Every March THE madness consumes us all. You know the drill: loved ones are alone in rooms with only a flickering light, brackets are filled and busted shortly thereafter (curse you, Dayton), and many adult liquids are consumed.
Great fun is had by all. But there’s a chance — a remote, reaching chance, but a chance — that somewhere amid the madness you could be watching the NFL’s next great tight end, or defensive end. Or hell, even a quarterback.
The basketball-to-football transition is a concept that seems relatively new, but instead it’s just grown increasingly common over the last decade or so. During Gil Brandt’s time as the vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-88, he was part of the first front office to sign college basketball players and turn the athletic Play Doh they offered into something resembling a football man.
As Mike Huguenin of NFL.com documented earlier this week, Brandt’s first success story wasn’t at the tight end position, which is now commonly associated with the basketball pipeline. Instead he took Utah State basketball stud Cornell Green and made him into a cornerback/safety who played for the Cowboys from 1962 to 1974, making five Pro Bowls and intercepting 34 passes along the way. Green wasn’t the only former hoop star on those Cowboys teams. A year after his playing career ended the Cowboys had three former college basketball players on their 1976 Super Bowl team.
Some of the core traits required to be successful as a big man on the hardcourt transfer well to certain positions between football’s white lines, and of course tight end is chief among them. Here are six current NFL players of some renown who played college basketball and appeared in the March lunacy.
Gates will forever lead the basketball-football hall of fame. He’ll forever lead these lists too, and five years after he retires he’ll also be included in the actual hall of fame. The football one.
But the problem with time and common knowledge in this case is that we forget just how incredibly remarkable Gates’ accomplishments are after not playing a single down of college football. It was never a secret that he had the skills and body to excel on a football field, as when he was at Michigan State Nick Saban successfully recruited Gates to be a defensive end. But at the time basketball was his first love, so he departed Michigan State when Saban wouldn’t let him be a multiple sport athlete. After bouncing around a bit (to Eastern Michigan, and a few junior colleges) Gates landed at Kent State.
That’s where he averaged 20.6 points per game during his final season with 7.7 rebounds in a year that ended with Kent State advancing to the Elite Eight. When he was labeled a “tweener” prior to the NBA draft Gates held a private workout for NFL scouts, and as many as 19 teams were interested. The Chargers eventually signed him as an undrafted free agent, and he’s done this over 11 seasons:
- 9,193 receiving yards
- 87 touchdowns
- 719 receptions
- Eight Pro Bowl appearances
Yeah, he’s pretty good. Here’s the 2002 regional semi-final game when Kent State beat Pittsburgh, and Gates scored 22 points.
Before Gates there was Gonzo. Although Gonzalez could certainly hold his own in the post and throw some bows, he choose to ditch the multi-sport effort after his junior season at the University of California, but not before appearing in 24 games as a reserve during the 1994-95 season when Cal advanced to the Sweet 16.
Jump ahead to the 00:55 mark below to see Tony G pushing the fastbreak.
In just four years Jimmy Graham already has two +1,200 yard seasons, and despite missing time this year he finished second overall with 16 touchdowns. But long before he was boxing out and beating up defensive backs in the NFL, he was doing the same down low at Miami when they did the March dance in 2008.
Graham more closely followed the Gates path while playing far more basketball than football, as after four seasons and 120 games of hoop (averaging 4.2 points and four rebounds as a reserve), he returned to take graduate classes and give football a spin. That was a good decision.
Here he is getting dunked on, one of the few times in any athletic endeavor Graham has been on the wrong end of a poster.
In just his first full year Julius Thomas quickly emerged as a primary target for Peyton Manning during a Denver Broncos season that ended with a Super Bowl appearance. Thomas was third among tight ends with 12 touchdown receptions, and he had 788 receiving yards on 65 catches.
Those numbers in a career that’s just beginning are coming from a guy had barely played any football at any level prior to 2010, and he was instead a four-year basketball star at Portland State, making two trips to the March tourney (2008 and 2009). During his senior season Thomas averaged 10.8 points, with several busted baskets.
(Jump ahead to the 1:25 mark. My deepest apologies for the ear bleeding)
Along with 119 career sacks over 12 NFL seasons and a Super Bowl appearance, Julius Peppers also played in the Final Four for the Tar Heels during the 1999-2000 season. He was a reserve power forward for two seasons in North Carolina, and I know this will shock you, but a large, strong, and fast man who has done awful things to quarterbacks can also hurt a rim.
Peppers was a regular rotation player, appearing in 56 games over two years while averaging 7.1 points and four rebounds during the 2000-01 season, his last year playing basketball before focussing solely on football. Here he is making loud noises with a rim and a basketball.
Before he was puking in the Super Bowl, McNabb was a deep bench reserve guard for Syracuse until after his sophomore season when he shifted his athletic pursuits to football. In a 1996 rivalry game against Georgetown, McNabb had a career high 10 points, and later that March he was quite excited along with the rest of us during a wild finish to Syracuse’s Sweet 16 win over Georgia. McNabb’s, um, contribution is at the 1:51 mark.
Like McNabb, Jordan Cameron’s hardcourt time was of the “blink and oh there it goes” variety. But it happened, and he appeared in three games for USC after the 2008 football season.
Dude can throw it down though. Blake Griffin approves.
Back in high school and long before he became quite the off-field multi-tasker, Jay Cutler was reminding us that men of a center skin tone really can jump (starts at the 4:46 mark).