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The Sad Tale of Christian Hackenberg Will Soon Include a Baseball Comeback Attempt

How does one of the best high school quarterbacks in recent memory end up not playing a single NFL down and attempting to revive his career in an entirely different sport? Blame Temple.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a roller-coaster collegiate career, a handful of flameouts on NFL rosters, and an attempt in a start-up league, Christian Hackenberg is starting over … again. He was once a superlative gridiron talent. Now, after years as a bust, he’s attempting to make a comeback; this time, in baseball.

“I’ve kind of had my trials and tribulations with the NFL, and had success and had that roller-coaster ride,” Hack told NBC10 Philadelphia over the weekend. “At the end of the day, I’m sitting here at 25. For me ... I feel like I’ve got a lot left in the tank.”

That last part seems debatable, given that there’s no evidence Hackenberg had much in the tank to begin with. The last time the former NFL second-rounder played baseball competitively, as a relief pitcher in high school, he logged a 7.36 ERA with 33 strikeouts, 40 walks, and five HBPs in 23 2/3 innings. He reportedly throws 90 miles per hour, which is 2.3 mph slower than the average major league starter, and 3.4 mph slower than the average reliever.

Hackenberg needs to refill the tank. It’s unlikely, but Ringer resident college baseball guru Michael Baumann says that with the right coaching, and months of video study and pitch design, it’s possible that Hackenberg could develop an MLB-quality arm.

“We see anonymous minor league relievers run into the right coach, tweak their arm angle, and start throwing 97 all the time,” Baumann said. “It’s still extremely unlikely that he pans out, but Hackenberg is a lump of clay who could be molded by the right coach.”

That Hack is even in this situation would have been shocking less than half a decade ago. As a senior in high school, Hackenberg was the top-ranked quarterback recruit in the country, ahead of future pros like Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, and Nick Mullens. In his freshman season at Penn State, he made good on the hype, leading the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 record and wins against ranked Michigan and Wisconsin squads behind 2,955 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.

The Big Ten Freshman of the Year set a handful of records that season for Bill O’Brien’s final team. Even after a rough sophomore year under new head coach James Franklin and new offensive coordinator John Donovan, Hack was expected to rebound for what would likely be his final campaign. At 6-foot-4, 228 pounds, he had prototypical size, a rocket arm, and the propensity to make dazzling throws, and it made sense that experts like ESPN’s Todd McShay projected him to go first overall.

And that’s when the wheels fell off. In the first game of his junior year, Temple sacked Hackenberg 10 times—including once by a two-man rush—and he logged a 4.8 quarterback rating. That season Hack looked like a shell of his former self, often throwing off his back feet, and was limited by an offense that demanded he throw dozens of screen passes. He left his final college outing early with injury, watched as his successor Trace McSorely nearly led the Nittany Lions to victory, and declared his intention to go pro immediately after the final whistle.

The Jets—of course it was the Jets—selected him in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft, despite Hackenberg being deemed undraftable by Pro Football Focus. He never saw a pro field. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only one other quarterback taken as high as Hackenberg concluded his NFL career without attempting a single pass. Even Nathan Peterman got some playing time. In three years, he was at least a practice-squad member of four different teams, but never played a single down. He sought refuge in the short-lived AAF, where he had similar results.

Now, after almost a decade of underwhelming football, Hackenberg is pulling the arm-strength rip cord. Goodbye, Former Future No. 1 Pick Christian Hackenberg, hello Ace Pitcher Christian Hackenberg.

“As a Temple University alum, I’m obliged to mention that Hackenberg only became a lump of clay after the Owls kicked his ass all the way back to Pennsyltucky in 2015,” Baumann said. “But now, like I said, he can be molded into something else.”

Quarterbacks trying their luck on the diamond is nothing new. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was drafted ninth overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2018 before a stellar final season at Oklahoma propelled him to the Heisman trophy and the no. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Drew Henson was Michigan’s star quarterback when he tried his luck with the Yankees. He played eight games in the majors before entering the 2003 NFL draft—three years after he last played organized football—and spent time with three teams, and a stint in NFL Europe, before calling it quits. Even Russell Wilson cosplays at Yankees spring training now and then.

The most apt player for Hackenberg to model his comeback after, however, is arguably the most famous baseball player alive: Tim Tebow. After two collegiate titles, a Heisman trophy, and one of the strangest careers in NFL history, Tebow signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets. The left fielder and DH has yet to taste the majors, but in four seasons he has climbed from the Arizona Fall League to Triple-A. This February, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training, he hit a dinger off of seven-season MLB vet Alex Wilson.

Maybe Hackenberg’s baseball future lies in hitting instead of pitching. ESPN reported he hit .378 with 10 home runs in 148 at-bats in high school. But whether he’s on the mound or at the plate, at least he can’t get sacked.