Brandon Weeden and Eric Hacker would head to the beach whenever they had an off day.
Minor league baseball players didn't get many of those, but when free time came along during their rookie summer in Tampa, nearby Clearwater Beach was a popular destination. Not to surf. Not to swim. Not to snorkel.
They would throw around the football.
And they would daydream.
“If baseball doesn't work out the next four or five years, we're going to go back and play football,” the Yankees' draftees would tell each other. “Man, Chris Weinke did it. Why can't we?”
Weinke was the patron saint of baseball-players-turned-football-standouts, spending six years in professional baseball before going to Florida State and winning the Heisman Trophy.
Having a football fallback always sounded like a good idea to Weeden and Hacker.
“But ... did we ever really actually think it would happen?” Hacker said. “No.”
Thing is, it really actually did happen for Weeden. After five years in the minors, he left baseball for football. He enrolled at Oklahoma State. He walked on to the football team. He rolled the dice.
Hit the jackpot, too.
Weeden has become the best quarterback in Cowboy history, a transformational player who led the program to its first 11-win season last year and its first outright Big 12 title and BCS bowl this year. A Fiesta Bowl showdown with Stanford and Andrew Luck awaits Weeden and OSU in a few weeks.
He's done all of this with a cannon arm, a cool savvy and a fierce competitiveness.
Those who knew him best during his baseball days say they saw that combination of physical prowess and mental maturity in Weeden long ago. They just always thought those would be the things that would take him to the big leagues, not the heights of college football.
“If Brandon would've stuck with baseball, Brandon would be pitching in the big leagues right now,” said Hacker, an early teammate and still a close friend. “I really believe that.
“He'd have probably pitched in the big leagues for 15 years.”
* * *
Brandon Weeden arrived in Tampa, Fla., nine summers ago just like every other player on the Yankees' Gulf Coast League team.
Wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
The rookie ball team is the first stop for players just drafted by the storied organization, and everyone arrives young and green and a little bit intimidated. Some of the guys were just a few weeks out of high school. Others had just left college while others had recently arrived from faraway places like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.
“It was different,” Weeden said.
It wasn't always easy, though. The first player drafted by the Yankees in 2002, Weeden signed in early June and reported to Tampa soon after. He was only about a month removed from high school but more than a thousand miles from home.
The players lived in a hotel, and while that had its perks — maid service, anyone? — it wasn't home.
“More than anything, you have to grow up,” Weeden said. “My parents ... they cut me off. I had money. At that time, I had more money than they did. It was like, ‘You can pay your own bills.'
“My parents were always there if I needed something, but ... everything was kind of on me.”
He bought a car, and it was up to him to pay it off. He needed insurance, and it was on him to pay it. He had laundry to do, and it wasn't something he could take home to mom.
“I was kind of like a kid who had just graduated college that was out getting his first job,” Weeden said.
Except that the kid was just out of high school.
Hacker was the same way. He and Weeden became roommates and fast friends in Tampa. A native of Duncanville, Texas, Hacker was like many of the buddies Weeden had left behind in Edmond. Easy going. Fun loving. Sports junkie.
Hacker had even played quarterback in high school.
They talked about football often, but those days were behind them.
“Once you make that decision to play baseball, your goal is to play in the big leagues,” said Hacker, who made his major league debut in 2009. “That was what was at the top of our minds.”
No reason for Weeden to think otherwise. The Yankees, a franchise that has shown it knows a thing or two about being successful in baseball, made him their first pick in the draft. They chose him over the likes of Curtis Granderson and Justin Maureau, Josh Johnson and Delwyn Young. Of the players available when New York made their first choice — a second-round pick — Weeden was the player who they believed had the best chance of helping them.
Andy Stankiewicz realized why when he crossed paths with Weeden. The former big leaguer had played for the Yankees and was managing the organization's short-season Class A team in Staten Island when Weeden came through in 2003.
Stankiewicz quickly saw the physical talent, the arm strength and the powerful frame on the 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher, but it was Weeden's mentality that most impressed him.
“A lot of guys, they're really emotional,” Stankiewicz said. “They used to be really, really successful. Then you get to the pro game, and it's a little bit different. You're competing against really good players, and the success isn't there right away.”
Weeden had success.
He also had failure.
“But he was just always composed,” Stankiewicz said. “It was a great demeanor for a pitcher.
“He was just going to work.”
And Weeden didn't carry the baggage that high draft picks sometimes bring with them. Some guys buy the jewelry and the cars. Some bring the attitude and the swagger.
“I don't think anybody ever felt like, ‘Man, this guy's got a big head,'” said Stankiewicz, now the baseball coach at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. “He came from an environment where he was probably raised pretty well. He was a pleasure to work with, always worked hard, kept quiet and went about his business.
“I think if he would've stuck with it, eventually ... ”
He thought Brandon Weeden was bound for the big leagues.
* * *
Everything in Weeden's career seemed to be on the up and up.
Even when the Yankees sent him to the Dodgers as part of the Kevin Brown trade after the 2003 season, it was a nod to Weeden's potential. New York needed an ace — and fast — after losing Andy Pettitte to free agency, so they acquired Brown for a couple no-names and Weeden.
He landed in Columbus, Ga., with the Class A Catfish.
“He was good,” said Zach Hammes, Weeden's teammate and roommate in Columbus. “He had good stuff. He had a very good curveball. He was very talented.”
But those next few seasons were unlike anything Weeden had experienced before. All of a sudden, he had teammates and opponents who were older. Some had wives. A few had kids.
Baseball started to seem more like a job.
“When you're playing rookie ball and you're 18,” Weeden said, “it's more like you're at camp.”
He appeared in 11 games his first season in the minors and in 12 games his second season. But in his first season in Columbus, Weeden started more games than those first two seasons combined.
In 27 starts, he went 7-9 with a 5.39 ERA.
Despite Weeden's so-so record, Hammes never saw his confidence waver.
“When we got drafted, we really didn't know what we were getting into,” said Hammes, a big, tall righty. “You don't know there are all these levels of baseball, and there's all this multiyear development.
“You think you're just going to have fun.”
And for several years, it was fun for Weeden.
Then after the 2005 season, he was traded to the Royals. His only season with the organization was spent with the Class-A High Desert Mavericks, and it was a slog. He appeared in 32 games, but 28 of those appearances were in relief. Even though he went 6-5, his ERA ballooned to 6.03.
Worse, his shoulder was giving him problems.
“I was not having fun,” Weeden said, “so I brought a football to the field every day.”
One of his teammates had played football at Dartmouth, and they threw the ball around the outfield. They ran routes. They had some laughs. But for Weeden, it was more than a way to pass the time on days he wasn't pitching.
It was an escape.
He wanted out of baseball.
* * *
Eric Hacker remembers getting that surprise call after the 2006 season from Weeden.
They'd kept touch after their two seasons in Tampa, texting or calling or even making visits to Hacker's home in Texas or Weeden's in Oklahoma to visit each other, but still, Hacker wasn't prepared for Weeden's news.
“I'm done with baseball,” he told his friend, “and I'm enrolling in Oklahoma State and going to walk on the football team.”
“Man, good luck,” Hacker said. “I hope it all works out.”
Safe to say, it has.
Weeden still hears from baseball buddies regularly. They wish him luck. They tell him they'll be watching. And then some of them say what he has said time and again.
“Who would've thought this?” Weeden said.
It is a far-fetched story, the minor league baseball player becoming the big-time college quarterback. Who would've believed the guy chasing a major league roster spot would one day take a football program to never-before-seen heights? Who would've thought that crazy talk about being the next patron saint of baseball-players-turned-football-saviors would actually come true?
Then again, sometimes daydreams become realities.
“He's got an education. He's married to a wonderful woman. He's living a great life,” Hacker said. “And it looks like his future is bright in football.
“I don't think he's looking back.”
Out of nowhere
No quarterback has impacted Oklahoma State football like Brandon Weeden, leading the Cowboys to their first 11-win season a year ago, only to repeat the feat with a chance at reaching 12 this year.
That's at stake when OSU plays Stanford in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl — the school's first BCS bowl.
And to think, Weeden's path to this point seemingly came out of nowhere, from third-team quarterback in 2009 to possible first-round NFL draft pick.
This is the first in a three-part series of Weeden's journey:
The Santa Fe Years. Weeden emerged out of nowhere as a high school athlete, too, with a growth spurt paving the way for him to play football and eventually become a two-sport star at Edmond Santa Fe.
The Minor League Years. The mature, competitive winner that Cowboy fans know and love? Baseball types knew that side of Brandon Weeden long ago. They just always thought it would take him to the big leagues, not to the heights of college football.
The OSU Years. After baseball did not work out, Weeden decided to go back to school. Five years later, the former walk-on has his degree. He's OSU's all-time leading passer. And he's one of the most recognizable figures in Stillwater. What's it like to be the big man on campus?