There are currently 40 rounds in the MLB draft held each June. A chosen few will make it to The Show, but infinitely more will flail and fail in the minors before hanging up their cleats and moving on to greener—or grayer—pastures.
When we think of Twins draft picks, we usually think of the high picks who succeeded like Joe Mauer, those who failed like Adam Johnson, or the recent picks still full of promise and potential like Byron Buxton. Or maybe you think of the steals of the draft, players like Mike Piazza who was drafted in the 62nd round, when there still was such a thing.
But for every consensus top pick such as Bryce Harper that makes a household name for himself before even seeing a professional pitch, there are innumerable players who are drafted, but never sign contracts. Most of these players are no-names, and with so many rounds there are many players who are drafted multiple times before finally signing. Others are multi-sport athletes in high school who choose another sport over baseball, and some are just plain athletes that teams are willing to take a flier on in the late rounds.
The list of players who were drafted by the Twins but never signed is chalk-full of star athletes in other sports, guys who got drafted again by another team and went on to MLB stardom, and players who just sort of drifted out of memory…until being rediscovered here.
Today we’ll look at the Twins 39th round selection in the 1971 draft: Joe Theismann.
1966 was a magical year for the Rams of South River, New Jersey. For that one season, NFL greats Joe Theismann and Drew Pearson played toss and catch to dominate on the high school gridiron, were back-court mates on the hardwood, and turned the double play together on the diamond.
“As soon as the sun was up,” Theismann is quoted as saying, “I was out playing baseball.” The shortstop and pitcher signed a letter of intent to play football at North Carolina State before rescinding it and recommitting to Notre Dame.
Pearson was Theismann’s favorite wide receiver that year, but he took over at quarterback once Theismann left for Notre Dame. He, too, was a college quarterback, before switching to wide receiver as a junior at Tulane. He went undrafted, but was athletic enough—he played basketball for the Harlem Magicians, a poor-man’s Harlem Globetrotters—that the Cowboys signed him as a free agent. Pearson went on to become a three-time All Pro and won a Super Bowl with Dallas.
It’s not clear if Theismann played baseball in college, but a Sports Illustrated article describes him as a better baseball player than football player, and Theismann is quoted in the article discussing giving up baseball while a sophomore at Notre Dame. This would seem to suggest that he played on the Notre Dame freshman baseball team at a time when NCAA rules forbade freshman from playing varsity sports. Save for exceptional cases, such as that of LSU basketball legend Pistol Pete Maravich, freshman stats were rarely kept.
Theismann took over the starting QB job as a sophomore because of injury, and the Fighting Irish had a win-loss record of 25-5-2 over the next two-plus seasons. He set a school record for most completions in a game (33) against USC in 1970, throwing for 526 yards at the LA Coliseum.
After a second-place finish in the Heisman voting to Jim Pluckett of Stanford, a series of events unfolded that may have played a part in leading the Twins to draft Theismann. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins but, after a contract dispute, signed instead with the Tornoto Argonauts of the CFL. Is it possible that with rumors swirling of the young quarterback’s contract negotiations with the Dolphins souring, the Twins saw a powerful, accurate arm suddenly available in the June draft? Or was he impressive enough as a shortstop and athlete that the team felt he might still be able to play after shaking off a couple years of rust?
Regardless, Theismann went on to have success on the gridiron, winning a Super Bowl and was named league MVP. He was tough enough that he returned punts in college, the CFL and the NFL, but no man is tough enough to play after the gruesome injury that cut Theismann’s career short on a nationally-televised Monday Night game against the Giants.
Even the man who inadvertently helped cause the injury, coke-fueled sack master Lawrence Taylor, freaks out when he sees Theismann’s leg: