SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As the clock ticked down toward the biggest decision of his life, Archie Bradley found it difficult to suppress his emotions.
Just days after his 19th birthday, Bradley was in what seemed a no-lose situation: Sign a major league contract worth $5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who selected him seventh overall in the 2011 draft. Or accept a scholarship to play quarterback at Oklahoma, where just three years earlier quarterback Sam Bradford added the school's fifth Heisman Trophy to the program's garish display in the Switzer Center.
"You play quarterback at OU, you're a legend," says Bradley, who starred in both sports at Oklahoma's Broken Arrow High. "You're remembered forever. People thought because of the money, I was going to be baseball automatically. But I was really passionate about playing football in college."
But pragmatism trumped passion. Bradley accepted the Diamondbacks' offer just moments before the Aug. 15 signing deadline, largely, he says, because of "how much faster your body wears down in football."
Three years later, the move looks wise — and not only because Bradley is the game's top pitching prospect and likely to crack Arizona's rotation.
Reaching the NFL is a challenge unto itself, and once there life can be much more arduous than in Major League Baseball. Tuesday marked the beginning of the NFL's free agency period, a process largely populated by aging veterans signing non-guaranteed contracts. It's a stark contrast to baseball's so-called hot stove season, where stars in their prime switch teams and score eight- and nine-figure paydays.
Furthermore, greater knowledge has emerged in recent years about the health effects of an NFL career — including the specter of a massive lawsuit brought by former players claiming the league didn't protect them. Bradley says his excruciating decision then would be an easy one today.
"Without a doubt," he says. "Now, with the research about how concussion-prone the game is, and the long-term effects it's having on people, if I'd had that information, it would have changed my decision even more toward baseball."
The immense popularity of football — and its almost-intoxicating competitive lure — means dozens of multi-sport stars will still choose the gridiron over the diamond. But as several young stars told USA TODAY Sports, baseball's delayed gratification still has considerable appeal.
"You've got guys who are knocking people's heads off," says Billy Hamilton, the 23-year-old speedster bidding to become the Cincinnati Reds' leadoff hitter. "You look back and watch that and you're like, 'Man, I made the right decision to play baseball,' when you watch those guys hit."
Hamilton turned down a scholarship to play wide receiver and return kicks at Mississippi State, and in his third pro season set a baseball record with 155 stolen bases. That speed may or may not not have translated into an NFL career.
But Hamilton, who stands 6 feet and weighs 160 pounds, says even playing four seasons in the Southeastern Conference could have taken a toll.
"No telling," he says. "I'd probably be beat up, in the ice tub every day, getting home, being lazy every day, trying to do things to keep my body right."
That's a message major league players and executives have tried to impart — often in vain.
MLB PLAYERS WHO PLAYED FOOTBALL
Carl Crawford still wonders what he could have done on the football field.
His athletic options as he emerged from Houston's Jefferson Davis High School were staggering: A scholarship to play point guard at UCLA, a $1.25 million signing bonus to start the climb through the Tampa Bay DevilRays farm system and a scholarship to run the option at Nebraska.
Crawford, now 32, was a teenager in Houston when Tommie Frazier won a national championship at Nebraska, and he would have been in line to follow a Heisman-winning quarterback, Eric Crouch.
The regret, however, doesn't last long.
"Right now," he says with a laugh, "I'm looking like the smartest guy ever."
Crawford's entering the fourth year of a seven-year, $142 million contract, a guaranteed deal that will bring his career earnings to $189 million. Assuming he fulfills the terms of his contract, he will see every dime of it.
Crawford is an excellent player — a four-time All-Star — yet he may also be just the third-best outfielder on his own team. By comparison, Green Bay Packers quarterback and former NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers' five-year, $110 million contract signed in April 2013 guarantees him $62.5 million.
"I don't even really understand all that stuff," Crawford said of the NFL's contract structure. "All I know is, what we sign and get paid for, that's what we get paid. You sign for $100 million, and you only get ($60 million)? That doesn't make sense to me."
Three years ago, Crawford — then with the Boston Red Sox — did his best to convince a young player to choose baseball. The Red Sox spent an eighth-round draft pick on Senquez Golson, and offered him a seven-figure bonus to buy him out of a commitment to play football at Ole Miss. Crawford, on behalf of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, called Golson to pitch him on baseball.
Though negotiations endured until the August deadline, Golson opted for football.
"I couldn't believe with the amount of money being offered to him, he turned it down," says Crawford, "even though he knows what the consequences of football are. But then, his response was it wasn't cool to his friends he didn't want to play (football). Baseball was the boring or nerdy thing to do. And football was the cool thing to do."
That October, Golson earned some degree of Internet infamy when Alabama running back Trent Richardson broke a 76-yard touchdown run against the Rebels, the coup de grace a juke that caused Golson to crumble to the ground untouched.
"A few months after he didn't sign with us, we saw him on SportsCenter, for all the wrong reasons," says Epstein, now the Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations.
Baseball's "cool factor" got a big boost this spring when Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson — a former minor league infielder — made a one-day cameo in Texas Rangers camp. And Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston of Florida State faced the New York Yankees in a Grapefruit League game; he's an outfielder and reliever for the Seminoles baseball team.
Like Wilson, Winston's brightest future may be on the gridiron, but Epstein's fight for the best athletes may get easier.
The average major league salary has ballooned to $3.39 million, while an NFL player earns $1.9 million, with an average career of 3-6 years, depending on whether the players' association or league is doing the calculation.
"Look, there's way more money in baseball," says Epstein. "We have to do a better job as an industry in promulgating that fact. Sometimes, it's worth waiting to get that kind of money."
Football still beckons
In regard to which career is more sustainable, Epstein doesn't' have to say a word.
In recent years, several retired NFL players committed suicide and were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma. More than 4,500 former players are suing the NFL, claiming it did not adequately protect them from the effects of blows to the head. Talks are ongoing after a judge rejected a tentative settlement of $765 million. And the league has emphasized safety and changing the culture of the game, installing new rules and increasing penalties for hits to the head.
With all that at hand, several players who gave the game up still wouldn't hesitate to play — or have their children play.
As a redshirt freshman at Clemson, Kyle Parker threw 20 touchdown passes, led the Tigers to nine wins, an Atlantic Coast Conference championship game appearance and a Music City Bowl appearance, and he also starred on the baseball team.
In 2010, the Colorado Rockies drafted Parker 26th overall and gave him a $1.4 million signing bonus to play baseball — but he insisted on playing one more season of Clemson football.
"It is definitely a relief to show up to work and not have to worry about getting tackled," he says. "But information that's out and the technology they have, they'll have the concussion part of it under control. We'd be doing a disservice to kids to totally not let them play sports because of the perception of concussions. Right now, everyone's pretty educated on the matter."
Chicago Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija also didn't worry about health ramifications. After catching 78 passes for 1,017 yards in his senior year at Notre Dame, Samardzija was a possible first round selection in the NFL draft.
The Cubs struck preemptively, guaranteeing him $10 million to give up football. Samardzija says his decision was purely based on his athletic ceiling — that he'd only scratched the surface of his potential as a pitcher.
Wise move. Though Samardzija has a career 29-35 record, he finished fourth in the National League with 214 strikeouts. And he's just two years shy of free agency, where he figures to be the third-best option on the market behind Tampa Bay Rays lefty David Price and Washington Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann.
"You need to go by your heart and what you love the most," he says, "where that love will carry you to work harder and carry you through the tough times that professional sports throw your way."
The son of a union man who worked for a power company, Samardzija also doesn't take his union's role lightly.
"We have great health care," he says. "We take care of our former players."
That thought didn't cross Bradley's mind three years ago, when the lure of Oklahoma football beckoned. Now, he's been in a major league clubhouse, has heard the pitch of his union and has a big league job at his fingertips.
"Now that I'm hopefully close to getting there — and the goal is to stick there a while — you appreciate the union, what the players did before us to make this happen," he says. "Obviously, guaranteed money is never a bad thing."