smart to have chosen baseball. He doesn't give himself too much credit, though. When contemplating his career choice, he didn't think much about cognitive issues.
"People from the outside always say, 'Hey, you made the right decision. You won't have mashed potatoes [for brains] in 15 years,' which is always pretty funny," Samardzija said. "It's not like that. When you're an athlete, you just do what feels good to you and you kind of go with the rhythm of things. It's just kind of the way the path of my career went."
Giving up football was difficult for Samardzija. He received a football scholarship to Notre Dame and only played baseball after getting permission from football coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Still, they didn't want him in centerfield (his best position) because they feared he might get hurt. Although football was his priority, and he didn't practice baseball in the fall, he became the ace of a Notre Dame staff that included three other future major leaguers.
In 2006, the Cubs selected Samardzija in the fifth round of the draft. That summer, he pitched in Class-A before returning to Notre Dame in the fall for his senior football season. For the second consecutive year, he was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award presented to the nation's top receiver.
As he weighed the pros and cons of both sports, he encountered skepticism from his potential future employers. Before committing millions of dollars to Samardzija, NFL and Major League Baseball franchises wanted to protect themselves in case he changed his mind. They told Samardzija his contract would include clauses that would penalize him and reduce his pay if he played or injured himself in the other sport.
"Most people thought that he was going to concentrate on football professionally, but in my private conversations with Jeff, he expressed to me how much he really loved baseball and wanted to play professionally," said then-Notre Dame baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who is now coaching at LSU. "None of the [baseball organizations] really believed that he was willing to give up football to go into baseball because in football, there's no minor league system. You go straight to the top level and you get paid well whereas in baseball, you have to fight your way through the minor leagues."
The only person to take Mainieri seriously was then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. The men were best friends since they coached high school baseball together in Miami in the early 1980s. When he signed with the Cubs in 2007, Samardzija vowed he would commit himself full time to baseball. If he decided to play football, he agreed to give back his $2.5 million signing bonus.
Even as Samardzija progressed through the Cubs' system, NFL teams continued showing interest. He was particularly tempted to switch sports when he shuffled between the majors and Triple-A in 2009 and 2010 and alternated between starting and relieving.
"It's not easy, especially when you see your buddies and your friends playing Monday Night Football or Sunday Night Football and I'm in Mobile, Alabama, in 99 degree weather with 100 percent humidity grinding it out," Samardzija said. "It's tough, and it's not going well. There were definitely a lot of times that you look at it and it kind of makes you laugh where you're at now."
Samardzija never considered becoming the next Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders and competing in the NFL and the major leagues in the same year. He doesn't even think it's possible anymore. Players such as Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston may be talented enough to play professional baseball, but owners and executives most likely wouldn't allow them to play both sports simultaneously. They have too much money invested in them.
"I think the times are changing," Samardzija said. "There's just so much revenues and resources being put into athletes today that when they're committing that much to one person, they want all of your time and all of your effort, which is understandable. It's going to take a special person to do both [sports] because they're willing to risk their careers on both ends or maybe one that they were better at to do both."
For a few years, Samardzija faced plenty of questions about quitting football. His fortunes changed soon after the Cubs hired Theo Epstein as team president and Jed Hoyer as general manager in October 2011. Samardzija had recently finished his first full major league season during which he had 87 strikeouts and 50 walks in 88 innings (75 appearances) out of the bullpen. Epstein and Hoyer assured Samardzija he would start the next season, a role he had wanted since signing with the Cubs.
The Cubs, in a rebuilding mode since Epstein and Hoyer took over, have shown patience with Samardzija. Even when he's struggled, they have kept him in the rotation. In 2012 and 2013, he was among the top five pitchers in the National League averaging more than nine strikeouts per nine innings. He had an ERA+ of 107 and 92 during those seasons.
He's much improved this year. He has 38 strikeouts and 15 walks and has lasted at least seven innings in six of his seven starts. No one's doubting his decision anymore.
"I told myself early whatever [sport] I chose right off the bat was the one I was going to go head over heels for and just do it until it went out," he said. "I guess I'm pretty stubborn. I always felt like I would have my tail in between my legs if I ran away and went back to football."
Soon, barring an unforeseen injury, Samardzija will reap the benefits of his success with a huge contract. Samardzija, who has earned more than $20 million during his career, is a bargain this year with a $5.3 million salary.
He is grateful for the chances the Cubs have granted him. He also loves living 60 miles from his hometown of Valparaiso, Ind., and near numerous friends from high school and college. Still, he understands he has a finite career. He isn't planning on taking a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs, but for now, he's more concerned with getting his first victory this season. He's not about to predict what comes next.
"Careers take funny twists and turns," he said. "I'm just happy to be where I'm at today."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.