Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers caught 81 passes and 13 touchdowns last year, reaching the Pro Bowl in just his second NFL season. Marcus Pollard, now of the Detroit Lions, caught 263 balls for 35 scores during a solid, 11-year career with the Indianapolis Colts.
What do Gates and Pollard have in common? Aside from both being tight ends, neither player played football in college.
Two Bulldogs are currently trying to make the same transition — albeit on a smaller scale. Former basketball players Juan Wheat ’06, a 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound forward, and John Shumate ’07, a 6-foot-3-inch, 190-pound guard, have been working with the football team during spring practice.
Neither has played a down of organized football before, but inexperience has not deterred the former hoopsters.
“In hindsight I would’ve liked to have played in high school,” said Shumate, who has been working out with Yale’s cornerbacks. “But I only have two years of college left, so I figured I’d give [football] a shot.”
Shumate said that he soured on basketball once he got to college. The son of the WNBA head coach and former NBA player of the same name, the Phoenix-native was an actual Diaper Dandy – a basketball-playing toddler, not one of Dick Vitale’s vaunted freshman ballers. But a childhood spent on the hardwood seemed finally to give Shumate splinters last year.
“I played basketball my whole life, and when I got to college I kind of got tired of it,” Shumate said. “I always wanted to play football so why not?”
Shumate’s father has been amenable to the change as well.
“I’m 20 years old so he really can’t do anything,” Shumate said with a laugh. “He’s been fine with it. He loves football. He never played but he loves watching it. And he’s always up for me to take on new challenges.”
Wheat shared many of the same reasons for migrating. Though he does not come from a similarly storied basketball lineage, Wheat was a star at Seventy First High School in Fayetteville, N.C. He led Seventy First to back-to-back finishes as the state runner-up in his junior and senior seasons, during the latter of which garnering team Most Valuable Player honors.
The seed for Wheat’s move to football was sown back in high school, when he resisted the autumnal lure of the gridiron for fear that it might derail his basketball career.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Wheat said. “In high school it seemed like basketball was going to help me further myself and I couldn’t risk getting hurt. I figured I’m a junior this year, I’ve got one year left to give [football] a try. Basketball wasn’t fun like it used to be. And I realize a lot of people say it’s not necessarily supposed to be fun when you get to college, but I just lost the love for the game.”
Wheat’s departure from the basketball team could have been rockier than that of Shumate, who quit during his freshman year, but Wheat said that everyone has been understanding about the move.
“All my friends have been really supportive,” Wheat said. “Even the guys on the basketball team have been cool about it.”
During the 2004-05 campaign Wheat logged minutes in just eight games for the Elis, and Yale’s frontcourt was unaffected by graduation, so the impact on the basketball team should not be very significant.
Even with all the support in the world, making the switch from lay-ups to up-downs is never easy. In basketball, a guard might be a scrawny jump-shooter who meanders around the perimeter, safe from the physical pounding near the basket; a guard in football is often a behemoth in excess of 300 pounds, bulldozing unsuspecting defensive backs who might, indeed, be better suited for the basketball court. In basketball players run suicides. Football, some say, is suicide.
Wheat, who bounced from tight end to receiver before finally settling at defensive tackle, said he got his first taste of the brute nature of football the day he sampled life in the trenches.
“When I was with the tight ends and receivers, I didn’t really have to worry about getting hit,” Wheat said. “Now, with the D-line, the first hit I took was from Tom Woznicki [’08] – and he’s about 300 [pounds] and I’m about 240 – so that was quite a hit he put on me.”
Despite regularly taking a pounding from bigger and more experienced offensive linemen, Wheat feels comfortable at defensive tackle, something head coach Jack Siedlecki has noticed.
“With Juan, he was not going to be, speed-wise, a receiver in our offense,” Siedlecki said. “He came to me and talked about changing positions right away. He’s put on like 30 pounds since he quit basketball, and I think he thinks physically that’s where he belongs.”
Aside from difficulties with the terminology and a minor hamstring tweak that slowed his immersion in winter workouts, Shumate said his transition has been smoother than Wheat’s. Playing cornerback, he said, is not unlike playing defense in basketball.
“In basketball you’re guarding a man and as a cornerback you’re guarding a man,” he said. “Or if you’re playing zone coverage you’re playing an area, same as basketball.”
Siedlecki believes the correlation extends beyond mere coverage.
“I think a lot of the basketball skills translate to being a corner more than any other position on the football field,” Siedlecki said, adding that Shumate’s height provides him a significant advantage for a cornerback in goal-line and jump-ball situations. “With footwork, body position and playing the ball, the game translates more at that position.”
Shumate has been honing his craft with the secondary since before spring break, and fellow defensive back Mark Larson ’06 has also begun to take notice.
“He’s got good speed,” Larson said. “When [receivers] go deep, he’s on them. He’s got an attitude about him, like when he breaks up plays.”
While Larson had to preface most of his compliments with the words “for someone who has never played before,” he said that Shumate has skills that could translate very well to football.
“As a D-back, he’s got real good reflexes and reaction time, and he’s not afraid to hit,” Larson said. “It’s just a matter of learning the defenses.”
Duane Brooks, Yale’s loquacious defensive line coach, said that he saw some natural ability in Wheat, too.
“When you look at him, you think he could have all the tools in the world, just that he has never ever in his lifetime played football,” said Brooks, who added that the only time he usually teaches such elementary technique is over the summer, when he coaches camps for eight-year-olds. “So he’s like a newborn baby. We had to start from the very basics with him. Before practice right now we have 15 minutes of Juan Wheat practice.”
In Wheat’s defense, there are certain positions in basketball that lend themselves to certain others in football — point guard to cornerback, swingman to wide receiver, power forward to tight end — and his current spot, defensive tackle, has no natural mate, though that has not stopped Brooks from trying to contrive a connection.
“Once he learns, pass-rushing is sort of like basketball — inside-out crossover, head fake, that kind of stuff,” he said.
Brooks courted Wheat while the junior was still working with the receivers.
“I told him, ‘You bench 330 pounds. That’s pretty strong for a wide receiver — pretty strong for anybody. Why don’t you come work with us? You’ll get to hit somebody,'” Brooks said. “People think it’s a bad thing being a D-lineman, but if you can do it and work hard and get knocked around and enjoy it, we’ll take you. I’ll throw you in there. You’ll either kick ass or get your ass kicked. But I told him it’s not Tecmo Bowl; you can’t just hit that joystick.”
With Brooks’ tutelage and a few weeks of practice, Wheat is no longer on the business end of every hit.
“He learns everyday,” Brooks said. “He’s no dummy. And I think next week in the spring game, he’ll be able to do something. Plus, the better he gets, the better I look.”
Aside from Brooks’ coaching prowess, Shumate’s development will be on full display at the Yale Bowl during the spring game on April 23.
But don’t look for Antonio Gates-like strides just yet. Wheat, for one, believes that the jury will be out until pre-season.
“Hopefully by August I’ll be able to help the team,” Wheat said. “My role right now is just to pick up as much as I can. And if I didn’t play two seconds [during games] next year it wouldn’t bother me. Never having played before, I just want to feel like I’m contributing.”