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Making a Pitch at Quarterback

Pro football: Cowboys hope to mold former pro pitcher into NFL player, although he hasn't played since sophomore season at Stanford.

June 09, 2002|STEPHEN HAWKINS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

IRVING, Texas — Chad Hutchinson stands in the glaring sun long after most of his teammates have left the practice field. He keeps flinging footballs, trying to solve the flaw in his motion that keeps sending them wide of his target.

The rust on his powerful right arm is understandable. The 25-year-old rookie quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys hasn't played a football game in four years. He's spent the time away trying to throw fastballs past major and minor leaguers.

Still, the Cowboys felt strong enough about his ability that they outbid several other clubs and immediately made him the backup to unproven second-year starter Quincy Carter.

"There is no question that he is raw," said quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson. "But he certainly has a ton of upside and potential, and that is what we are hoping to tap. It's an ongoing process."

Hutchinson is no eager-eyed rookie. He's already had a close-up view of the circus surrounding Mark McGwire when he was baseball's single-season home run king, and he's spent time with Roger Staubach, who also took time off from football between college and a Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys. Troy Aikman has watched him practice and Hutchinson's locker is next to Emmitt Smith's.

In September 1999, Hutchinson was called up to the majors by the St. Louis Cardinals and became teammates with McGwire, who was on his way to hitting 65 homers one year after becoming the first player to reach 70.

"It was one of my all-time favorite experiences in sports, being around him and the team in that situation," Hutchinson said. "To learn to deal with that, dealing with the pressures, it was big."

Even though Hutchinson hasn't played football since his sophomore season at Stanford in 1997, the Cowboys have guaranteed him $5 million for three years and cut Ryan Leaf to clear a spot on the depth chart. Hutchinson said the team's confidence in him is "a mystery to me, too."

The belief starts with his size--6-foot-4, 225 pounds--and solid mental makeup.

Questions start with him never having faced a blitzing NFL linebacker at full speed. At off-season minicamps, the latest being the past week, Hutchinson hasn't had to worry about getting hit while learning plays and making throws.

He's also adjusting to moving targets, such as the swift duo of Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismail, instead of trying to throw 96 mph fastballs.

While he has impressed the Cowboys with his strong arm and ability to throw deep, he is still trying to regain his accuracy and relearn the football routine. The adjustments are frustrating, yet Hutchinson knows he still has time to get back in the groove.

"It's not like baseball where you need 300 innings pitched to really know what you can be as a pitcher," Hutchinson said. "You can make up ground a lot quicker in football because you are out there practicing, where in baseball it's a game-time thing."

In learning the offense, Hutchinson is on equal footing with Carter, an eight-game starter in an injury-plagued rookie season. New offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, hired days after Hutchinson signed in January, is installing a West Coast offense.

The system is much more complex with its multiple formations, but the basics are similar to what Hutchinson ran at Stanford. In 23 college starts, he completed 379 of 627 passes (60 percent) for 4,235 yards with 20 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.

"With a new system going in, that's an advantage," Cowboys Coach Dave Campo said. "It's not like you have to take a guy that's been doing something and change the way he drops. He's moldable, and that is a positive.

The rawness, I don't know if that's a positive, but the idea of a guy that is coachable is.

"He gets better every camp. He gets a little more confident in what he's doing."

Hutchinson gave up football after two varsity seasons when the St. Louis Cardinals took him in the second round of the June 1998 draft. He's the second-oldest child among five of a single mother, and becoming an instant millionaire was too good to refuse.

"The decisions I made, I spent a lot of time thinking about, and at the time, the needs of the family and the needs of where I was as an athlete were such that I needed to go to baseball," he said. "I don't choose to look back and say I wish I would have done it differently."

Hutchinson never made it to the mound during his '99 call-up. His debut had to wait until April 2001. He made three appearances over a 13-day span and allowed three home runs and 11 earned runs in four innings for a 24.75 ERA. He then went back to the minors and realized his passion for football was still there.

Others weren't surprised. Dana Bible, his offensive coordinator at Stanford, always teased Hutchinson that he was a football player playing baseball.

"You could see it on the mound with his demeanor, athletic confidence and the way he carried himself," said Bible, now at Boston College.

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