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As the clock ticked down toward the biggest decision of his life, Archie Bradley found it difficult to suppress his emotions.
Just days after his 19th birthday, Bradley was in what seemed a no-lose situation: Sign a contract worth $5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who selected him seventh overall in the 2011 draft, or accept a scholarship to play quarterback at Oklahoma.
"You play quarterback at OU, you're a legend," Bradley says. "You're remembered forever. People thought because of the money, I was going to be baseball automatically. But I was really passionate about playing football in college."
But pragmatism trumped passion. Bradley accepted the Diamondbacks' offer moments before the Aug.15 signing deadline, largely, he says, because of "how much faster your body wears down in football."
Three years later, the move looks wise -- and not only because Bradley is the game's top pitching prospect and likely to crack Arizona's rotation.
Reaching the NFL is a challenge unto itself, and once there life can be much more arduous than in Major League Baseball. Tuesday marked the beginning of the NFL's free agency period, a process largely populated by aging veterans signing non-guaranteed contracts. It's a stark contrast to baseball's so-called hot stove season, when stars in their prime score eight- and nine-figure paydays.
Furthermore, greater knowledge has emerged in recent years about the health effects of an NFL career -- including the specter of a massive lawsuit brought by former players claiming the league didn't protect them. Bradley says his excruciating decision then would be an easy one today.
"With the research about how concussion-prone the game is, and the long-term effects it's having on people, if I'd had that information, it would have changed my decision even more toward baseball," he said.
The immense popularity of football means dozens of multisport stars still will choose the gridiron over the diamond. But as several young stars told USA TODAY Sports, baseball's delayed gratification still has considerable appeal.
"You've got guys who are knocking people's heads off," says Billy Hamilton, the 23-year-old Cincinnati Reds speedster who turned down a football scholarship from Mississippi State. "You look back and watch that and you're like, 'Man, I made the right decision to play baseball.'"
Carl Crawford still wonders what he could have done on the football field.
His athletic options as he emerged from Houston's Jefferson Davis High School were staggering: A scholarship to play point guard at UCLA, a $1.25million signing bonus to start the climb through the Tampa Bay Devil Rays system and a scholarship to run the option at Nebraska.
"Right now," he says with a laugh, "I'm looking like the smartest guy ever."
Crawford, who is entering the fourth year of a seven-year, $142million contract, is an excellent player, yet he might be just the third-best outfielder on his own team. By comparison, Green Bay Packers quarterback and 2011 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers' five-year, $110million contract signed in April2013 guarantees him $62.5million.
"I don't even really understand all that stuff," Crawford said of the NFL's contract structure. "All I know is, what we sign and get paid for, that's what we get paid. You sign for $100million, and you only get ($60million)? That doesn't make sense to me."
Three years ago, Crawford -- then with the Boston Red Sox -- did his best to persuade a young player to choose baseball. The Red Sox drafted Senquez Golson in the eighth round and offered him a seven-figure bonus to keep him from playing football at Mississippi. Crawford, on behalf of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, called Golson to pitch him on baseball.
Though negotiations endured until the August deadline, Golson opted for football.
"I couldn't believe with the amount of money being offered to him, he turned it down, even though he knows what the consequences of football are," Crawford says. "But then, his response was it wasn't cool to his friends, he didn't want to play (baseball). Baseball was the boring or nerdy thing to do. And football was the cool thing to do."
Baseball's "cool factor" got a boost this spring when Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson -- a former minor league infielder -- made a one-day cameo in Texas Rangers camp. And Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston of Florida State faced the New York Yankees in a Grapefruit League game; he's an outfielder and reliever for the Seminoles baseball team.
Like Wilson, Winston's brightest future might be on the gridiron, but Epstein's fight for the best athletes might get easier.
The average major league salary has ballooned to $3.39million, while an NFL player earns $1.9million, with an average career of three to six years, depending on whether the players association or league is doing the calculation.
"There's way more money in baseball," Epstein says. "We have to do a better job as an industry in promulgating that fact. Sometimes, it's worth waiting to get that kind of money."
Football still beckons
In regard to which career is more sustainable, Epstein doesn't have to say a word.
In recent years, several retired NFL players committed suicide or were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma. More than 4,500 former players sued the NFL, claiming it did not adequately protect them from the effects of blows to the head. Talks are ongoing after a judge rejected a tentative settlement of $765million. And the league has emphasized safety and changing the culture of the game, installing new rules and increasing penalties for hits to the head.
With all that at hand, several players who gave up the game still wouldn't hesitate to play.
Kyle Parker agreed to give up the starting quarterback job at Clemson after two seasons when he accepted a $1.4million bonus from the Colorado Rockies in 2010. Parker, an outfielder who might reach the majors this year, calls the NFL's concussion saga the result of "guys going at it for years and years with no precautions taken. All the safety, the (changes), that should be fine."
Chicago Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija also didn't worry about health ramifications. After catching 78 passes for 1,017 yards in his senior year at Notre Dame, Samardzija was a possible first-round selection in the NFL draft. But the Cubs guaranteed him $10million. Samardzija says his decision was based purely on his athletic ceiling -- that he'd only scratched the surface of his potential as a pitcher.
"You need to go by your heart and what you love the most, where that love will carry you to work harder and carry you through the tough times that professional sports throw your way," says Samardzija, who finished fourth in the National League last season with 214 strikeouts.
The son of a union man who worked for a power company, Samardzija also doesn't take his union's role lightly. "We have great health care," he says. "We take care of our former players."
That thought didn't cross Bradley's mind three years ago, when Oklahoma football beckoned. Now, he has been in a major league clubhouse, has heard the pitch of his union and has a big-league job at his fingertips.
"Now that I'm hopefully close to getting there -- and the goal is to stick there awhile -- you appreciate the union, what the players did before us," he says. "Guaranteed money is never a bad thing."