NFL

Giving up hoop dreams is the hardest part about playing football

As a former NFL wide receiver, O.J. McDuffie remembers the great days of building camaraderie and community … on the court.

Pat Mahomes has to quit playing hoops … and that hurts my heart.

Football players all feel like they are basketball players stuck in football bodies. We all feel we’re the best athletes because we play in the NFL, the toughest sport out there.

So when I read that Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback who is all of 23 and wasn’t even born when I broke into the NFL, had to give up basketball, it touched a place in my heart. It kind of broke my heart.

But – and this is a big but – I get it.

I’m nearly two decades removed from my playing days and love to remember the old days of running around South Florida as I played wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins. Some of the best memories of those days were in my backyard playing on the court I had built after I got enough money to afford one.

Those memories come out on a constant basis in a podcast called “The Fish Tank” I do with former Dolphins media relations man Seth Levit. From Zach Thomas to Mark Clayton to Marty Booker and so many others, we recount stories from our playing days.

Mostly from the field, of course. Yet there are plenty from that 84-foot court with a rubberized surface and NBA-length three-point line. That court was my dream. One of my college teammates, Brian O’Neal, had a sweet court at his home back in Cincinnati. He had been adopted by the family of former NBA referee Mike Mathis, who created a side business by putting in courts.

When I got to the NFL and finally bought a house, Mathis installed my 84-foot slice of heaven. It wasn’t long before the guys on the team were hanging out at my house all the time, playing into the night on Wednesday or early on a Saturday morning.

For our team, it was a bonding activity, a place to stay in shape or just a place to sweat out a late night (and sometimes an early morning) of drinking. There was a particularly strong odor on a lot of Saturdays as we’d laugh, run around, compete and talk trash.

A lot of trash.

So as I think about Mahomes not getting a chance to build that kind of camaraderie with his teammates on the court it makes me feel a little sad for him. The Kansas City Chiefs are a rising power in the NFL and you wonder if that bit of team building could help get them to the top just a little faster.

For our team, some guys couldn’t wait for the offseason to start playing hoops again. The competition was real. One night, we had Scottie Pippen join us. His team won, but it wasn’t without a challenge. That was a great night.

Still, I get it. Mahomes is sitting on a $30 million-a-year future. The Chiefs franchise depends on him. I played with Dan Marino. I know what a franchise quarterback means to your team.

You just can’t mess with that. You especially can’t think you can just go to the local YMCA to get in a few shots and a little run. There are too many guys at the Y looking for a chance to block your shot or who just want to prove they can run with a pro athlete. That’s pride and competitiveness. Everybody has it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pro Bowler or a Weekend Warrior.

But as a professional, you can’t take that risk. When we used to play, there were unwritten rules. It wasn’t quite NBA All-Star Game defense, put if a guy had a lay up, you gave him a free run. There was too much at stake for a guy to get a knee injury.

Still, the competition was real. Jason Taylor showed why he was a Hall of Famer with his will to win and bad temper when he lost. More than a few times, J.T. showed off his punting skill by launching a ball out of the backyard after a loss.

Offensive lineman Mark Dixon was, surprisingly, the most skilled guy out there, but plenty of guys could play, from Terry Kirby to Louis Oliver to Oronde Gadsden to Chris Chambers.

There were plenty of shoving matches, lots of laughs and lots of beers and Gatorade downed after a long night or day of throwing up jumpers and occasionally throwing down some dunks.

From that perspective, I feel sorry for Mahomes. Hoop dreams are hard to give up.

But Super Bowl dreams are too special.

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