Twenty years and two months after the White Sox selected him in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Mark Johnson briefly pondered “what if.”
What if the well-regarded high school catcher out of Warner Robins, Georgia also acted on his stock as a budding prep quarterback? The Cougars manager had NCAA Division I offers from both sports on the table in June 1994, yet never really felt conflicted.
With football season encroaching on baseball’s stretch run, prompting a recent reflection simply felt right.
“Looking back, if I had it to do over again, I would have probably went and signed with somebody for both [sports in college],” Johnson said. “But I knew I wasn’t going to go to college and I knew I was going to sign [with the White Sox]. I was pretty adamant about that with scouts, saying I want to play. I want to go get my career started. So I think that football just fell on the back-burner. Not that I didn’t love to play or anything. I do miss it.”
Football is certainly not going anywhere. Before long, the clubhouse TV figures to shuttle between baseball games and football season previews, with some players’ chatter trending toward their fantasy football teams, too.
The Cougars’ first home game in the first round of the Midwest League’s Western Division playoffs coincides with the NFL season opener between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 4. Should Kane County’s series require a third and decisive game, it would compete for local fan interest with the second Friday night of the IHSA football regular season.
A handful of Cougars reminisce about their high school days, but obviously didn’t revere football enough considering where they are now.
“Football’s a great sport, you know. It really helps build the toughness, not only physically, but mentally,” Johnson said. “So when you see two-sport guys, they’re usually a different kind of breed. Having played that type of team sport, I think kids really benefit from it.”
Second baseman Daniel Lockhart, a fellow Georgian, agrees with the benefits of cross-training even as he grew up around the dawn of sport specialization.
Lockhart played “pretty much strictly baseball” from high school onward, balancing soccer and basketball for a few years before that. While acknowledging football’s influence of the South is undeniable, Lockhart still offers a different thought about athletes as products of their environments.
“The one thing about the South, though, is since we have great weather, if you are a football guy, you play football year-round. If you play baseball, you play baseball year-round,” Lockhart said. “So it’s definitely gotten pretty big, and guys are kind of starting to find their one sport and kind of stick with it.”
Twenty years and two months ago, Johnson happily did just that.
• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.