The lesson of two-sport John Elway: Football, not baseball, will keep Jameis Winston famous

Florida State's Jameis Winston takes off his helmet Florida State's Jameis Winston takes off his helmet after grounding out in the sixth inning during a spring training exhibition game against the Yankees Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. Photo Credit: AP / Chris O'Meara

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

Tuesday's Yankees-star college quarterback convergence, an exhibition between the Bombers and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and his Florida State mates, reinforced a couple of truths about America's two premier spectator sports:

1) The rarity of a dual-sport pro at the highest level and, 2) the dramatically different advancement curve between potential big-time baseball and football success, both in terms of performance and celebrity.

An ideal case study was John Elway.

In 1982, Elway already was among the nation's most celebrated college football players, with his senior season at Stanford -- and being the overall No. 1 pick in the NFL draft -- still ahead. Under the radar, he also was playing baseball at Stanford, and playing well enough that the Yankees had made him a first-round selection in the baseball draft the previous year.

He had options. So he signed a one-summer, $140,000 contract with the Yankees to play for their Oneonta, N.Y., farm team in the Single-A New York-Penn League. Every other member of the Oneonta team that year was earning from $600 to $1,000 per month -- compared to Elway's $47,000-per-month rate.

Every other Oneonta player was assigned by the Yankees organization to Oneonta, at the lowest end of the minors for what more often is a path to disappointment than a road to the big leagues; Elway was asked where he wanted to play. Most of the Oneonta players lived that summer at the Hartwick College fraternity house in town; Elway could afford better digs.

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There was a scene before an Oneonta game in Little Falls that summer that illustrated the wide gap between Elway, already a household name at 22 (because of football) and his anonymous teammates of the same age:

A woman approached the visiting dugout to ask one of the Oneonta lads "for No. 8's autograph."

"Who's No. 8?" the player said, all wide-eyed with mock confusion.

"Elway," she said.

"Oh, him. He got sent down, didn't he?"

And then, calling down the dugout bench: "Hey, Elwood," the player shouted, before other Oneonta players joined in the not entirely kidding routine: "Hey, Elrod." "Hey, Elmore." And so on.

Elway, who did his best to fit in as one of the minor-league scufflers, passed the woman's program along to his teammates to sign as well.

He admitted to "getting a lot of ragging." He was well aware that his was not the lonely, single-minded journey of most around him, those with no assurances of a big payday or even a prolonged life in the sport.

Elway's pro baseball career started horribly. He had only three hits in his first 27 official at-bats (.111), drawing a phone call from the Yankees' then-baseball operations vice president Bill Bergesch, to offer encouragement.

At season's end -- his only one in the sport -- Elway, in 42 games, had batted .318, with four homers, 25 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, six doubles, two triples and a perfect fielding percentage -- no errors in 77 chances in the outfield.

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Not bad, though a major-league debut likely was years in the future. Yet Elway, when drafted by the Baltimore Colts the next year -- a team he publicly said he would not join -- had the leverage of a possible baseball career to force a trade to Denver. Where he proceeded to win a starting job by the sixth game, embarking on a 16-year Hall of Fame career that included five Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi Trophies.

That leverage was something none of his Oneonta teammates had. If Jameis Winston is in a hurry for a shot at the Big Time, he should stick to football.

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