June 6, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - Two years ago, some said Andrew Luck was crazy to return to Stanford instead of entering the NFL Draft. He put pro football on hold to work on his architecture degree and help the Cardinal make a run for a second straight BCS game.
Last year, fellow Houston native Mark Appel also said no to the pros. As the No. 8 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in Major League Baseball's 2012 amateur draft, he returned to The Farm to finish his degree in management science and engineering, and also became a first-team All-American and Stanford's all-time strikeout leader with 372.
While there is no denying both were ready to earn big bucks in their respective pay-for-play circuits, their decisions were admirable on many fronts. Degrees aside, both were committed to their teammates and genuinely enjoyed the camaraderie. They truly embraced the Stanford experience, were serious students, cultivated lasting friendships with athletes and non-athletes alike, and loved fitting in instead of standing out.
"It's hard to recognize how special those two men are," said Mark Marquess, The Clarke and Elizabeth Nelson Director of Baseball. "I think it's ironic we have two elite athletes back to back. I think it was important in the value system. It was not about the money for either one of them."
Luck was the first overall pick in NFL Draft last year by the Indianapolis Colts and had a terrific rookie season. Smart, poised and tremendously talented, he became an instant starter and has never looked back. He's also well paid.
Thursday, Appel was rewarded for his loyalty and intelligence by being the first overall player selected in the amateur draft by the Houston Astros. Although he never reached his goal of pitching in the College World Series, Appel had a great senior season and has no regrets.
"He did his part," Marquess said. "Our team wasn't as strong and we had a lot of injuries. But he had a better year."
Appel becomes the third Cardinal student-athlete in the last two years to be chosen No. 1 by a professional league. Last year, women's basketball standout Nneka Ogwumike was picked No. 1 by the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA.
"Both took a lot of criticism. But the thing people don't understand is what kind of people they are."
Marquess, who starred in football and baseball at Stanford in the mid-1960s, just completed his 37th year at the helm. He is only slightly amused when people suggest Luck and Appel took big chances coming back to school.
"Both took a lot of criticism," he said. "But the thing people don't understand is what kind of people they are. They're real All-American young men. Both are great students. I think it's a real plus for Stanford University."
Luck and Appel are unique in today's world of pro sports, where money and fame are sometimes too good to pass up. Granted, circumstances differ for every student-athlete, but both wanted to finish what they started on their own terms.
"It's refreshing," said Marquess. "Now, when they go into it, it's all in. They can dedicate all their time to it."
Appel reportedly declined a $3.8 million offer from the Pirates last year. But given how well he pitched this year, he figures to earn significantly more with the Astros.
Not all student-athletes are rewarded for their loyalty. Former USC quarterback Matt Barkley was likely a Top 10 pick last year, but elected to return to Los Angeles to complete his degree and help the highly-regarded Trojans contend for a national championship. He got his degree, but USC struggled, finishing 7-6 overall, and Barkley had a tough season, eventually slipping to the fourth round (98th pick overall) when he was finally selected by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Obviously, he has added incentive to prove himself in the NFL. But asked if he would do things differently, Barkley said no. Regardless of what you think of the Trojans, the decision was commendable.
It remains to be seen how Appel will do as a professional, but don't be surprised if he is called up to the majors soon by the Astros. He's big, strong, smart and mature. Barring injury, he's likely to have a long, successful career.
Stanford fans, be grateful. You got to watch two of the best ever at their sports for an extra year. Both made their school proud.
-- By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
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Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.