Dec. 21, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Brandon Weeden and Jordan Pratt can only chuckle now about their baseball connection.
The Oklahoma State quarterback and Stanford wide receiver spent a sweltering summer together in 2005 with the Class-A Columbus Catfish, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ former minor league affiliate in Georgia. After practice or before games, they’d often take a break from baseball and play out another sports fantasy.
“He’d bring out a football every once in a while and throw me routes,” Pratt said. “We’d always talk about, ‘If baseball doesn’t work out, we’ll go back and play football.’ Everybody else is like, ‘Yeah right, that’ll never happen.’ And the two of us were kind of like in the back of our minds thinking, ‘Yeah? We’re going to do this if baseball doesn’t work out.’”
They might be the only the ones not surprised by this rare Fiesta Bowl reunion.
Weeden, Oklahoma State’s 28-year-old starting quarterback nicknamed “Grandpa” by students, dropped baseball in 2007 for the gridiron. Pratt, a freshman walk-on wide receiver at Stanford some call “The Professor,” is just beginning his college career at age 26 after eight years in the minors.
As their teams get ready to meet in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, both are playing out that football fantasy on opposite ends of odd college careers — something they could only imagine six years ago on baseball diamonds thousands of miles away.
“It’s kind of ironic when you look back at how things kind of evolve from those days,” Weeden said.
The two formed a teammate bond while chasing the dream of pitching on Dodger Stadium’s mound.
They lived in the same apartment complex, played beach volleyball with other teammates during down time, spent countless hours together on bus rides, eating meals at truck stops and staying in motels.
Both spent time in a variety of cities and leagues. Columbus offered shorter travel than most; the longest bus trip was about seven hours that season.
The Catfish also had several future major leaguers, including Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp in 2004. However, it was not one of the most desirable places to play.
“It was hotter than crap. We didn’t get many fans,” Weeden said.
While they played multiple sports in high school, each turned to baseball first.
Weeden spent five years in the minor leagues after being a second-round pick — and first player taken — by the New York Yankees in the 2002 draft. He always had an idea of what he’d do if baseball didn’t work out, and that’s exactly what led to him to being an unexpected Cowboys sensation.
Pratt played for eight years in the minors before seeking out Stanford. He received a $175,000 signing bonus with the Dodgers and is now taking advantage of a $120,000 college scholarship program with his baseball days done.
“Scouts were telling me I had a chance to do some things if things worked out baseball wise, and so I really wanted to give that a shot and leave no stone unturned,” Pratt said. “So that’s why I was always focusing on baseball. It was always kind of my first love. I knew I could always go back to school.”
Both are following rare paths to major college football.
According to research by STATS LLC, they are among at least 17 Bowl Subdivision players who are at least 25, though not all schools provide players’ birthdates in team media guides. There’s at least one player older than Weeden this season: Buffalo punter Peter Fardon, a 29-year-old senior from Australia.
Age is a constant subject of teasing by teammates.
“They call me old man a lot and they joke with me,” Pratt said. “They say, ‘Man oh man what are you doing here?’ Anytime I make a comment that makes sense they say, ‘Ah, the wise old man.’”
Life is also different from those of most college athletes.
Weeden lives off campus with his wife, Melanie, and is financially stable thanks to his baseball contract. Pratt married his wife, Amy, back in February and is thinking more about starting a family one day than an NFL career. He will be at least 30 by the time he graduates.
“At least he’ll get hassled about his age more than I will,” Weeden joked.
The experience of playing professional baseball is what separates both — besides their age — from their younger teammates who had a head start on football.
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy considers Weeden’s age to be a positive because he’s been through the ups and downs of the minor leagues and doesn’t get rattled easily. Stanford coach David Shaw expects Pratt, relegated to the practice squad as a freshman, to play next season and see big minutes before his Cardinal career is over.
“I’ve had a lot of friends who have played professional baseball. A lot of times in professional baseball, you don’t have the highs and lows.” Shaw said. “You have to be a pretty steady guy, so when things go wrong, you don’t panic.”
Pratt plodded along for seven seasons in the lower minors before the Dodgers promoted him to Double-A Chattanooga in 2010. He finished there with a 6.00 ERA in eight games, then sent his old football tapes to Stanford and became a non-scholarship player this season.
Weeden ended his baseball career in 2007 when a partially torn labrum and severe tendinitis in his rotator cuff didn’t get better with rehab. He visited with Gundy and Larry Fedora, the offensive coordinator at the time, and decided to walk on — with the Yankees paying for his schooling before he was placed on scholarship last semester.
With the difference in throwing motions, he doesn’t experience any pain when tossing a football.
The two have lost touch over the years, as is the way with a traveling minor league player. Weeden didn’t even know Pratt was at Stanford until somebody told him after the Fiesta Bowl announcement a couple weeks ago.
They haven’t had a chance to speak to each other yet but are hoping to catch up soon.
“I’d probably say, ‘What’s up?’” Weeden said. “See what he has been doing, talk about his last few years in baseball and about the glory days in Columbus, Ga.”
-- Antonio Gonzalez, Associated Press