Joe Mauer: The one that got away from college football
Tom Lemming is a recruiting lifer, a man who judges football players not by the number of Super Bowls they’ve won or Pro Bowls they’ve made, but instead by where they fell on his high school All-American team at 18 years old. He’s turned the profession into a cottage industry, once starring as himself in a movie — “The Blind Side.” He was also the brains behind what is now the US Army All-American Game.
Simply put, the man knows high school football talent. In 35-plus years in the business, he’s seen every relevant prospect ranging from Dan Marino and John Elway in his first fall on the beat, to current college stars like Braxton Miller, Leonard Fournette and Vernon Hargreaves III.
So it should come as no surprise that when a reporter called him early one Monday morning, and asked him about the long lost top recruit in the class of 2001, a guy who never ended up playing a down of college football, that Lemming remembered him right away.
“Oh, Joe Mauer?” Lemming asked through the phone. “I had him as my top-ranked player that year. Everybody did.”
Yes, we’re talking about that Joe Mauer, and what most people forget is that long before he was a major-league superstar, Mauer was also the No. 1 ranked high school football player in the country, a can’t miss pro-style quarterback who signed a letter of intent to play football for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, and the only person to win Gatorade National Player of the Year in both football and baseball.
It also raises one of the most interesting “What if?” questions in college football history: What if Joe Mauer had focused on football? How good could he have been?
Days before Signing Day, FOX Sports tracked down Mauer and the people who know him best to ask that question.
Joe Mauer was a two-sport star before heading to the Minnesota Twins and baseball.
Mauer grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the son of Jake and Teresa Mauer, the little brother of Jake and Billy. Sports were in the family’s blood; Teresa was a three-sport high school star, inducted into her high school’s Hall of Fame. Both of Mauer’s older brothers went on to play professional baseball as well.
Yet in a family full of athletes, Joe stood out.
He was one of those freaky kids we all know, the one who’s good at everything, the first time they try it.
“On the weekends we’d go throw darts, go play pool, bowl,” his longtime friend, and high school football and baseball teammate Tony Leseman said. “For average folk, all of us, it takes us awhile to get used to the game.”
Not Joe Mauer, though.
“He’s just — and I’m sure everybody knows a guy, or has a friend [like this] — once he figures out the concept of a game, he’s good at it,” Leseman said. “It’s amazing and annoying at the same time.”
Mauer ended up at Cretin-Derham Hall in the fall of 1997, a school that doubles as a top-flight private high school in St. Paul, and also serves as the closest thing to a “football factory” the state of Minnesota has. It’s not quite Glenville High School in Cleveland, Carrol City in Miami, or Mater Dei in Southern California, but it’s pretty darn close; notable football alums include current Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd and Bills offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson.
However, despite that list of current NFL talent, the school will always be best known for its quarterbacks. Steve Walsh went there, before eventually winning a national championship as the starting QB at the University of Miami. Chris Weinke also attended Cretin-Derham; he went on to win a Heisman Trophy and a national championship at Florida State, after a brief professional baseball career.
But Mauer, well he may have been better than both, according to the man who coached all three. That’d be former Cretin-Derham offensive coordinator and current head coach Mike Scanlan.
“Saying that he [Mauer] was better than both of those guys is a pretty bold statement,” Scanlan said. “But I saw all three play. As good as Weinke and Walsh turned out to be, I don’t know that they were as good in high school as Joe Mauer was.”
Mauer began his career quietly at Cretin-Derham, spending his first two years on the freshman and sophomore teams, respectively, waiting his turn behind older players. Behind the scenes, his coaches were touting him as possibly the best player in the school’s history, and by his junior year he emerged into a bona-fide star. By that point, Lemming was already listing him as one of the top quarterbacks in the country — even before he’d played significant time on varsity — and Mauer did little to disappoint. He led Cretin-Derham to a state championship in the fall of 1999, after a season in which he threw for more than 2,400 yards.
Most impressively, he did it in a pro-style offense. Remember, these were long before the days where high school quarterbacks routinely threw the ball 50 times a game.
“That was one thing, Joe was under center all the time, we didn’t do any shotgun,” Scanlan said. “I think his dad still bugs me about it when I run into him. Joe didn’t care; he was able to do what he wanted to anyway.”
The baseball star was pretty much able to do whatever he wanted on the football field. It’s also what still stands out to Scanlan to this day. Not only did Mauer have the elite, height, weight and strength that one can only dream of with a quarterback. He had the smarts to go along with it.
“You can get creative in football, draw up a bunch of plays, but with Joe you were actually able to do it,” Scanlan said. “Certain things might look good on paper, but you worry about whether you’ll be able to execute it with another quarterback. With him, for the most part, whatever you wanted to try, he was going to be able to do.”
Those are heady words from Scanlan, and even more impressive when considering one other variable that can’t be ignored: Football was no more than his “second” sport. Mauer grew up in an era long before the days where every kid had a private quarterback coach and competed in seven-on-seven camps all summer.
Instead, he kinda sorta just moved over to football, when baseball season ended.
“I’m telling you right now, he didn’t pick up a football until mid-August,” Leseman said with a laugh. “When we played summer baseball and we had an afternoon game that got done early, maybe, less than a handful of times he’d say, ‘Hey, after we’re done, you want to stick around 10 or 15 minutes and throw the ball?’”
That’s right; football was something that Mauer simply did as an afterthought, not quite a “hobby” but not quite a full-time passion either.
Not that it mattered to college coaches.
He entered his final season of high school as the most coveted quarterback in the country.
Though he spent the summer before his senior year traveling the world — literally — with Team USA baseball, Mauer didn’t miss a beat when he returned to the gridiron that fall. He threw for more than 2,800 yards in his final year of high school, (tallying over 5,500 for his career), tossing a staggering 41 touchdowns. That included seven in one game.
By that point he had evolved into a complete pocket passer, the quintessential pro-style quarterback.
“He was tall, had a great arm, great football sense,” Lemming said. “He was a leader. He did everything that you look for in a quarterback, particularly in those days.”
Mauer eventually turned his attention to college, taking official visits to Miami, Arizona and Minnesota, as well as Florida State, after bonding with the Seminoles' young offensive coordinator, Mark Richt.
Of course no trip to Tallahassee, Fla., would be complete without meeting FSU legendary coach Bobby Bowden, something Mauer remembers vividly to this day. Mauer took his official visit during a break in his high school basketball season, and Bowden planned to reciprocate by coming to Minnesota.
“I remember sitting in his office,” Mauer said. “He told me, ‘I want to come up to Minnesota and watch you play basketball. But I don’t want to come up there in that cold, just to get a no!’”
Bowden never did get that “no,” with Mauer committing to Florida State just before Signing Day.
Young Joe Mauer.
The news was exciting for both player and coach, but they both knew it came with a catch; Mauer was also on the verge of what could be a very lucrative career on the diamond. Baseball scouts had known the name "Joe Mauer" long before anyone in football had.
“Our sophomore year ... he made the Team USA 18-and-under team,” Leseman said. “That’s when the media started to pick it up and mention him as a top-round baseball pick. Once the papers started throwing out numbers that he would possibly be getting, and it was millions, that’s when I was like ‘Woah, wait a minute here.’”
Eventually draft day did come, but the result surprised those who were closest to Mauer: He was selected as the first overall pick, by the hometown Minnesota Twins. Mauer was drafted over established college stars like Georgia Tech’s Mark Teixeira and USC’s Mark Prior, a player who was considered to be the best college pitcher of all time.
It was a story too good to be true, the hometown kid, getting drafted by the hometown team. Still, those around him swear that it was an opportunity he almost gave up.
“I know for a fact that he was extremely serious about playing both sports at Florida State,” Leseman said. “And I’m talking about after he got drafted.”
How is Leseman so sure? Well, after spending his high school career as one of Mauer’s go-to receivers, he spent most of that summer running routes for his buddy at a local field.
“As the summer started going on, he threw more and more,” Leseman said. “They (the Mauers) were getting ready to go down and register for classes. They were extremely on-board with going to Florida State.”
Eventually though, the Twins upped their offer to Mauer, and it got to the point where it was simply too much money for an 18-year-old to turn down. Leseman and some friends were with Mauer in the car, when he got the call that would change his life.
“He got a call from mom and dad,” Leseman said. “They basically said, ‘You need to come home right now.’”
The Twins had gotten their man. But on the football side of things, Bowden -- ho’d been in the same scenario with Weinke over a decade earlier -- never gave up hope that he’d eventually see him on campus.
“I treated Mauer the same way I treated Weinke,” Bowden said. “I said, ‘Son, if you decide you don’t want to play, or things aren’t working out, give me a call. I’m saving you a scholarship.’”
Mauer never did take Bowden up on that offer, although the two did communicate one final time a few months later.
“I do remember that as the summer went on (and pro baseball began), he (Bowden) wrote me a really nice letter,” Mauer said. “He congratulated me ... It was definitely a really, really nice gesture.”
The top prospect in the class of 2001 never played another game of organized football again.
It’s been a full 14 years since Mauer chose baseball once and for all, leaving many to wonder just how good Mauer would’ve been if he’d focused on football full time.
Just about everyone who saw him play has the same answer.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s 100 percent that he would’ve been successful at Florida State,” Lemming said. “He would’ve been a first-round pick and still playing in the NFL today.”
Lemming continued. At 6-foot-4, with a big arm and smarts, Lemming viewed him as the quintessential pro-style quarterback.
“He had what the NFL is still looking for,” Lemming said. “He was perfect for the pro game, maybe even more than he would’ve been for Florida State.”
Scanlan agreed. The man who worked with two quarterbacks who eventually went on to the NFL is convinced he would’ve had a third if Mauer’s focus had remained on football.
“I think he’s playing on Sunday,” Scanlan said. “If he would’ve stayed healthy, he’s playing on Sunday.”
Bowden said the same.
“I think he could’ve been a pro, and an excellent pro,” the retired Florida State coach said. “And I think he would’ve led us to a lot of victories.”
Hmm, a lot of victories, huh?
That last part is actually one of the most intriguing and easy to forget about the Mauer story. It’s ironic, because right around the time Mauer would’ve gotten to Florida State is right when the Seminoles began to fall off as a college football power. Florida State went 8-4 in what would’ve been Mauer’s freshman season on campus, after finishing the previous 16 seasons ranked in the top-four nationally.
Frankly, that just might be the greatest “what if” of all: What if Joe Mauer had gone to Florida State? Would the Seminoles have remained one of college football’s best programs?
A certain segment of the population believes so.
“It was funny because our spring training is down in Fort Myers, Florida,” Mauer said. “Those first few years, the Florida writers, the fans they would give me grief and say what the heck?”
“If you were our quarterback, things would’ve been different!”
It’s one of the great “What ifs” in college football history.