Bengals, Football Call Driskel Out Of The Bullpen

Jeff Driskel, Football Guy.
Jeff Driskel, Football Guy.

There are football guys and baseball guys. Jeff Driskel, the Bengals quarterback making his first NFL start Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12, order tickets) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Broncos, is most decidedly a football guy.

"At the end of the day," says Jered Goodwin, Driskel's high school baseball coach who believes Driskel would have been his third first-rounder, "who doesn't want to be the quarterback?"

That is Driskel raising his hand. The guy that was All-Seminole Conference in baseball before he was in football at dear old Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Fla., on the doorstep of Disney's Magic Kingdom. That is Driskel stealing home in the seventh inning of the District 4 final against current Yankees pitcher A.J. Cole. There is Driskel, just out of the eighth-grade playing on Goodwin's travel team stocked with studs 18 and under.

Images of Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel during his tenure in Cincinnati. Driskel will make his first NFL start against Denver in week 13.

He is hearing the questions buzzing around his guy this week. Goodwin, now the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach at Florida International, hears them asking Driskel if he's ready to take the next step. He laughs because he knows about the run he grabbed against Cole and the centerfield he roamed with current Reds outfielder Jesse Winker next him in right during the summer while the game's third best prospect played in front of him at short in future Cubs World Series hero Addisson Russell.

And he saw him blow up a national showcase zipping through the 60-yard dash in an elite 6.5 seconds while gunning 94 miles per hour from the outfield and getting chosen for the home-run derby simply on raw talent. If he wasn't a five-tool player, he had four and a blessing.

"I've coached 37 players in the big leagues," Goodwin says. "There's no question he could have been a million-dollar kid ... He's been going professional athletes his whole life."

If Driskel hadn't decided to finish at Hagerty early and enroll at Florida to get a head start on football and take himself out of baseball's 2011 draft, there's also no doubt in Goodwin's mind that he rated with the other top players in the state that year. Guys like shortstop Francisco Lindor from Montverde High School and another shortstop, Jacksonville's Javier Baez. Lindor was the eighth player selected and is currently the guts of the Cleveland Indians. Baez went next at nine and just led the National League with 111 RBI for the Cubs.

No doubt.

"At one point he was farther along in baseball than he was in football," Goodwin says. "He was just so physical and his speed was elite with that big arm. No doubt in my mind he'd be a big-league regular right now in the outfield. At 6-4 with that speed, just a unique guy (for baseball)."

"We shut him down pitching when he had some discomfort throwing in baseball and football. Just too much. But at the end he could have been throwing in the mid-90s off the mound. He had a little swing and miss, he'd tell you that. But playing for four years in one of the best districts in the state he never hit below .300 and in his last year he hit above .400."

Four years after he picked up a bat the Red Sox drafted him in the 29th round just in case. All he wanted was a jersey and he's still got it hanging in his closet at home in Florida.

"That's unusual. That happens to about five to eight guys a year," Goodwin says. "It shows you where he was on the radar."

But there are football guys and baseball guys.

"It's a different dynamic," said Driskel this week, patiently trying to explain his career decision to a Red Sox fan. "It's just different. It's not better or worse, it's just different, and I just prefer the football culture."

There it is. It doesn't surprise Goodwin. There's more to Driskel than sports. When he was in high school, he was a player Goodwin let baby sit his kids. When Driskel played for a season at Louisiana Tech after his career at Florida, Goodwin spent four days with him. He came to Cincinnati last year and visited him and his wife and there wasn't even a game.

"A very humble, Christian man," says Goodwin, who says they pray whenever they're together. "He's always been hard-working, kind of stayed the course. I don't have enough positive adjectives for him. I've dealt with a lot of characters through the years and he's as special as I've ever been around as a person."

They knew it early. Goodwin, known as an emotional sort among his players, once called a workout for seven the next morning, a Saturday, and he told the kids to leave their baseball stuff and just bring their shoes to the track.

He had them running quarter-miles, full laps, and Driskel, then a sophomore, is blowing everyone away. But by the fourth or fifth run, Goodwin and his pitching coach couldn't find him until they saw him by the fence, vomiting. But he started up again, made the time and made his time on the next two to leave the coaches shaking their heads as they got in the car.

"And he's encouraging his teammates. This is after he got sick," Goodwin says. "We knew we had just witnessed a big-leaguer. Flash forward seven or eight years later. I guess we were wrong. He's a football player. But that's the day we knew it was different. With the makeup, the tools. It was just a matter of time until he put it together like he's starting to do now."

Photographs from Bengals practice as the team prepares for the week 13 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

The word Goodwin had been getting back from the scouts in that run-up to the 2011 draft is that Driskel's big-league comparison was Jayson Werth, the 6-5, 235-pounder who played the outfield for 15 seasons and was enough of an all-star that the Nationals gave him $126 million that winter Driskel was finishing at Hagerty and preparing to go to Florida for football.

And Driskel would do it again because it wasn't a hard call.

"It was easy. My passion was football and that's where I was led to go and I haven't looked back. I've enjoyed it every step of the way," Driskel said. "I'm a football player and I love the team nature of the sport. I love the week-to-week grind. There's just nothing like being around a football team after a win. That's really all it is."

The Bengals practice at Paul Brown Stadium in preparation for the week 13 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

After practice one day this week, the Sox fan, as he always does, was bugging Driskel about baseball and the Red Sox. And, as always, Driskel politely tolerated it. But in this week of that first NFL start as he sat in front of his locker with his teammates walking past on the way to the shower or meetings while making observations about practice and life, there is another no doubt.

"I wouldn't want to be any place else," said Driskel with a .300 smile.

Hey, who doesn't want to be the quarterback?