|Matt Kartozian / US Presswire|
|Brandon Weeden threw for 4,727 yards and 37 touchdowns while leading Oklahoma State to a 12-1 record.|
PHOENIX -- They left the baseballs at home and headed for the beach, a clan of minor league pitchers searching for their release on a March afternoon during spring training in 2005. Brandon Weeden was one of them.
"I love telling the story to this day," said Jarod Plummer, a nine-year baseball vet who was among the crew. "You've got a bunch of guys body surfing, playing sand volleyball, all that stuff. Weeden was always the guy who brought the football."
So Weeden, who has since morphed into one of the best quarterback prospects of the 2012 NFL Draft, finally got what he wanted: He rallied a few guys to get a casual game going on the sands of Vero Beach, Fla. He just forgot about the casual part.
"Everyone knew he played quarterback in high school," Plummer said. "But the first pass he threw, it was so intense. The guy on the other end couldn't hold onto it."
It was one of a few moments when some -- maybe even Weeden himself -- recognized a passion that still lurked inside him. Like a married man with a crush on his high school sweetheart, he could never let go of the sport he always loved.
As a result of the flame that was too hot to ignore, one NFL team now might be on the brink of discovering a finely aged gem that can do for its franchise what Weeden did for Oklahoma State over the past two seasons: Direct an unexpected 180-degree turn.
"I think I have a lot left in my tank," said Weeden, who played five seasons of baseball before leaving the game to walk onto the Cowboys' football team in 2008. "I feel like I should be right at the top with all of the other quarterbacks."
It shouldn't be long before many NFL teams agree.
Weeden spends his time training at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix, preparing for next week's scouting combine after a strong showing in the Fiesta Bowl and another big week at the Senior Bowl saw his stock rise. If he can keep it going, his ride toward football success might remain in the fast lane.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, with a subtle swagger and a personality that reeks of NFL leadership, it's just a wonder why Weeden didn't commit to football sooner.
"I remember sitting in a hotel room, tossing the football back and forth to each other," said Eric Hacker, another one of Weeden's baseball teammates and roommates on the road. "We were half joking but half serious, talking about playing football someday. We'd talk about how Chris Weinke did it at Florida State -- so why couldn't we?
"To look back and think (Weeden) is actually doing what we talked about -- and adding to the story -- it's just surreal."
It's perhaps ironic, or maybe just also part of some subliminal plan, that Weinke has been a helpful resource in the months since Weeden's college career ended with record-setting, unprecedented success at Oklahoma State.
Hooked up by a mutual friend, Weinke wrote a list of advice Weeden would be wise to follow. The list outlined how he should approach the "elephant in the room" that everyone undoubtedly will be asking about before the draft ...
Weeden, after all, is 28.
"My message to him was to approach this as a great opportunity," said Weinke, who made a career change at the same age when he left baseball for Florida State. "He already understands how to be a professional athlete, he knows what it's all about.
"At 28, his body didn't take that beating for five years while you were playing baseball -- but he is mentally more mature."
Weeden isn't naïve to the wonders about his age. At this stage, he can do little more than joke about it, noting that, "I can change my footwork, I can change my throwing motion, but I can't change my birth certificate."
This man's story, though, is about so much more than age. And as he continues to force one team after another to forget about that number -- and focus more on the numbers he instead posted at Oklahoma State -- his path has grown more inspiring.
Success at such an important position is a rare find in the NFL, so if a team wants to pass on a player with a potential decade of success ahead of him, surely there will be another squad waiting to pounce.
And that's all Weeden needs. One team.
"It sucks, and I wish it wasn't like this, but if I was 22, where would teams rate me with these other guys?" Weeden said. "If you look at every quarterback in front of me, I beat every one of them. If I'm 22, it's different right now. I think I belong right there with the best of them."
That's OK, Weeden says. He recognizes Andrew Luck is a "freak" prospect -- and he's aware Robert Griffin III will be drafted before him -- but he now has his eyes set on that third quarterback spot. He saw last year as Christian Ponder and Jake Locker unexpectedly slid into prime first-round spots.
The same, he knows, is possible for him.
"If I can put myself up there as the third guy, that opens up a lot of possibilities," Weeden said.
Here's what else should open up a lot of possibilities: Last season, he ranked second in the nation with 4,727 passing yards. He ranked fourth with 37 touchdowns. He set a school record with an 11-win season in 2010 ... and followed it up with a 12-win season in 2011.
With Luck on the other sideline in the Fiesta Bowl, he completed 29 of his 42 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-38 overtime win against Stanford.
"I think my game translates to the NFL well," Weeden said. "I have a lot to offer. I can make all of the throws. Mentally, I'm stable. I'm able to make adjustments on the fly. I mean, the NFL is hard. It's hard as hell.
"But I think my game translates over really, really well."
Over the past few months, Weeden has gone a long way toward improving his chances in the NFL Draft, and he's continuing to help those odds with the work he doing in Arizona.
The real inspiration behind this story, though, traces back to those days on the beach. Those days in his hotel room with the pigskin in his hand. Weeden recognized that a passion for football remained strong and deep, and so he eventually chased that dream when many others might have given up on it.
If you overlook Weeden because of his age, you're missing the bigger picture. You're missing a player who refused to put himself in a position to someday wonder "What if?" You're missing a player who has the skills to have a major impact for several seasons.
Four years ago, Weeden put down the baseball and put on his shoulder pads for the first time since high school. And as a result, in just a few short months, one NFL team might just wind up very happy with his decision.
"It's funny, you look back at all of the little things that happen along the way that make you realize that football was always there," Weeden said. "It was a passion and a love -- and I'm just so glad I was able to pursue it."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.