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.