With the college football bowl season upon us, it is perhaps no surprise that when I sat down on the frozen tundra of the Canadian prairie to find something to watch on Festivus, I settled on the Frisco Football Classic: The University of North Texas Mean Green versus the Miami University (Ohio) RedHawks.
The game itself was nothing to write home (or to Pinstripe Alley) about, except the Mean Green featured former Yankee farmhand Austin Aune at quarterback. And that reminded me of some other relatively obscure Yankees figures who have crossed over between the diamond and the gridiron. For a look at some brighter lights, check out this article Matt wrote a couple weeks ago, or his thoughts a couple years ago on the likes of John Elway and Deion Sanders.
Long-ago Yankee Jake Gibbs seems to be the pioneer. Decades ago, he starred in college football before donning the tools of ignorance for the Yankees. Gibbs attended the University of Mississippi, and there he quarterbacked the Rebels football team (while playing Rebel baseball as well). 1960/61 was the apex of his college football career, when Gibbs won SEC Player of the Year and was named to the 1960 College Football All-America Team. With Gibbs as their field general, the Rebels went 10-0-1 and defeated the Rice Owls in the 1961 Sugar Bowl.
Gibbs was drafted by both the NFL and fledgling AFL, but he forewent professional football and instead signed with the Yankees, complete with a cool $100,000 signing bonus. Originally an infielder, the Yankees asked Gibbs to move to catcher. He appeared in a handful of games between 1962 and 1964, eventually becoming the club’s starting catcher after Elston Howard’s departure. Gibbs eventually surrendered that job to future captain Thurman Munson, but he continued as the backup backstop until retiring after the 1971 season.
Although he never went on to lofty professional success, Gibbs carved out a stellar career as a college football quarterback and played for a decade in Major League Baseball. The latter was undoubtedly highlighted by the Yankees’ 1962 World Series win, though he only played in two games all season.
In the third round of the 1998 amateur draft, the Yankees chose another former college signal-caller, Drew Henson of the Michigan Wolverines. Henson never achieved Gibbs’ accolades at the collegiate level, though that could be at least in part because the former backed up or split time with a fellow by the name of Tom Brady for most of his time at Michigan.
After Brady joined the New England Patriots and began his two-decade plus reign of torment for all non-Patriots (and now Bucs) fans, Henson became the Wolverines’ starting quarterback and acquitted himself well. His junior year, he threw 18 touchdowns for Michigan to only 4 interceptions and posted a superb passer rating of 159.4.
After Henson left the Wolverines, he pursued a baseball career. And there was reason to believe it would be a good one. Baseball America listed him in their pre-season Top 100 four consecutive seasons between 1999 and 2002, ranking Henson 100th, 24th, 14th, and 9th, respectively.
In 2000, the Yankees packaged Henson as part of a deal to obtain Denny Neagle at the trade deadline, though the club reacquired the former Wolverine in 2001 in a March trade for masher Wily Mo Peña. Ultimately, the Yankees were dissatisfied with his progress as a third baseman and acquired Aaron Boone in the summer of 2003. The Yankees soon acquired Alex Rodriguez, and Henson gave up on baseball to try for an NFL career that didn’t work out, either. The rest is history.
In the second round of the 2002 amateur draft, the Yankees chose right-handed pitcher Brandon Weeden. He made 11 starts for the Yankees at Rookie ball before the club sent him to the Dodgers in a package for All-Star pitcher Kevin Brown. Weeden stuck around through the 2006 season, reaching High-A for the Kansas City Royals.
Ten years after the Yankees called his name in the draft, the Cleveland Browns one-upped them and selected Weeden in the first round of the NFL draft. Weeden, after finishing his career at Oklahoma State, became the oldest player ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Like Gibbs and Henson before him, Weeden’s football success surpassed his accomplishments on the diamond, albeit not with any star-studded glory. Weeden managed to carve out a seven-year career in the NFL, playing for four different franchises.
Finally, as I noticed yesterday, there is a new addition to this list: Former Yankees farmhand Austin Aune. The same year that the Browns chose Weeden, the Yankees selected Aune in the second round of the 2012 amateur draft. Aune stuck around the Yankees system for six seasons, but his inability to put the bat on the ball probably doomed him. Throughout his minor league career, Aune struck out 575 times in 1,425 at-bats.
Aune, a three-star prospect out of high school who originally signed with Texas Christian University, transferred from the University of Arkansas to the University of North Texas prior to the 2018 college football season after hanging up his (baseball) cleats. Currently UNT’s starting quarterback, he has appeared in 22 games over the past three seasons, leading the Mean Green to the Frisco Football Classic yesterday. He started the game well, but his two interceptions helped doom the Mean Green.
While none of these former Yankees are inner-circle Hall of Famers in either of their chosen sports, it is worth remembering how rare it is to possess the elite athleticism necessary to succeed at all collegiately and professionally in multiple sports. Among current Yankees, Aaron Judge comes immediately to mind as one who might have found two-sport success.
Division One programs including Washington, UCLA, Notre Dame, and Stanford all tried recruiting the big fella out of Linden. I think I speak on behalf of literally every Yankees fan on the planet when I express my gratitude that he chose to deploy his hulking frame and prodigious power in the pursuit of mashing baseballs, instead of running free down the field as a Travis Kelce-esque tight end or chasing down quarterbacks as a pass-rusher.