02/04/11 5:05 PM EST
Wells had football talent, but chose baseball
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Vernon Wells, a Shreveport, La., native, was 9 when his family moved to Arlington, Tex. He has football in his blood -- and his rearview mirror -- as he revels in the excitement surrounding Sunday's Super Bowl between the Packers and Steelers at the football palace located a few long Aaron Rodgers heaves away from Wells' high school field.
The Angels' big offseason acquisition in a deal with Toronto, Wells was the star quarterback in 1996 at Arlington Bowie High School. He remembers those days fondly with the beaming reverie of the former Big Man on Campus who led his team to the playoffs.
"If you grow up in Texas and you're an athlete," Wells said, grinning, "you're going to play football."
After his senior year in pads under those famous Friday Night Lights, Wells was popular with recruiters. The University of Texas envisioned the sturdy 6-foot-1 athlete with speed as a wide receiver. The Longhorns rule that part of the Lone Star State, and Wells wanted in.
But then came baseball season, and everything changed. Wells' senior year moved him to the top of the scouts' charts. His power/speed combination and talent in center field made him the fifth overall pick in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft by Toronto.
"I signed my letter-of-intent and wanted to go to the University of Texas and play football," Wells said. "But baseball changed my mind."
Wells said adios to football, signing the first professional contract that would set him on the path to stardom with the Blue Jays.
The seven-year, $126 million contract he signed with the Blue Jays after the 2006 season, carrying him through 2014, is persuasive testimony that Wells made the correct decision.
Exhibit B is the condition of his body. After nine full seasons and parts of three others on Toronto's artificial turf, Wells remains in remarkably good condition based on the Angels' pre-trade physical examination.
"I've been blessed to have a strong body," Wells said, attributing his durability to his genetics.
Jeff Kemp was Wells' quarterback and outfield coach throughout his time at Arlington Bowie and remains a campus fixture. Kemp watched Wells have a growth spurt after his sophomore year and take off, evolving into a two-sport athlete with few equals in his coaching experience.
"Vernon was all-state in both sports, football and baseball, and I'm not sure I've seen that happen before," Kemp said. "We were doing things with him before the buzz of the run-and-shoot. We were doing that stuff with him in the shotgun, having him do a lot of throwing and quarterback counters. He was a real weapon.
"But baseball was his passion. I always felt that Vernon was leveraging football to get the best deal out of baseball. When he got that [$1.8 million] signing bonus from Toronto, the first thing he did was buy new baseball uniforms for our team, a new house for his mom and a vehicle for his dad. The rest of it went into savings. He's still taking care of our program with his foundation.
"Vernon's always been a very composed kid, very calm. He was pretty sure of himself, but not in a cocky way -- in a confident way. It was an honor to be his quarterback coach and his outfield coach. He was incredible."
Kemp said an older friend and teammate of Wells' left a huge impact. Jeremy Flowers, a year ahead of Wells, went on to start four years in Arkansas' secondary after leaving Bowie.
"Jeremy was the first guy who introduced me to Vernon," Kemp said. "He brought him into the office, and the kid was probably 5-feet-2 and 105 pounds. He's still the same guy he was then. He never let the big time, the spotlight, change him. He stayed true to who he is.
"Jeremy was a baseball player, too, and the Dodgers came to look at him. They put a wood bat in his hands, and it destroyed him. He was too used to the aluminum. Vernon saw that and started swinging the wood bat in batting practice, got used to it. I think that helped him a lot.
"I always tell him to this day that the key to him taking off in baseball was going through the football offseason work. The weights put strength and jump in his bat. I really feel like that was the key, along with his growth spurt."
Bill Jenkins, who coaches the running backs at Arlington Bowie, has seen Wells' impact throughout the program.
"Vernon is a class act," Jenkins said. "Too bad he could not have come home to the Rangers. His charity work with the Perfect 10 Foundation is amazing."
He inherited his football talent from his father, Vernon II, a wide receiver who played in the Canadian Football League after getting a tryout from the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL.
Wells heard from a number of different teams prior to the '97 Draft, including the Rockies. The Blue Jays called and asked what it would take to select him fifth.
"I loved football, but I got hurt my last game my senior year and thought it was time I stopped getting hit," Wells said. "I had what you might call not-scared speed. But I had a passion for both sports. I think I made the right choice. I don't know if I would have had the career in football as I've had in baseball."
He continues to support his high school's football program with his Perfect 10 Foundation.
In Anaheim, Wells will be part of one of the Majors' most athletic outfields if he moves to left, as anticipated, with Peter Bourjos in center and Torii Hunter in right.
Bourjos and Hunter also were high school football stars. Bourjos, one of the fastest players in baseball, was a successful wide receiver at Notre Dame High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. Hunter was the two-way quarterback/DB at Pine Bluff (Ark.), High School. Bourjos and Hunter signed professional contracts after getting drafted out of high school.
Hunter, like Wells, makes his home outside Dallas and remains a huge football fan.
Wells and Hunter aren't the only former QBs in the Angels' clubhouse. Jeff Mathis was a Florida State University recruit out of Marianna (Fla.) High School, and Scott Kazmir put the ball in the air for Cypress Falls High School in Houston. The best high school QB in the organization probably was reliever Bobby Cassevah, who was heavily recruited out of Pace (Fla.) High School. Former Angels ace John Lackey was a prep QB in Abilene, Tex.
"Those are great memories, those Friday nights under the lights," Kazmir said.
Angels scouts fell in love with another QB, taking Jake Locker of the University of Washington in the 2009 Draft. An outfielder with exceptional baseball skills across the board, Locker signed a contract with the Angels but is expected to be one of the top picks in the NFL draft. If he decides at some point to play baseball, he'll have a lot to talk about in an Angels organization rich in former football stars.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.