This spring, as he watched Kyler Murray become the first player to be drafted in the first round of both the NFL and MLB drafts, Jalen Suggs saw a potential blueprint for his own success.
Suggs is a two-sport high school star from Minnesota who has his pick of NCAA Division I football and basketball programs — or, if he chooses, both. He is also among the next crop of elite athletes looking at Murray, who was drafted first overall by the Arizona Cardinals after winning the Heisman Trophy as Oklahoma’s quarterback, as a model for maximizing their athletic opportunities. Instead of choosing a single sport to pursue in college with the hope of eventually playing professionally, many are asking, “Why not both?”
While two-sport high school stars are nothing new, athletes are specializing in a single sport increasingly early, and almost all are forced to choose one by the time they reach college. Murray’s successful but unconventional path may not prove to be easily replicated, but his short-term influence on the next generation of athletes is clear.
“He just let me know that it is OK to do both,” said Suggs, who is ranked the No. 12 basketball recruit and the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2020, according to 247Sports. “And in doing it, it shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. … A lot of people would say, ‘Just pick one sport,’ or, ‘It is too much time,’ or, ‘You are going to get hurt doing one of them.’ But he just really showed me that I can.”
Murray’s improbable journey served as an endorsement for waiting as long as possible to choose a sport. After he was selected ninth by the Oakland Athletics in the 2018 MLB draft and landed a $4.6 million signing bonus, the conventional wisdom was that risking injury while playing football — a sport in which he had not yet started for a full season on the college level — might not be worth it. But by extending his opportunity to make the decision, and after an outstanding season in which he had 54 total touchdowns and won the Heisman, he earned himself an NFL contract worth $35 million guaranteed while vowing to give up baseball and focus only on football going forward.
“If (Murray) turns into a great quarterback in the NFL, the reverberating effect could be just huge,” said Peter King, an NFL reporter and commentator for NBC. “Not just because he’s the first (quarterback under 6 feet tall) to be drafted that high, but because of his versatility. I just think that now we’ve got to see it.”
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound Suggs is intrigued by the possibility of having a similarly successful two-sport career, and in making his college choice — among the schools piquing his interest are Gonzaga, Marquette, Michigan and Minnesota — he will have to decide if being a two-sport college athlete is the right call. Suggs, who attends Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis and is related to NFL star Terrell Suggs, is considered to have NBA potential as a point guard but is also viewed as a high-level college prospect at quarterback.
“Easily watching Kyler go as far as he did in baseball, then for him to go rip it up in football, and then being able to choose and for him to make his own decision, it was great,” said Larry Suggs, Jalen’s father. “I would want the same thing for my son.”
Suggs is not alone, even if he is unique in pursuing the rare combination of basketball and football. Several highly regarded recruits are considering following Murray’s lead even more directly with a two-sport career in football and baseball, including Jackson (Mississippi) Prep’s Jerrion Ealy, a five-star running back and skilled outfielder who will play both sports at Mississippi after being passed up in the first round of last month’s MLB draft; and Memphis University School’s Maurice Hampton, who will play defensive back and outfield for LSU.
Perhaps the most notable high school athlete to try to follow in Murray’s footsteps is D.J. Uiagalelei, the top-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2020 from St. John Bosco in California, who committed to Clemson in May. At 6-4 and 235 pounds with a powerful arm, Uiagalelei is considered the heir apparent to Tigers star Trevor Lawrence, but he is also a major league prospect who will bring his 95 mph fastball to Clemson’s baseball team.
“What Kyler Murray is doing, it is so amazing,” said David Uiagalelei, D.J.’s father. “It is helping my son’s situation out big-time. … I’m really just thanking Kyler.”
Some experts caution that young athletes need to be realistic about their abilities in each sport and recognize that not everyone can match the natural ability of Murray, who possesses rare athleticism as a thrower and runner that served him well in both sports.
“I think that players are going to see this as an opportunity and are going to point to Kyler Murray at how it can be successful, but they also need to understand that unless you are like Kyler Murray, the chances of you pulling it off are pretty infinitesimal,” ESPN baseball reporter Jeff Passan said.
But others point out that the opposite could be true — that players who could have replicated Murray’s achievement if given the chance were forced to make a decision too early.
“I would bet my last dollar that we missed God knows how many Kylers because kids were told to make a decision early and people went along with that because they couldn’t find the right place,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said.
Ealy, the Mississippi-bound running back and outfielder, said his dream is to be the first Hall of Famer in both sports, and he credits Murray for opening the door for the acceptance of a reliable two-sport athlete. He said he recognizes the challenge but appreciates the opportunity to play both into his college years, giving him more time to decide which sport is right for him.
“Of course it is going to be hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it,” Ealy said. “I want to go out and do it and play both sports as long as I can and as far as I can.”
The two-sport challenge Suggs is attempting is considered more difficult, and past examples of football-basketball success stories are rare. Charlie Ward, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s played both sports at Florida State, is the only Heisman winner to play in the NBA.
Suggs could find himself pressed into a decision sooner rather than later, if pro basketball scouts project him as a first-round selection after his first season in school. Unlike in football or baseball, in which recruits have to wait three seasons after their high school graduation to be drafted, the NBA allows players one year removed to join its ranks. It is an appealing option to Suggs, and an NBA agent suggested that having already played a season of college football could even help his standing with talent evaluators.
“From a basketball standpoint, I think it would increase his stock,” the agent said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a high school recruit. “He does have that physicality, a mental toughness, intellect and athleticism. … It would show that he could multitask and he can perform under pressure.”
In the meantime, Suggs would like to prolong that decision for as long as possible. He has had a basketball in his hand since he was a week old and has played football since kindergarten. He intends to keep it that way while he carefully evaluates his college options alongside his family and friends — with Murray’s success seared in the back of his mind.
“I will continue to play and love both (sports) for as long as I can,” Suggs said. “I have dreams of going to the NFL, (and) I definitely have dreams of going to the NBA. As long as I accomplish one of them, I can say that I accomplished what I wanted to do.”