Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.
LeBron James’ first sports love wasn’t basketball. Before becoming one of the all-time greats on courts, his first passion was football. And if he decided to play football, he may have been one of the all-time greats at that too.
The first time people talked about James as an athlete, it was as a peewee football player in Akron, Ohio. He was the ambidextrous kid who wrote with his left hand and threw with his right. Willie McGee, one of James’ close friends and high school teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary, told SB Nation he could remember hearing stories about James throwing with both hands and making people miss when he had the ball.
“Before he got a growth spurt, he was one of those little athletes who returned punts and kickoffs because he could make people miss,” according to McGee.
“Early on, football was his first love so I think that was a dream of his. But then basketball grew into something he couldn’t refuse.”
Obviously it was a smart move by James choosing basketball. He’s won three NBA titles, including one with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and has been named league MVP four times. He’s been the face of the NBA and one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
But before all of that, James had a choice to make between his first love and his otherworldly talent.
James was a star receiver in high school who dazzled on the field too
James’ high school career was something out of a movie. He only played a single game as a freshman at St. V-M. It was a playoff qualifier against Wickliffe. Held scoreless through the middle of the third quarter, the Irish put James in at wide receiver and he promptly finished the game with more than 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns in a 15-14 loss.
From there, James took off as a sophomore. He garnered all-state honors as a wiry 6’6 wideout, catching 42 passes for 752 yards and 11 touchdowns. In one game, he had two touchdowns to knock off undefeated Villa Angela-St. Joseph. Despite St. V-M finishing 3-7, James was getting plenty of local headlines playing football.
But by this point, James was already known nationally as a future basketball superstar. He already won back-to-back state basketball titles. He was named Mr. Basketball in Ohio. He had the attention of ESPN. Michael Jordan knew who he was, and NBA players would stop by Akron to see him play basketball. Yet, James loved playing both sports with his friends.
”Some people said I should just stick to basketball,” a 15-year-old James told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2000. “But I like football. I like being with the guys on the team. It’s fun.”
James nearly didn’t play football as a junior. He missed the first game of the season after working out with Jordan and the stars of the NBA in Chicago. But James was inspired to put the pads on again and had another electrifying season.
McGee recalled one play in particular in their junior season. After jumping offsides, James insisted the Irish run the exact same play again. This time, McGee says James caught the ball one-handed with his left while in stride, and he just remained in his running motion past defenders.
“One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” McGee said. “He was just special like that, man. The same things that made him special in basketball made him special in football.”
The strategy to get James the ball in high school was simple. Keep him on the outside against cornerbacks and avoid going over the middle to stay away from getting hit by linebackers and safeties and risking injury.
He finished his junior season with 57 receptions for 1,160 yards and 15 touchdowns. It was another all-state season for him despite being double-teamed consistently.
No one has reported James’ career more than Brian Windhorst. Before getting to ESPN, Windhorst covered James in high school at the Beacon Journal.
“If he really wanted to be a full-out wide receiver, he probably could have had 500 more yards receiving and 10 more touchdowns,” Windhorst said. “He just had to protect himself, which you can’t blame him for.”
Between his junior and senior seasons, James broke his wrist. He was done playing football after that and concentrated solely on basketball. But what happens if he chose a different path?
There’s no direct football comparison, but we can guess what James’ measurables would look like
If there is a possible comparison for James both athletically and physically from the NFL, tight end Jimmy Graham is plausible. The former Miami basketball player turned football star for the posted impressive numbers at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. At 6’6 and 260 pounds, Graham ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, had a vertical leap of 38.5 inches, and put up a 120-inch broad jump.
As a football player, we obviously don’t really know James’ athletic measurements. He didn’t participate in the 2003 NBA Combine, except to do size measurements. At the time, he was officially 6’7 1/4 without shoes and 245 pounds. He also officially had a wingspan of 7’0 1/4.
James once said in 2013 he could run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds without training. Forty time predictions are notoriously overestimated, but we can assume something here. In 2013, James was 28/29 years old. Maybe he couldn’t actually run a 4.6 40 at that point. But maybe the 21-year-old James could have.
McGee, who played quarterback at Fairmont State and is now the athletic director at St. V-M, says 4.6 is a time James could reach.
It’s also easy to see to anyone who watches basketball that James’ vertical leap is absurd. Some have tabbed it being over 40 inches. With his head often skying above the rim on a dunk, let’s assume James had a 44-inch vertical at his athletic peak.
We can also probably safely guess that James’ arms are longer than 35 inches. Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, for instance, has an arm length of 35 1/8 inches at just under 6’5. Graham is at 35 inches.
Windhorst believes that if James went to college, he would have been converted to tight end because of his size.
“If he had gone to Ohio State, they would have made him play tight end because he’s built like a tight end. And they would have wanted him to block, and he probably would have turned into Rob Gronkowski,” Windhorst said.
“People probably would have gone in to tackle him low and he would’ve ended up with a bunch of knee injuries and shoulder injuries, even though he’s built that well.”
But what about the Graham comparison?
“Jimmy Graham was too stiff,” McGee said. “(James) wasn’t as fast as Calvin Johnson. He had that size, but I don’t know if he was that fast even though he was pulling away from people. But he looked like him running down the field.”
The LeBron football scouting report: Get him the ball
For fun, we reached out to an NFL personnel person who was actually a scout when James was in high school.
“I’m not sure what we’d do with him except get him the ball somehow,” the scout said. “He’s so big and imposing. Like a taller Antonio Gates. Having a guy like that in the red zone is almost a guaranteed touchdown.”
McGee said he and James were Florida State football fans growing up, in part because of the play of wide receiver Peter Warrick. He said he could see some of Warrick’s game in James.
“He could reverse field and just take it to the house,” McGee said of James. “He had amazing hands. He didn’t like running up underneath the ball. He liked it a little short so he could jump up and go get it. That was the time Randy Moss was out, so he was all about jumping over somebody and taking it the distance.
“There was stuff he could do at the high school level that my college teammates couldn’t do. The way he controlled his body in the air. His hands — and you see it in a basketball game — he catches everything with his hands. There’s nothing on his body. His footwork to make people miss was uncanny for a guy his size.”
Perhaps if James followed through with football, the arm that got famous on the peewee field could have gotten James some attention.
“I’ve seen him throw a football 60 or 70 yards,” Windhorst said. “Someone probably would have wanted him to be a quarterback. He would’ve been a genius reading defenses and he could throw over anybody. His arm is crazy.”
A familiar team could’ve picked James in the 2005 NFL Draft
Had James chosen football, the first year he would have been eligible for the NFL Draft was 2005. That brings up quite an interesting twist in our hypothetical. Consider the 2005 draft for a moment.
That was the year that Aaron Rodgers infamously free fell down to the 24th pick after the San Francisco 49ers took quarterback Alex Smith first overall. Then the Miami Dolphins drafted Auburn running back Ronnie Brown second overall. Of course, now the value of taking a running back in the first round, let alone second overall, is hotly debated. But let’s leave that as is because what’s next will blow your mind.
The third pick in 2005 belonged to the Cleveland Browns, who play about 45 minutes from where James grew up in Akron. That year the Browns used the third overall pick on Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards. Maybe if James were available, the Browns would have taken him. Maybe football would have been the smart move for James. Maybe not.
“Let’s just say he was just an average NBA player. Let’s say instead of making $400 million he made $40 million. It was the right decision because I don’t think he would’ve survived it,” Windhorst said. “He would have had so many more injuries and his career would have been so much shorter.”
Still, it makes you wonder what would’ve happened if James picked football over basketball. Maybe a different Cleveland team would have won a title with the hometown kid.