As the NCAA Tournament kicks off today, there’s simply so much to follow.
Of course, there’s the basketball. Even when it’s bad there’s the pageantry of March Madness and having 64 teams so stylistically different from every corner of the country make for an invariably entertaining three weeks.
We get to talk tempo and schedule strength and every other facet of the game and there’s just so much raw emotion.
We also get a sneak peek of the game’s next big stars–the ones we’ll see on billboards in Times Square and guzzling down sports drinks intermittently while you’re trying to watch The Good Wife. See that guy with the pen and pad six rows off Kentucky’s bench? He’s trying to find a fatal flaw in the all-upside game of Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and trying to justify convincing his GM to spend it’s late-lottery slot on Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant.
However, it’s not just NBA scouts who’ve managed to find the next big star in the NCAA Tournament. Throughout the NFL, there have been well-publicized stars who were big-time college basketball players before ultimately choosing–or settling for, if you will–a career in the NFL.
Chiefly, there’s an incredibly long list of current and former star NFL tight ends who also made their mark in the Tournament, mostly as wide-bodied, undersized power forwards.
Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, for instance, was a key member of the rotation on a Cal Golden Bears team that managed to make the Sweet Sixteen in 1997. He scored 6.8 points per game and was a solid player, but he carved out a career as arguably the greatest player to ever play the tight end position in the NFL.
San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was the star of a Kent State Golden Glashes hoops squad that went to the Elite Eight in 2002. A couple of years later he was a Pro Bowler for the San Diego Chargers.
Most recently, there’s been Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas. This offseason, the Pro Bowl pair made headlines by joining new teams. Graham was traded in a blockbuster deal to the defending NFC-champion Seattle Seahawks while Thomas signed as a free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But less than a decade ago, in 2008 and 2009 both players helped lead their respective universities to NCAA Tournament bids. Thomas is still Portland State’s all-time leader in field goal percentage (he made an astonishing 66 percent of his shots from the field in college) and Graham had over 500 points and 500 rebounds during his time as a Miami hoopster.
All of the aforementioned crossover stars save Tony Gonzalez were primarily basketball players in college before finding football late in their collegiate careers–Thomas and Graham both played one year of college football–or not at all in the case of Antonio Gates. So that led us to thinking, who could be the next great basketball star turned superstar NFL tight end?
One name that comes to mind is Baylor’s Rico Gathers, who is certainly built like an NFL tight end; however, Gathers, at 6’8″, is a truer power forward than a guy like Gates (who was a tweener at 6’4″) and all signs point to Scott Drew’s rebounding force getting a legit shot in the NBA. NBA Draft Express gives him a second-round grade in next year’s NBA Draft.
Perhaps, Gathers could hedge his bets by putting a year in with Art Briles, but chances are, with an almost certain career in basketball (whether that be in The Association or overseas), it’s unlikely.
Regardless, it’s important to note, as all you NFL fans out there take in this year’s NCAA Tournament, be sure to keep your eyes open. All those 6’5″, 240-pound power forwards out there battling on the glass are worth keeping an eye on for more than just your bracket’s sake. They could be your next superstar tight end.