NEW YORK — The Heisman stars aligned for one night over Manhattan, and so Kyler Murray got some face-to-face advice from someone who has actually scrambled in his shoes.
In 83 previous Heisman Trophy winners, there’s really been no one quite like Murray, the Oklahoma quarterback who runs like he’s sweeping down the plain and throws like, well, a baseball player.
No one, that is, but Charlie Ward.
Kyler Knows the “Bo Knows” Nike campaign, and he’s heard prime time tales of Deion Sanders. But when it comes to contemplating two sports on the professional level, Ward might have been an even better example as he spoke directly to Murray on Sunday night at the annual Heisman Dinner Gala at the Marriott Marquis.
“Whatever it is that God has called you to do, whether it’s baseball or football, just enjoy it,” the 1993 Heisman winner told Murray in front of a crowd of almost 1,000. “Enjoy the moment. Because you won’t ever get this opportunity again.”
The Heisman Dinner Gala is the bow on Heisman weekend, a nearly three-hour banquet that raises money for various Heisman charities, honors the legacy of past winners and formally inducts the newest Heisman winner into college football’s most elite fraternity.
Every year, the Heisman Trophy Trust brings back the anniversary-winners from 50 years, 25 years and 10 years ago. The 50-year winner was O.J. Simpson, and he wasn’t invited (or even shown on the video highlight loop). The 10-year winner was former Sooner QB Sam Bradford, and he sat this one out.
Ward is this year’s 25-year winner. After winning the Heisman and a national championship under Bobby Bowden at Florida State and kicking off a new era of offensive football, Ward stepped away from football forever. But instead of baseball, Ward played professional basketball for 11 seasons — mostly just a dozen blocks south on 7th Avenue — for the New York Knicks.
Standing at a lectern on the dais at the front of the ballroom, Ward offered his experience to Murray, seated behind him.
“Trust me,” Ward said, “there will be more people asking for autographs and pictures now. You had that, but you’ll get even more. Trust me. But every step of the way, enjoy it no matter what. Because this time will never come again.”
Jackson and Sanders famously played both Major League Baseball and NFL football at the same time. But to hear Murray’s agent, Scott Boras, tell media ahead of this year’s winter baseball meetings, there will be no going back and forth. The decision has already been made, a contract has already been signed, and Murray will stand resolutely in the batter’s box for the Oakland A’s a few months from now.
“He could play in the NFL, certainly,” Boras told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But no one understands this guy’s future in Major League Baseball — he’s got an opportunity to separate himself from everyone. He’s got a chance to be a great major-leaguer.”
Forget the Scouting Combine and Pro Day and the NFL Draft, Boras said. Murray already has plans for the upcoming spring.
“Kyler has every intention of fulfilling his agreement with the A’s and he’s grateful he has had the chance to pursue his college goals,” Boras told the Chronicle. “He will be in spring training with the A’s.
“His attitude is, ‘The Oakland A’s gave me an opportunity to fulfill a personal goal in college football and when it’s complete, I’ll return to my contractual commitment,’ ” Boras said. “Before he signed, I told Kyler, ‘Listen, this is something they have never done before,’ and he is very respectful of that. That’s why he said a week ago he’s going to finish up with football and then go to spring training.”
Murray got a $4.67 million signing bonus from the A’s. In his NBA career, Ward made just over $34 million as an NBA point guard. He spent almost 10 seasons with the Knicks, part of one with the Spurs and one with the Rockets.
After Sunday’s banquet, Ward stopped to expound on his advice to Murray. Their situations were clearly different, but also very similar. Many thought he could play in the NFL, but he wanted first-round guarantees or nothing. That didn’t happen, so he chose basketball. He later got an invitation to be Joe Montana’s backup in Kansas City, but he declined.
As it appears Murray will do, Ward chose to make his career and his fortune playing another sport and, as great a quarterback as he was, never played football again.
“To me, I mean, the doors (to pro football) were closed,” Ward told The Franchise. “So I knew I was gonna be playing basketball because my skill development level was behind. So the only way I was gonna be able to focus on being the best NBA player was to continue to work.”
While Murray this weekend has offered various degrees of “no comment” when asked about his potential NFL future, speculation started to boil. If an NFL team wants to pay him big money to play football, he would almost have to consider it — especially if it’s the right situation, right coach and right franchise.
“Well, if that’s something he desires to do, then make it an option,” said Ward, who now coaches high school basketball in Tallahassee. “I know for me coming out, you know, it was an option as far as playing both sports. He has an opportunity already. That wasn’t my case. He has an opportunity already, a contract, those type of things. So for him now it’s just a matter of whether he wants to pursue an NFL career.
“It’s all about enjoying the moment, and while you’re in the moment, enjoy it. Because there will be doors closing. That’s why you have to make sure whatever memories you have, you want to make sure they’re good memories because they never last. The memories last, but the opportunities don’t always happen.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.