Baseball or football? Here’s what will drive Kyler Murray’s decision

Updated: January 11, 2019

9:08 AM ET

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      ESPN MLB insider
      Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
  • CloseESPN Staff Writer
    • Covered Browns, Cleveland sports since 1998
    • Previously worked at Fox Sports Ohio, AOL Fanhouse, Akron Beacon Journal/
    • Cleveland native, proud father of two daughters

HE WAS IN PAWTUCKET, or maybe it was Toledo, or it might’ve been Syracuse. Days and nights in the International League, baseball’s final weigh station bridging the minor leagues and major leagues, blend together like that. All Drew Henson remembers is that he was in some minor league town, in the midst of a dire slump — like, 2-for-25 bad — when he saw some old friends on the TV at the sports bar where he was eating dinner.

They were playing on Monday Night Football. And he was in Scranton or Richmond or Durham or wherever it was, playing baseball after having foregone a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Drew Henson was Kyler Murray before Kyler Murray. And as Murray’s impending early entry into the NFL draft following his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Oklahoma further complicates his football vs. baseball decision, the stakeholders in his career are trying to better understand the true strength of each sport’s allure.

The Oakland Athletics chose Murray with the ninth pick in the 2018 Major League Baseball draft and lavished him with a $4.66 million bonus. They still believe he will play baseball. NFL teams are frothing over his college tape and giving themselves every reason to look past his 5-foot-9 frame. They’re convinced he will play football.

“A lot of it comes down to what’s in your heart, what’s your passion, what you can be excited to do for this next chapter of your life,” Henson told ESPN in a phone conversation Thursday. “Do you like watching film more than you like hitting in the cage? Are you willing to give two seasons to staying in small towns and hotels and grinding it out and struggling and playing in front of 500 people when guys you dominated in college are playing on Monday Night Football?”

Henson’s hypothetical is Murray’s reality. And when the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday night first reported that the A’s expect Murray to declare for the draft, the months of questions about his fitness to play quarterback in the NFL at 5-9 and 180 pounds almost vanished. In their stead came assessments of more and more evaluators who were grading him a first-round NFL talent — “magic,” as executives told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Plus the video of Kliff Kingsbury, the new coach of the on-the-clock Arizona Cardinals, saying months ago he’d take Murray with the No. 1 pick in the draft. As the football set celebrated Murray’s symbolic step toward leaning in its direction, one A’s fan and baseball blogger was so dismayed she sent a vicious tweet about Murray and wound up getting fired.

This is the power of Kyler Murray, an athlete whose dynamism convinced the A’s to spend the ninth pick in the draft on him with fewer than 250 college at-bats to his name, a dynamo whose athleticism didn’t just allow him to function while standing behind an offensive line at Oklahoma that averaged 6-4½, but turn in an all-time-great season with 4,361 yards, 42 touchdown passes and just 7 interceptions. It is good to be loved, and Murray has dual — and dueling — paramours with boundless ardor.

The only question is to whom Murray will reciprocate. Whichever path Murray chooses between now and the Feb. 15 report date to A’s spring training is potentially rich with fulfillment, success and money. They are also wildly disparate.

Henson was 21 when he left Michigan — and, as Buster Olney then wrote in The New York Times, “a chance at winning the Heisman Trophy” — to sign a six-year, $17 million guaranteed deal to play third base in the Yankees organization. He was the archetypal quarterback at 6-5 and 220 pounds, good enough to split time at Michigan with a quarterback named Tom Brady. When he analyzed the choice, Henson took into account injury risk factor, career longevity, guaranteed money, future earning potential, lifestyle, travel and so much more.

“I tried to look inside,” he said. “What are you most comfortable with? Where do you see yourself happiest 10 years down the road? What do you wake up most excited to do?”

Henson landed on baseball, and baseball did what it has done to so many athletes with otherworldly talent: It chewed him up. He spent the 2002 season at Triple-A before debuting for the Yankees in September. He stagnated at Triple-A the next season and logged his only big league hit, a single to center field, in what would be his last baseball game, Sept. 28, 2003, against the Baltimore Orioles. By 2004, he was a quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys.

Perhaps that’s still a path for Kyler Murray. He’s 21 years old. He could try baseball, see if he loves it, if he’s good at it. It’s safer. It would fulfill his pledge to the A’s. It’s the sort of challenge Kyler Murray has faced before. Someone suggests he can’t do something — too short this, too slight that — he shows them, and everyone else, otherwise.

Or he could simply follow his heart, as Henson suggested, and which Henson thinks leads clearly in one direction. “I do think at the end of the day he’s going to play football,” he said. A certified baseball agent now, Henson said he has spoken with football agents who more and more believe Murray is leaning football.

“The big thing about football is his height,” Henson said. “It’s the only detriment you could possibly asterisk. And it’s a legitimate something to discuss. But coaching staffs are doing a better job these days fitting what they do to the skill set of their best players, especially the quarterback. It’s an issue, but not a major issue. You see these amazing athletes who transition from college to the NFL. The speed translates, but it’s not the same. You’re not ripping off 70-yard runs twice a game off a draw. A little of that style of his game would be taken back, but it’s everything else that makes it work. He goes through his reads. He’s extremely accurate. He’s got every tool that you want. He’s won. He’s always won.”

By the time Kyler Murray makes his decision, he’ll have won again. Because this is his choice, his destiny, his free will. There may be pressure, but that’s fine. As spring training approaches and the next decision looms, he’ll do exactly what he did all fall as he took snaps from shotgun: survey the landscape, narrow down his options and hope he picks the right one.

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