Rays Tales: Was football in their future? Players, mostly, say no

Rays outfielder Steven Souza Jr. says his friendship with Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, back, has given him a new respect for the rigors of playing professional football, especially the “mental aspect.”
Rays outfielder Steven Souza Jr. says his friendship with Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, back, has given him a new respect for the rigors of playing professional football, especially the “mental aspect.”
Published Sep. 9, 2017

Sundays are for the big boys of the NFL, and with another season kicking off today, there are, as in any workplace, some huge fans — and avid fantasy players — in the Rays clubhouse.

The difference is some of the Rays played enough football, and played it well enough, on Friday nights in high school to have had offers to play on Saturdays in college and, at the least, to wonder what it would be like on Sundays.

But usually not for too long.

RF Steven Souza Jr. (listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and 1B Logan Morrison (6-3, 245), two Rays with arguably the bodies to best fit in among NFLers, recently visited Bucs and Chiefs practices, respectively, and came away shaking their heads over the size and speed of the players.

"I felt small there," Morrison said. "And I wouldn't want to get hit."

So what do some of these baseball players think about playing pro football?

RHP Alex Cobb, quarterback

Did well enough in a spread offense at Vero Beach High to spark some talk of college possibilities but is pretty sure he couldn't have handled playing on Sundays. "That level of athleticism, the size of the guys, the speed — you don't know how your body would respond to that type of training — but I can't imagine being out there on a Sunday and having some of those guys bearing down on me," Cobb (top right) said. "Don't know — if I was playing a different sport and you were to ask me if I could be a major-league pitcher, I wouldn't know. It's a completely different perspective; you do things your body has to do for certain sports. But definitely probably not."

CF Kevin Kiermaier, safety

Playing like he does in centerfield, Kiermaier capped his high school career in what he said was great style, with a Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers school record-tying 10 interceptions, a state championship won at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium and an appearance in the Indiana all-star game. He had some initial interest from NAIA schools before opting to play baseball in junior college, and he does wonder what may have been. "I really believe if I would have tried to play safety somewhere and how my body has developed with my speed and strength and my toughness — I take a lot of pride in if I wanted something, I'm going to get it," Kiermaier said. "I'm not saying NFL or major collegiate, but I think I could have been a pretty damn good player in college. I think with my instincts, I feel like I had a great feel for it out there. Everything I do in centerfield, I think my instincts are second to none compared to other guys throughout the game. I know football is different, reading offenses, but at the same time I feel like I always knew where that ball was coming. We'll never know, but at the same time I would hope my athletic ability, my confidence in myself and my instincts would have allowed me to be a pretty good player at certain levels. … My football career ended in a great way, and it was time to turn the page, but it's fun to think back at what could have happened."

C Curt Casali, quarterback

In leading New Canaan High to a Connecticut state championship in a spread, no-huddle, shotgun offense installed to take advantage of his arm, Casali was all-state as a QB and punter. He received interest from Boston College and some Ivy League schools, despite making it clear he preferred baseball (and going to play at Vanderbilt). "I think I could have played in college, I honestly do," Casali said. "It's one of those 'What if?' questions I ask myself. … I still miss it."

RF Steven Souza Jr., wide receiver

A good enough receiver in high school that he was planning to play football along with baseball had he gone to Washington State, Souza reconsidered a college football career when he briefly quit baseball toward the end of the 2011 season in the Nationals' minor-league system, even going as far as emailing coaches to solicit interest. Having now established himself as an everyday major-leaguer, and established a friendship with Bucs QB Jameis Winston, Souza has immense respect for what it would take to play in the NFL. "In college you can be more athletic than the other guys and be more talented and do pretty good, but to get to the pro level, everybody is pretty much athletic and physically strong, so it's the mental aspect that really separates the guys," he said. "We talked about the grind they have in practice. (Jameis) said he's there from 5 in the morning 'til 9 p.m.; we have that grind on the road when we're going for like 12 straight games. There's a mutual appreciation for each other's craft."

OF Mallex Smith, safety

Played well enough at Tallahassee's Rickards High to draw some interest from FAMU but knew at 5-10, 180 that his speed probably wouldn't be enough in the NFL. "There's a whole lot of people as fast as me," Smith said. "That's the land of the big, strong and fast."

RHP Jake Odorizzi, wide receiver

Had the chance to play football as well as baseball had he taken his scholarship to Louisville rather than sign with the Brewers. "I had good hands, and I used to be fast, too. That's when I was an athlete, not just a pitcher," Odorizzi said. "I had the opportunity, but I might have talked myself out of it and been smart to stay away." And he certainly has no illusions of a career in football. "No chance, absolutely not," he said. "Maybe not even in college. Let's be quite honest — people that are 6-foot, 6-1 in the NFL are the small guys."

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RHP Chris Archer, quarterback

Knew he was very good at Clayton (N.C.) High, thought he could do well in college with some interest from Elon and a connection to the Air Force Academy, not so sure that pursuing the NFL would have been a good idea, especially compared to baseball. "It would have taken so much more," Archer (bottom left) said. "Yeah, I'm smart and I could read defenses and I could throw the hell out of a football, but my attributes play way up on the baseball field. My athleticism in baseball on the mound — I'm not going to be Michael Vick in the NFL even though that's what I did in high school. Being dynamic helps me way more in baseball than it would in football. … (Kiermaier) probably could have been a good college football player, but put him on a baseball field and he's the best athlete on the field most of the time. Same with Souza and Mallex, athleticism in this game stands out way more."

And some others …

1B Logan Morrison played one year of youth football while in seventh grade, but between having to struggle to make weight and getting knocked around as a defensive lineman, he had enough. … Speedy OF Peter Bourjos got talked into playing football by the coach at Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale, Ariz., and enjoyed playing receiver and running back kicks but had "no interest" in going further. … RHP Tommy Hunter played defensive end and outside linebacker in high school but much preferred baseball, though he wanted to be a hitter. … Ambidextrous bench coach Tom Foley played quarterback for Miami Palmetto High left-handed, but in one game after an injury he switched to right-handed. … INF Brad Miller played one season as a 12-year-old but couldn't play in high school: "I love football, but I was like 150 pounds and would've gotten destroyed, so that wasn't going to happen." … OF Corey Dickerson was a quarterback and receiver at Mississippi's Brookhaven Academy.

Rays rumblings

Between hotel space and travel logistics, the Rays didn't have a lot of options in working with MLB to find a neutral site to relocate this week's Yankees series from the Trop. Playing at the Mets' Citi Field certainly won't negate the Yankees' crowd support, but at least they won't have the full comforts of homefield advantage (clubhouse, training facilities, dimensions) as if the games were played in the Bronx. … Here's hoping that 3B Evan Longoria's suggestion that Rays players take time to help the community in hurricane recovery efforts gets support from the front office. … The Rays sure seem to keep doing the right things civically, such as offering to donate ticket revenue from the rescheduled Yankees series to hurricane relief funds and provide seats to another game. … The Rays, eventually, might get some compensation via insurance for lost revenue from the relocated games. … Tuesday's announced record-low crowd of 6,509 would indicate the Rays' full season ticket base, which they don't announce, is at best in the 5,000s. … Having four of their seven minor-league teams make the playoffs was a good thing for the Rays; not having any players among the 30 named to Baseball America's first- and second-team minor-league all-star squads was not. … Noting the small, though hurricane-prep-thinned crowds at the Trop last week, former Devil Ray Aubrey Huff tweeted: "Those are the days I remember! Atmosphere of an indoor high school soccer match." … Get ready for a Chicago invasion, with the University of Illinois slated to play at USF on Friday night, the Bears at the Bucs next Sunday and Joe Maddon's World Series champ Cubs at the Trop on Sept. 19-20. … Condolences to the family of Gene Michael, the longtime Yankees exec, Tampa Bay area resident and Trop visitor who died of a heart attack last week at his Oldsmar home.

Staff writer Roger Mooney contributed to this report.