The decision had been made: Quarterback Chris Weinke chose to sign a professional baseball contract out of high school instead of playing football for Bobby Bowden. So when Bowden told Weinke that he would save a scholarship for him should he ever decide to come back to the sport, Bowden never actually expected to hear from Weinke again.
Six years later, Bowden’s phone rang.
“We took a chance, because the question was, well, has he lost his stuff? When you bring him in, you’re knocking out a lot of other quarterbacks,” Bowden said. “There was one top quarterback in the country -- I won’t call his name -- that had already committed to Florida State, even though he was only a junior. Well after you got Weinke, that was out. We took a chance and won.”
And won big.
“Looking back, I didn’t know where it would lead me because my situation was unique when I got there,” Weinke said. “As a 24-year-old, I really had to adjust the way I was living as a professional baseball player. That lifestyle is different than being a freshman in college at the age of 24. But it’s about the people, and all successful people have great people around them. It’s without question the reason I was able to achieve success at Florida State because of the people around me.”
Weinke, who came to Florida State as a 24-year-old freshman, set 26 school records during his career, led the Seminoles to an undefeated season and the national title as a junior in 1999, and became the program’s second Heisman Trophy winner as a senior in 2000, finishing his career with a 32-3 record. He played in three consecutive national championship games and went on to play seven seasons in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers. Although his professional career ended without the fanfare his collegiate career created, Weinke still continues to have an impact on the game at every level. He was hired in 2010 as the director of the IMG Academy football program in Bradenton, Fla. In addition to his administrative duties, Weinke is an on-the-field coach for the year-round training facility that works with players from the youth to professional levels, including former Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder.
“For me, it’s the perfect fit, being able to work with young kids all the way through NFL guys,” Weinke said. “It’s football, football, football.”
Some things never change.
Weinke, who turns 39 in July, said Florida State is still a major part of his life. How could it not be? His Heisman Trophy is sitting in his living room (finally, after a long stay at his parents’ house). He finished with 9,839 career passing yards. In 2000, he led the nation with 4,167 yards -- an average of 347.3 per game.
“It’s a huge part of my life just because, being in the football business, people understanding where I went to school,” he said, “there usually isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t talk to a player or a parent who doesn’t somehow, someway bring up Florida State.”
His story is one of the most memorable in college football, not only because of the success he had after a six-year layoff to play Triple-A baseball, but also because of the potentially career-ending neck injury he suffered as a sophomore. Weinke still threw 79 touchdown passes in his career.
To Bowden, though, Weinke’s maturity is what separated him from the majority of other players Bowden coached during his career.
“He didn’t make those boyish mistakes that a 17- or 18-year-old will make,” Bowden said. “He was a man when he came here. He was impeccable in his training and schoolwork.”
Despite his cemented place in Florida State history, Weinke only started 15 games in the NFL, and finished his humbling professional career having thrown for 3,904 yards, 15 touchdowns and 26 interceptions.
Bowden said he was a bit surprised that Weinke’s professional career didn’t flourish more, considering the success he had in college, but some of that, Bowden surmised, probably had to do with Weinke’s late start in the game.
“A lot of it is did they give him a chance?” Bowden said. “He’s 28 or 29 when he goes in. A lot of the pro teams are not willing to wait on somebody that age. It usually takes those guys two or three years to get really good. So I imagine the circumstances worked against him. He won his first dadgum game.”
Weinke said he has no regrets about not playing longer.
“I spent seven years there and enjoyed my time, but I look back now and, I may say that I would rather not still be playing just because I’m fortunate of the situation I’m in right now,” he said. “I’m still involved in the game, I’m in the teaching side of the game, and that to me is really more satisfying than when I was a player.”