By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — Johnny DuRocher is still known as the football guy.
He may have switched sports, now a baseball pitcher suiting up for the Everett AquaSox. And he may be more than a year-and-a-half removed from his football days, when he had his career as a quarterback at the University of Washington cut short by frightening circumstance.
However, the football tag continues to follow DuRocher like the most loyal of puppies.
Take, for instance, Saturday morning’s AquaSox practice at Everett Memorial Stadium. Along with the other pitchers running down balls in the outfield for a conditioning drill, DuRocher was unable to come up with a catch. The ribbing came from teammates and coaches from all across the field. How could the football guy not be able to catch?
But though he may still be thought of as the football guy, DuRocher is doing everything he can to change people’s perceptions and transform himself into the baseball guy.
“I don’t think people will ever forget about the football,” DuRocher said. “Guys here, they still talk about it all the time, they want to know what college football is like. But I kind of have to put that in the rearview mirror and just focus on what I’m doing now and kind of immerse myself in baseball.”
That concept — immersing himself in baseball — is still a bit odd for DuRocher. Football was DuRocher’s sport. Football was his passion. Baseball wasn’t even on the radar, a sport he barely played while growing up outside Tacoma in the town of Roy.
But football was taken away from him in the fall of 2006.
On Nov. 11 of that year DuRocher was quarterbacking the Huskies against Stanford when he took a hit and suffered a concussion. During an MRI to assess the concussion, a golf ball-sized tumor was discovered on his brain. DuRocher underwent successful surgery to remove the tumor, which turned out to be benign. But his football career was over.
“It all happened so fast I really didn’t have a lot of time to think about what was going to happen, so that was probably good,” DuRocher recalled. “But I think after the surgery and since then I just kind of take things as they come a little easier, don’t get worked up over certain things.”
Before the diagnosis DuRocher had been casually toying with the idea of turning out for the UW baseball team, but the end of his football career sparked him into action. The right-hander pitched sparingly for the Huskies in the spring of 2007. Nevertheless, the Seattle Mariners decided to take a flyer on DuRocher’s raw talent and 6-foot-4 frame, selecting him in the 34th round of the 2007 draft.
“He’s an athlete, and with that athletes usually have coordination and they can make adjustments,” AquaSox pitching coach Jack Uhey said. “With his past, I don’t think there’s going to be any problem with coordination. The concern is being able to repeat your pitches. It’s one thing to have coordination, but it’s getting that feel of your second and third pitch. I have high hopes there just because of his past and athleticism.”
DuRocher’s first season of professional baseball had its ups and downs. Armed with a three-pitch repitoire of fastball, curve and changeup, he began the season in the bullpen for Seattle’s rookie Arizona League affiliate in Peoria and had success, then moved into the rotation with mixed results. He finished the season 3-2 with a 5.03 ERA. In 481/3 innings he gave up 54 hits and 27 walks, striking out 37.
“It’s hard because I’m starting from ground zero,” DuRocher said of the transition to baseball. “I really don’t have a background in doing this. Yeah, I’ve played football in front of thousands of people, but I was brought up playing football. Now it’s like, ‘Bam, here I am playing baseball, I’ve got to kind of learn on the go.’”
DuRocher suffered a setback in December, straining a ligament in his elbow. As a result he spent most of the past six months rehabilitating his arm, and just recently did he begin throwing in earnest. Therefore, at the start of the season he’ll be used out of the bullpen for short periods before seeing if he’s capable of taking on a heavier load.
And in the meantime he still occasionally finds his mind wandering toward football.
“All the time,” DuRocher responded when asked if he wonders what might have been. “Not so much right now, but when August comes around and they start doing fall camp and the season starts. It’s really hard to watch a college football game and enjoy it because I’m always like, ‘They should have done this, or I would have done that,’ all the second guessing.
“You don’t ever want to have your career and like that,” DuRocher added. “But having it taken away from me, you realize you don’t have a lot of control over a lot of things. So I’m thankful that I’m playing baseball for a living now.”
And just maybe he’ll become known as the baseball guy instead of the football guy.