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Football star gives baseball the old college try

Boise's most likely Heisman Trophy candidate arrived in town Sunday, not to suit up in Bronco orange and blue, but Hawk red.

Notre Dame star wide receiver Jeff Samardzija folded his 6-foot-6 frame into his Pontiac Grand Prix for the 1,700-mile drive from Chicago to Boise this weekend — and arrived a baseball pitcher.

At least for six weeks, when Samardzija must report for Irish football camp.

But this is no publicity stunt. Samardzija, who set Notre Dame football records in receiving yards (1,249) and touchdown catches (15) and went 8-2 for the Irish baseball team last year, takes his baseball seriously.

The Chicago Cubs are definitely paying him serious money — a reported $7.25 million signing bonus spread over five years and payable in full only if Samardzija makes baseball his sole focus after this football season.

The contract must be approved by Major League Baseball, and Samardzija can't play for the Hawks until it is. A starting pitcher, Samardzija likely won't take the mound for another seven to 10 days as his contract — and mechanics — get sorted out.

That didn't stop him from getting in the car and arriving in Boise in time for the Hawks' season opener.

"It was very important (to be here). I made it kind of clear that's what I wanted to do and I didn't want to miss any games," Samardzija said. "I'm not going to be here for that long, so I don't want to miss any. I want to be here for all of them. I made a point to drive out here, even if things weren't ready to go yet. Maybe, hopefully, it will speed things up a little bit."

Still think baseball is just a diversion to keep Samardzija out of those "voluntary" football workouts in South Bend?

The Cubs, who drafted Samardzija in the fifth round, are confident that full-time devotion to baseball is all the right-hander needs to become a potential star. His fastball tops out at 99 mph.

"This guy is a great talent," Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita said. "You're talking about a guy that has got a lot of ability and he really hasn't focused totally on baseball."

Not since he started playing organized ball — baseball and football — at age 7. Ever since, Samardzija has been a star at both.

And he's never had to choose between them.

Why should he?

To his credit, and with the blessing of Irish football coach Charlie Weis, Samardzija has no intention of deciding until he absolutely has to.

"It's as realistic as I try to make it," Samardzija said of his stated goal to play both sports professionally. "Obviously, it's not all in my hands, but as long as I get around the right people and I take care of business — which is probably the biggest part — then hopefully things can work out."

The football part of the equation is really not in doubt. Samardzija, a consensus All-America in 2005, is projected as an NFL first-round draft pick.

Some tout him as the best receiver in the country. He's not. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson and USC's Dwayne Jarrett are better. But not by much.

Samardzija, however, has a better shot at the national championship and, by extension, the Heisman Trophy than either of those two receivers. Among his biggest obstacles for the trophy will be his quarterback, Heisman favorite Brady Quinn. With the Irish returning to national prominence, Samardzija isn't about to miss out on what could be a very memorable senior season.

The Cubs didn't even ask him to.

So no matter how successful his summer foray into baseball is, Samardzija will be in South Bend for football camp.

"No matter what, I'm going to go back for my senior season in football," he said. "Going into this whole situation I kind of wanted to go into both sports with open eyes and do the best I could in both of them and see where it goes. We're kind of in the middle of that right now."

This summer will go a long way toward determining just how good Samardzija is at baseball. No doubt his fastball is worthy and he has a solid slider.

But can he eventually become a complete pitcher?

More importantly, does he want to? Or would Samardzija, who plays for the most popular college football team in the nation, rather catch touchdowns in the NFL than work on his off-speed pitches in Boise and then Peoria and then Iowa City?

He gets six weeks to help him decide.

"He's probably trying to learn a little bit about us and learn a little bit about playing professional baseball," Fleita said. "And we're going to try to learn about him. And hopefully in the end, it's a great relationship. I think that's how you can look at it — it'll be six weeks of trying to establish a relationship and getting an idea of what he wants to do."

The Cubs, obviously, hope Samardzija opts for baseball. They're pulling out all the stops: an astronomical signing bonus and a bullpen session at Wrigley Field on Friday. The Cubs' first impression, in this developing relationship, has been purely positive.

"I can tell you one thing, judging this guy, you're talking about a successful guy," Fleita said. "He'll be successful in something."

Samardzija is playing it smart. He said he would see what happens after the football season.

What will happen?

After five or so starts and a long drive back across the country, Samardzija will unfold his giant frame in South Bend a football player. And that he will remain — through a long NFL career.

His professional baseball career will begin and end in Boise. But it should make for great summer viewing.