In the end, the decision about which sport to make a career came down to the same values that guided Eric Decker to stay in Minnesota to play college football.
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To him, the NFL lifestyle offers more stability and more time at home than does professional baseball.
“I wanted to have some family time, some offseason time to do other things, other goals I have in life,” Decker said. “I thought football was the best sport that suited that.”
So Decker, a two-sport standout at Minnesota, passed up chances the past two summers to sign first with the Milwaukee Brewers, then the Minnesota Twins, to prolong his football career. He is projected as a second- or third-round pick in the NFL draft next year after leaving as the Gophers’ career leader in receptions (216 to date) and receiving yards (3,092).
Decker is 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds and has everything a coach wants in a college receiver, save for top-end speed.
“They just throw it up there, and he goes up and gets it,” Ohio State linebacker Austin Spitler said.
Coming out of high school in tiny Cold Spring, Minn., though, Decker was barely known. He said his choice of where to play in college was between Minnesota and St. John’s, a Division III power in nearby Collegeville, Minn.
“My whole thing was I wanted to stay home, be close to family and friends, have the summer to enjoy Minnesota with the lakes and the lifestyle I grew up with,” Decker said. “I really didn’t go to camps or send tapes out.”
Instead, Decker played baseball in the summer with friends and went to a few basketball camps.
Minnesota offered a scholarship after he attended a one-day football camp on campus. It fulfilled a dream he had after going to Minnesota games in the mid-1990s to watch a cousin play for the Gophers.
“Being a small-town kid, I didn’t really play (against big-city) competition,” Decker said. “We had good football where I’m from, my team was good, but … I didn’t really (know) where my talent level was with everybody else. I didn’t really get into that stuff. I just always wanted to work hard and give myself an opportunity.”
With a work ethic that has set a standard in the program, he has caught a pass in all but three games since redshirting as a freshman, including the past 33 in a row.
After establishing himself in his second season with a school-record 67 receptions (a record he surpassed last year with 84), Decker joined the Minnesota baseball team in 2008 at the urging of friends with whom he played summer ball.
“They kind of influenced me,” Decker said, “like, ‘Hey, you only get so many years to experience things like that, take the opportunity and run with it.’ That’s what I did.”
Decker, an outfielder who throws and bats left-handed, hit .329 in 2008 and was taken by the Brewers in the 38th round of the major-league draft. He batted .319 last spring and was drafted in the 27th round by the Twins.
But that’s apparently where his baseball career will end. Next spring, he will be auditioning for NFL teams.
“I enjoyed my experience and my time with (baseball), but my heart lies with football,” Decker said, “I’ve never really wavered on that. I know that’s the future I want.”