The first love letter arrived in Darnell McDonald's mailbox in the spring of 1995, and it was followed for the next year and a half by a steady stream of pleas and promises from Division I-A schools. As a star running back at Cherry Creek High in Englewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, Darnell was romanced more than the homecoming queen, and the courting didn't stop until Feb. 5, when he signed a letter of intent to attend Texas on a football scholarship. When a copy of the letter arrived by fax in their offices, the Longhorns' coaches celebrated, undeterred by a somewhat sobering fact: Darnell may never carry the football for Texas. He may never even enroll there, and the coaches were aware of that before they ever dropped him a note.
"That could happen," said Longhorns offensive coordinator Gene Dahlquist. "But if he gets the kind of money they're talking about, we'll be happy for the kid, and we'll move on. What else can you do?"
If you're a college football coach, there's not much you can do. Darnell is one of a handful of football blue-chippers who also are among the nation's top baseball prospects, which puts football recruiters at a serious disadvantage in the fight for these players. A four-year scholarship and a varsity letter jacket pale in comparison to the seven-figure carrots being dangled these days by big league baseball teams.
Darnell, for example, is an immensely talented baseball player, a speedy out-fielder and hard-throwing pitcher whom Baseball America rates as the top high school player in the country and whom baseball scouts project as a top-five selection in the June draft. "He's not a football player trying to play baseball," says agent Scott Boras, who in representing numerous high first-round picks the past eight years has done the most to drive up baseball signing bonuses. "This young man is a franchise-type player. He has the speed, the power, the arm and the instincts." With the added leverage of having a college football scholarship already in hand, Darnell could easily command a signing bonus of more than $2 million. Did we mention that Texas will also throw in a nice gray sweat suit?
"It's really not that tough a sell for us," says Orrin Freeman, director of scouting for the Florida Marlins. "Football is great if you're the biggest or fastest guy on the field. But if you find yourself holding a tackling dummy for the first year or two, you're not going to get all that adulation and excitement. We offer the bonus and the benefits and a pension plan that's second to none. And if things work out, the money in major league baseball is more than any kid ever imagined."
Baseball has been known to stack the deck even further if a prospect happens to mention how important education is to him and his parents. All the club does is offer to pay for the kid's college education, which can commence after his first summer in the minor leagues and continue at the rate of one semester a year until the player graduates. "We're not in the education business, but we can actually do more for a kid than a college," says Freeman. "If Mom and Dad want to sit down and crunch the numbers, they'll see how much more we can offer."
Along with Darnell, Tyrell Godwin of Council, N.C.; Kenny Kelly of Tampa; and Marques Tuiasosopo of Woodinville, Wash., were among the football-baseball high school stars who last week signed letters of intent to play college football. Tyrell, a running back-outfielder, committed to North Carolina. Kenny, a quarterback-outfielder, is bound for Miami. And Marques, a quarterback-shortstop and the son of former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Manu Tuiasosopo, accepted a scholarship to Washington. All say they want an education and want to play football, and no doubt they mean it. But they will likely be taken high in baseball's amateur draft, and their goals could change. "If I go high enough and I'm offered enough money, I'll sign," says Kenny, "but I want to play college football, too."
Says Tyrell, "Right now I plan to go to college. It's always been a dream of mine to play both football and baseball in college. But I'll be honest: It's always been my dream to play professional baseball, too. I really don't know what's going to happen."
Tyrell is ranked first academically in his class at East Bladen High and would like to attend medical school someday, but even he can't ignore the soaring bonuses that big league clubs are stuffing into the pockets of first-round picks. The average signing bonus for a first-rounder went from $246,000 in 1990 to $913,000 in '95, according to Baseball America. (Even more startling, four of last year's top 12 draftees were declared free agents—the clubs that selected them forgot about a rule, enacted in '90, requiring that the players be tendered a formally executed contract within 15 days after the draft—and commanded a total of $29 million in signing bonuses on the open market, driving up last year's average bonus for first-round picks to $1,755,000. Not only that, three of those free agents were high school pitchers.) For the top two-sport prospects, that's a lot of cash to leave on the table for the pleasure of 1) getting hit by 300-pound defensive linemen and 2) doing homework.
"If Tyrell doesn't go to college, it would be a shame," says Lenon Fisher, Tyrell's football coach, "but when they start talking millions, any kid is going to want to jump at it. Heck, I don't know many adults who wouldn't jump at it."