From the Minor Leagues to the Super Bowl

A look at big game participants with professional baseball roots

Russell Wilson, John Lynch and John Elway are among those who played in the Minors as well as in the Super Bowl.

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | February 1, 2018 10:00 AM

The first Super Bowl took place on Jan. 15, 1967, when the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs. The Packers won the Super Bowl again the following season, this time over the Oakland Raiders. 

Tom Brown was a member of both those Packers teams, as well the 1965 championship squad that preceded the advent of the Super Bowl. The safety started his professional sports career not as a football player, but as a first baseman and outfielder for the 1963 Washington Senators. After struggling in the big leagues, he spent the remainder of 1963 and part of 1964 with the York White Roses of the Eastern League. He then transitioned to football, debuting with the Packers in 1964. 

Brown was the first Super Bowl participant to also have played Minor League Baseball, and he was far from the last. Let's look at some of the individuals who followed a similarly winding path to football's biggest stage. 

John Lynch (Super Bowl XXXVII) -- Lynch, currently the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, enjoyed a distinguished NFL career that included a Super Bowl victory as a member of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prior to his career as one of his era's premier strong safeties, Lynch was a pitcher in the Florida Marlins organization. He threw the first pitch in the history of the Marlins organization. That historic mound offering occurred in 1992 when Lynch started a game for the Class A Short Season Erie Sailors. In 2016, Lynch recalled this moment in a conversation with MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby.

"I will never forget throwing the first pitch -- and, unfortunately, the first seven were balls. Every time I threw a pitch, the Hall of Fame grabbed something else, a ball, my hat. I came in after the inning, and they undressed me and took my uniform. It's a fond memory that I'll have forever."


In 1992, John Lynch threw the first pitch in Marlins organization history for a ball. 

Lynch went 0-3 over seven starts for the Sailors, though he compiled a solid 2.15 ERA. He made two starts with Class A Kane County the following season before committing himself full time to football.

Russell Wilson (Super Bowls XLVIII, XLIX) -- Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowl appearances, winning it all in 2013 vs. the Denver Broncos before losing to the New England Patriots the following season. His NFL career, which began in 2012, was preceded by two seasons as a second baseman in the Colorado Rockies system. He hit .230 for the Class A Short Season Tri-City Dust Devils in 2010 and .228 for the Class A Asheville Tourists in 2010. These results were enough to convince him his future was in football; he remains one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. 

"I believe that I would've played in the big leagues, I believe it would have taken me a couple years, [but] I would've gotten there," Wilson said before the 2013 Super Bowl. "I would've loved the game, but there's nothing like playing football. There's nothing like the game being on the line."

Deion Sanders (Super Bowls XXIX, XXX) -- "Prime Time" Sanders was one of only a few players to enjoy simultaneous careers in MLB and the NFL. Overall, he played nine seasons in the former and 14 in the latter. His time in the NFL included two Super Bowl victories -- in 1994 with the 49ers and 1995 with the Dallas Cowboys -- and the versatile cornerback was a key contributor in both games. 

Sanders' sprawling, back-and-forth, on-again, off-again professional sports career included parts of seven seasons in the Minor Leagues. Between 1988 and 2001, he played for the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays organizations. All told, he appeared in 253 Minor League games, hitting .286 with 19 home runs, 94 RBIs and 90 stolen bases. 

John Elway (Super Bowls XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXXII, XXXIII) - Elway was a bonafide two-sport standout, and his stellar athletic career as an outfielder and pitcher at Stanford University led to a pressing question: What sport would he choose to play professionally? The answer, at least initially, was baseball. The Yankees selected Elway in the second round of the 1981 Draft, and he made his professional debut with Class A Short Season Oneonta. He didn't disappoint, posting an .896 OPS while, not surprisingly, showing tremendous arm strength in the outfield. 


John Elway displayed one of the best outfield arms ever in the New York-Penn League. 

Elway's debut season in the Minors was followed in short order by the 1983 NFL Draft, with the Baltimore Colts selecting him as the top overall pick. This set off a media frenzy. Would he stay with the Yankees organization or move on to the NFL? He chose the latter, of course, but only after the Colts traded him to the Broncos. Elway appeared in five Super Bowls with Denver, losing the first three and winning the final two. That last Super Bowl appearance following the 1998 season marked Elway's final game in the league. 

It is worth noting that, upon finishing high school in 1979, Elway was drafted by the Kansas City Royals. The Royals also drafted future Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in 1979, though he neglected to sign with the organization and never played baseball professionally. Other future Super Bowl quarterbacks drafted by Major League clubs include Troy Aikman (New York Mets, 1985), Tom Brady (Montreal Expos, 1995) and Colin Kaepernick (Chicago Cubs, 2009).

Shaq Thompson (Super Bowl 50) -- Sacramento native Shaq Thompson was always a football standout, dominating from a young age on both sides of the ball. The Boston Red Sox, intrigued by his raw athleticism and apparently undaunted by his lack of baseball experience, drafted him in the 18th round in 2012. Thompson reported to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox, going 0-for-39 over 13 games and striking out in 37 of those at-bats. This resulted in a brief blast of derisive internet publicity, with Deadspin calling his stint in the Gulf Coast League "the worst Minor League career imaginable." 

However momentarily embarrassing his baseball career may have been, it had no effect on Thompson's overall ascent. He enrolled at the University of Washington in 2012 and was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2015. The linebacker recorded 50 tackles with the Panthers in his 2015 rookie campaign. The team made it to the Super Bowl where Thompson notched five tackles in an eventual loss to the Broncos. 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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