The first love letter arrived in Darnell McDonald's mailbox in
the spring of 1995, and it was followed for the next year and a
half by a steady stream of pleas and promises from Division I-A
schools. As a star running back at Cherry Creek High in
Englewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, Darnell was romanced more
than the homecoming queen, and the courting didn't stop until
Feb. 5, when he signed a letter of intent to attend Texas on a
football scholarship. When a copy of the letter arrived by fax
in their offices, the Longhorns' coaches celebrated, undeterred
by a somewhat sobering fact: Darnell may never carry the
football for Texas. He may never even enroll there, and the
coaches were aware of that before they ever dropped him a note.
"That could happen," said Longhorns offensive coordinator Gene
Dahlquist. "But if he gets the kind of money they're talking
about, we'll be happy for the kid, and we'll move on. What else
can you do?"
If you're a college football coach, there's not much you can do.
Darnell is one of a handful of football blue-chippers who also
are among the nation's top baseball prospects, which puts
football recruiters at a serious disadvantage in the fight for
these players. A four-year scholarship and a varsity letter
jacket pale in comparison to the seven-figure carrots being
dangled these days by big league baseball teams.
Darnell, for example, is an immensely talented baseball player,
a speedy outfielder and hard-throwing pitcher whom Baseball
America rates as the top high school player in the country and
whom baseball scouts project as a top-five selection in the June
draft. "He's not a football player trying to play baseball,"
says agent Scott Boras, who in representing numerous high
first-round picks the past eight years has done the most to
drive up baseball signing bonuses. "This young man is a
franchise-type player. He has the speed, the power, the arm and
the instincts." With the added leverage of having a college
football scholarship already in hand, Darnell could easily
command a signing bonus of more than $2 million. Did we mention
that Texas will also throw in a nice gray sweat suit?
"It's really not that tough a sell for us," says Orrin Freeman,
director of scouting for the Florida Marlins. "Football is great
if you're the biggest or fastest guy on the field. But if you
find yourself holding a tackling dummy for the first year or
two, you're not going to get all that adulation and excitement.
We offer the bonus and the benefits and a pension plan that's
second to none. And if things work out, the money in major
league baseball is more than any kid ever imagined."
Baseball has been known to stack the deck even further if a
prospect happens to mention how important education is to him
and his parents. All the club does is offer to pay for the kid's
college education, which can commence after his first summer in
the minor leagues and continue at the rate of one semester a
year until the player graduates. "We're not in the education
business, but we can actually do more for a kid than a college,"
says Freeman. "If Mom and Dad want to sit down and crunch the
numbers, they'll see how much more we can offer."
Along with Darnell, Tyrell Godwin of Council, N.C.; Kenny Kelly
of Tampa; and Marques Tuiasosopo of Woodinville, Wash., were
among the football-baseball high school stars who last week
signed letters of intent to play college football. Tyrell, a
running back-outfielder, committed to North Carolina. Kenny, a
quarterback-outfielder, is bound for Miami. And Marques, a
quarterback-shortstop and the son of former Seattle Seahawks
defensive tackle Manu Tuiasosopo, accepted a scholarship to
Washington. All say they want an education and want to play
football, and no doubt they mean it. But they will likely be
taken high in baseball's amateur draft, and their goals could
change. "If I go high enough and I'm offered enough money, I'll
sign," says Kenny, "but I want to play college football, too."
Says Tyrell, "Right now I plan to go to college. It's always
been a dream of mine to play both football and baseball in
college. But I'll be honest: It's always been my dream to play
professional baseball, too. I really don't know what's going to
Tyrell is ranked first academically in his class at East Bladen
High and would like to attend medical school someday, but even
he can't ignore the soaring bonuses that big league clubs are
stuffing into the pockets of first-round picks. The average
signing bonus for a first-rounder went from $246,000 in 1990 to
$913,000 in '95, according to Baseball America. (Even more
startling, four of last year's top 12 draftees were declared
free agents--the clubs that selected them forgot about a rule,
enacted in '90, requiring that the players be tendered a
formally executed contract within 15 days after the draft--and
commanded a total of $29 million in signing bonuses on the open
market, driving up last year's average bonus for first-round
picks to $1,755,000. Not only that, three of those free agents
were high school pitchers.) For the top two-sport prospects,
that's a lot of cash to leave on the table for the pleasure of
1) getting hit by 300-pound defensive linemen and 2) doing
"If Tyrell doesn't go to college, it would be a shame," says
Lenon Fisher, Tyrell's football coach, "but when they start
talking millions, any kid is going to want to jump at it. Heck,
I don't know many adults who wouldn't jump at it."
So how does college football compete? "It scares us," says David
Cutcliffe, the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at
Tennessee. "We do a lot of research with our baseball people as
to where we think a player will go in the draft. We've kept a
chart through the years about what kind of money we think
they're looking at. If it looks as if the kid will get drafted
in the top two or three rounds, we have a concern. We don't like
to burn a scholarship."
Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder is also wary. "To me, there's
no difference in looking at the player with pro baseball
potential and one with questionable grades," he says. "You look
at him and say, 'You know what? This guy may be a great player,
but we might not have him.' It's hard to compete against the
money baseball is offering."
It wasn't always this way. The first player taken in the 1979
draft, Al Chambers of John Harris High in Harrisburg, Pa., got
only a $60,000 signing bonus, which may help explain why Dan
Marino and John Elway, drafted in the fourth and 19th rounds,
respectively, by the Kansas City Royals that year, refused to
quit football. Even with today's staggering up-front money,
there are a number of other players who couldn't resist the
allure of sold-out Saturdays in the fall.
The Atlanta Braves drafted pitcher Chad Hutchinson in the first
round in 1995 and offered him a bonus of $1.5 million.
Hutchinson's parents were divorced, and he was one of five
children being raised by their mother, Martha. He appeared to be
an ideal candidate to grab the money, but he chose to attend
Stanford, where last year, as a redshirt freshman, he was the
starting quarterback. "Everybody asks me the same thing: 'What
are you doing?'" says Hutchinson. "Heck, it's fun. I'm not going
to sit around wondering about my decision. If I get hurt, I get
After a slow start this fall Hutchinson led Stanford to five
straight wins, including a 38-0 rout of Michigan State in the
Sun Bowl. He has three more seasons of eligibility, and already
he is considered an NFL prospect.
Seven years ago Chris Weinke was drafted by the Toronto Blue
Jays after signing a letter of intent to play quarterback at
Florida State. He reported for the Seminoles' preseason camp in
August 1990, but after a week of practice he accepted a
three-year contract from the Jays, which included a $375,000
signing bonus, and turned in his shoulder pads. "After I left to
play baseball, I received a letter from Coach [Bobby] Bowden,
and he told me that if baseball didn't work out, he would have a
place for me," says Weinke. "I met with him when I saw a game at
Florida State this year, and he was true to his word." Weinke
accepted Bowden's scholarship offer, and next spring he will
compete, at age 24, for the Seminoles' starting quarterback job.
Of course, Bowden didn't have to beg Weinke to return to
Tallahassee. Weinke's chances of becoming a big league star were
fading fast. A 6'5", 230-pound first baseman, he hit just .186
in 51 games in Triple A last year before being sent down to
Double A. "The problem with a lot of these guys is, when they
start struggling, they think, 'Jeez, I was a star in football.
Maybe I should try that again,'" says Freeman. "I'm almost to
the point where I'd like to let them play both, but you can't do
that with a No. 1 pick. You've just got too much invested in
Freeman and the Marlins are all too familiar with the effects a
football-baseball conflict can have on a young athlete. In the
relatively small galaxy of two-sport stars, no one has attracted
as much attention as Josh Booty, the 21-year-old from
Shreveport, La., whom the Marlins made the fifth pick in the
1994 draft. Booty was the top-rated quarterback in the country
coming out of high school--he even ranked ahead of Peyton
Manning--and accepted a scholarship to LSU. But after the
Marlins overwhelmed him with a $1.6 million bonus, he signed a
contract that stipulated he not play football until 1999.
Booty, a 6'3", 210-pound third baseman, spent three years
kicking around the Florida minor league system before football
fever set in again. "Every time I watch them on TV," Booty says
of the LSU Tigers, "I think how I'd love to be a part of them."
Last December he told the Marlins he wanted to play football at
Louisiana State after all, and Florida wasn't pleased--the
Marlins said he would have to pay back the bonus money.
Unfortunately for Booty, he had only a little over half of the
bonus left, and the Marlins are demanding the entire amount.
"You learn that you can't buy their heart," says Florida G.M.
Dave Dombrowski. "If they're making the decision based solely on
money, it's probably not the right decision."
Last year Booty hit only .206 with 21 home runs and 195
strikeouts in 128 Class A games, but the Marlins contend that
he's making a mistake if he walks away from baseball now. "We
think this kid can be a star in the major leagues if he gets
focused," says Freeman. "And if he'd hit .340 last year, he'd
know how good he could be. But he hit .200, so he's got doubts.
And when he goes home to Louisiana, he's like Elvis. They all
want him to play football." Booty enrolled at LSU last month for
the spring semester, but at week's end the Marlins were
expecting him to report to spring training on Feb. 21.
Around the country, Booty's saga has caused two-sport stars to
take note. Each kid has to wonder, as he looks at that long line
of zeroes on the baseball bonus check, if he would miss football
enough to give all that money back. Some guys don't want to take
that chance. Two years ago Texas running back Ricky Williams was
drafted out of high school in the eighth round by the
Philadelphia Phillies, who offered him a $115,000 bonus package
on the condition that he give up football. He refused, and then
accepted the Phils' offer of $50,000 to play minor league ball
while school was out. He also received $64,000 toward his
education. "They tried to sweeten the deal," says Williams of
the Phillies. "They asked me, 'How much will it take?' I told
them there's no way I'm not going to Texas."
Williams has since been dubbed Little Earl by Texas fans who say
he reminds them of pro football Hall of Famer and former
Longhorn Earl Campbell. "One kid told me he liked baseball, but
football just gets in your blood," says Texas's Dahlquist.
"There is nothing like running into Texas's stadium on Saturday
afternoon with 77,000 people cheering for you. It's a feeling
money can't buy."
It's a feeling Darnell McDonald will experience if he sticks
with his plan to attend Texas and play both sports. His
performance for the Cherry Creek High football team reads like a
misprint: In leading the Bruins to state titles in three
straight years, he rushed for 6,121 yards and scored 83
touchdowns, including 333 yards and five TDs in the 1996 state
championship game. Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel coveted
home-state hero Darnell, who had made one thing clear to the
army of college recruiters early on: He had no intention of
giving up baseball. That eliminated Colorado, which dropped
baseball 17 years ago.
Darnell narrowed his list to two schools, UCLA and Texas, both
of which promised him the chance to play baseball and football.
He gave Longhorns coach John Mackovic an oral commitment in late
January, but they both understood nothing would be settled until
June. One big decision down, a bigger one to go. "I can't make a
bad choice," Darnell says. "All my options look pretty good to
Darnell insists that he loves both sports equally. His father,
Donzell, played football at Colorado State and spent two years
as an outfielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after
being drafted in the sixth round and receiving a $15,000 bonus
in 1969. His brother Donzell II is a centerfielder in the New
York Yankees' farm system. Dad also is a Merrill Lynch
bookkeeper who knows everything has its price, including his
son's love of football. "Whichever team drafts him will have to
understand: Giving up a chance to go to college and play
football is an unbelievable sacrifice," says the elder Donzell.
"He's not going to sign just so he can say he got a million
dollars. It's got to be a special situation."
For a kid with Darnell's ability, there appears to be no other
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIREIf major league baseball's on the ball, Kenny may not attend Miami on a football scholarship after all. [Kenny Kelly holding football containing superimposed image of baseball game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIREDarnell will play two sports at Texas, unless a million-plus bonus changes his mind. [Darnell McDonald with projections of baseball and football players]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIREWeinke couldn't hit for average in the minors, so at 24 he's rejoining the Seminoles. [Chris Weinke in football uniform beside projected image of Chris Weinke playing baseball]