Both the New York Jets and New York Giants had runs of success during the 1980’s. The Jets made the playoffs four times between 1981 and 1986 including a run to the AFC Championship game with their “New York Sack Exchange” defensive line. The New York Giants hired Bill Parcells and drafted Lawrence Taylor on their way to becoming consistent winners. Parcells run peaked with Super Bowl victories in 1986, and 1990.
Despite these successes, it was the New York Yankees that drafted the best quarterback and running back combo in New York during the 1980’s, when they drafted John Elway and Bo Jackson in consecutive drafts early in the decade.
In 1981 John Elway was the star quarterback for Stanford University. He was also an impressive baseball player that caught the eye of Yankees scouts and the attention of owner George Steinbrenner. While almost everyone expected Elway to pursue a career in football, the Yankees used the 52nd overall pick in the draft to select Elway.
After signing free agent Dave Winfield — who was coincidentally a 17th round draft pick of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings — the previous offseason the Yankees found themselves without a first round pick in 1981. That made their selection of Elway the first pick of that year’s draft for the franchise. The Yankees were able to get Elway on the field during the summer of 1982 as he played for the Short-Season A Oneonta Yankees before returning to campus for his senior season of football.
Elway was the best offensive player on the team for his short stay, slashing .318/.432/.464 over 42 games. Evaluators inside the Yankees began to dream big on Elway’s potential if he could be convinced to focus on baseball. Several people even reported that George Steinbrenner had a board in his office with his projections for the 1985 Yankees lineup, and Elway was written down as the right fielder.
The problem for the Yankees was that Elway’s heart was dedicated to football. Heading into the 1983 NFL draft, Elway was considered the best quarterback in what turned out to be a legendary draft-class that saw six quarterbacks including hall-of-fame players Jim Kelly and Dan Marino taken at the position. Working in the Yankees favor was that while Elway loved football, he also had no intention on playing for the Baltimore Colts, who held the first pick. Using the Yankees and the possibility of playing baseball full-time as leverage, he was able to force the Colts to trade him to the Denver Broncos.
While Elway was preparing to join the Oneonta Yankees in the summer of 1982 the Yankees were using another draft pick on a future football legend. With the 50th overall pick in the 1982 draft the Yankees selected high school outfielder Bo Jackson from Bessemer, Alabama. George Steinbrenner was convinced he could sway Jackson with a healthy signing bonus to forgo his commitment to Auburn University where he would be playing football, baseball and running track.
The Yankees were out of luck, as Jackson had promised his mother that he would go to and graduate from college. Jackson never signed a contract with the team. He made an immediate impact in college, averaging 6.6 yards per carry for his career and winning the Heisman Trophy after the 1985 season. On the collegiate baseball field Jackson produced a 1.076 OPS, but missed most of his senior season after he was falsely told that a visit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ahead of the NFL draft had been cleared with the NCAA. The trip had not been cleared, and he was ruled ineligible for the remainder of his senior baseball season.
Like Elway before him, Jackson was made the number one overall pick in the NFL draft after college, and refused to play for the team that drafted him. Blaming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the visit that cost him his baseball eligibility, Jackson started his baseball career with the Kansas City Royals instead of heading to the NFL. He quickly became a human highlight reel showing all the tools that had captured the Yankees attention four years prior.
While the Yankees struggled through the mid to late 80’s, several players that they passed on in order to draft Elway and Jackson thrived in the major leagues. Hall-of-fame outfielder Tony Gwynn was selected six picks after Elway. Two quality pitchers who had great runs with the Mets of the late 80’s, Sid Fernandez and David Cone went before the end of the 3rd round that year.
Jackson’s selection with the 50th overall pick was immediately followed by the Cincinnati Reds’ selection of hall-of-fame shortstop Barry Larkin. A future member of the Yankees 1996 World Series winning team, Jimmy Key was taken six picks later by the Blue Jays. Two pitchers who turned in solid major league careers in Roger McDowell and Steve Ontiveros also were taken before the 60th overall pick.
We will never know what John Elway’s baseball ceiling was, but he led his teams to five Super Bowl appearances, winning two during his illustrious football career. Bo Jackson was on track for a tremendous career in both sports before an devastating hip injury ended his football career, and limited his capabilities on the baseball diamond. Both men’s tremendous physical tools and ability caught the eyes of the Yankees, but they never committed to the organization.