The story began gaining traction before it even got started. Then all at once, it found its way on television screens and social media accounts, and into the hearts of the American public.
It was a simple idea, really. The same idea Deion Sanders famously had when he took a helicopter to Three Rivers Stadium while with the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS hours after appearing in an NFL game for the Atlanta Falcons. Ever since he could remember, John Rhys Plumlee had wanted to do one thing: play his two favorite sports, baseball and football, at the highest level possible.
“I remember from my earliest age, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do: play football and baseball at the highest level,” Plumlee, the starting center fielder for the UCF baseball team and starting quarterback for the Knights football team.
On April 14, he did both in the span of just a couple hours.
Rumblings about what Plumlee planned to do circulated on the internet in the days leading up to that Friday evening, when the UCF baseball team was set to host Memphis in a AAC series while the football team’s annual spring game played out at nearby FBC Mortgage Stadium.
Then came Plumlee’s video, posted that morning to Twitter, captioned “Today is gonna be one for the books!! Y’all stay tuned”. People took his advice.
As the day progressed, more and more people caught on, watching the video updates he posted to Twitter every few hours. He was going to play in a baseball game and a football game on the same night, at the D-I level.
“A lot went into it, with the two coaches, Coach [Greg] Lovelady and Coach [Gus] Malzahn, scheduling the two events and moving times and all that good stuff to even give me a chance to be able to do it,” Plumlee said. “It ended up working out perfectly. I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
The video from it all that set the sports world on fire came in the form of a one-minute clip that featured Plumlee running up the steps of the UCF’s John Euliano Park and into a waiting golf cart that promptly shuttled him–still wearing his pinstriped UCF baseball uniform–to FBC Mortgage Stadium. Once there, on came the shoulder pads, off went the baseball jersey. And he ran onto the field as the crowd let out a cheer. Undoubtedly, they had been following the exceptional, rarely-seen story, for much of the day. That tweet alone was seen by 1.4 million people.
“It was really cool to get a lot of publicity on it,” Plumee added, “but at the end of the day, it was a lot cooler for me to do it. Don’t get me wrong, having a bunch of people following your journey is really cool, because I remember when I was a little kid and looked up to college athletes. But to be able to do it and play the sports that I love is something really special to me. I’m blessed to be able to do it.”
At 6:15 p.m., Plumlee sent a triple into the left-center field gap, driving in runners from second and third as UCF took a 2-0 lead. And at 8:38 p.m., seven minutes after he had left the eventual 12-3 win in the 7th inning after his second hit, Plumlee tossed a touchdown pass to Javon Baker. He threw another one 10 minutes later, which went 70 yards and across the goal line with Kobe Hudson on the reception.
It was a level of versatility rarely seen at the highest levels of college athletics in a present-day, sport-specialization society. Yet, the senior from Hattiesburg, Mississippi has figured it out, and is more than just playing two sports for UCF. He is a leader in both of them.
As starting quarterback in 2022, Plumlee rushed for 862 yards, the sixth-best mark in the AAC, and his 11 rushing touchdowns ranked fourth in the league.
This spring on the baseball diamond, he has swiped a team-high 18 bases this season in addition to his exceptional play as the team’s starting center fielder, starting 55 games with 87 putouts. Not to mention, he is hitting .284 with 32 RBIs and 10 home runs entering the AAC Tournament, which began Tuesday.
“From a kid that did T-Ball then would run over to football practice and put a helmet on, to doing it in the spring game at a place like UCF, I’m living my dream,” Plumlee said. “It does show that you don’t have to specialize at an early age. Kids can be kids, and do what they love. For me, I love playing baseball and football.”
Early in Plumlee’s high school career, the college coaches began calling. They wanted him for football, and as a defensive back or wide receiver at that. Soon enough, one school realized his potential at quarterback, and offered the future Mississippi Class 6A Offensive Player of the Year a roster spot throwing passes, rather than intercepting them. So he called the rest of the schools back, and sure enough, a year later they too now felt he had a future as a signal caller.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Plumlee said. “I went from a guy who would take anything from a waterboy spot to a manager spot to be in college athletes to having the opportunity to be a chooser [with all of the offers that I had].”
Soon enough, another school called up, and sweetened the deal. He’d have the chance to play quarterback, and play baseball, which was not an entirely surprising offer, considering Perfect Game ranked him as the 11th-best baseball player in the state of Mississippi in the 2019 Class. More doors quickly opened, and the two-sport dream at the D-I level had become a reality.
He eventually settled on Ole Miss, which afforded him an opportunity to stay in his home state, compete in the SEC, and see the field in both sports very early on.
“I’m super thankful for my time at Ole Miss,” Plumlee commented. “I feel super blessed to have had that opportunity and live out my dream there.”
Plumlee suited up at quarterback as a true freshman in 2019, starting eight games for the Rebels, as he rewrote the record books. Amongst his first-year accomplishments included becoming the first quarterback in program history to rush for 100 yards in three straight games, and the freshman record holder for rushing yards in a season (1,023).
On the baseball field, his freshman year was cut short in 2020, though he made two starts in the Rebels’ outfield. A year later, he started 18 games and played in 47, including a 2-for-5 performance in the Tucson Super Regional.
In January of 2022, Plumlee put his name into the transfer portal, writing on Twitter that "God is now calling me to serve him in a different area. I am unsure where I will be yet, but I am entering the transfer portal. My prayer is that He will continue to guide and bless my path."
Plumlee was blessed with an opportunity to keep his two-sport stardom rolling when UCF came into view. The Knights football program was head coached by Malzahn, the former Auburn head coach who had known Plumlee since high school.
“Going through the transfer process, Coach Malzahn gave me his word that I could play football and baseball here,” Plumlee recalls. “Nowadays in college football, it is kind of hard to find coaches and people who stick by their word, but Coach Malzahn is definitely one of those guys. Not only did he give me the opportunity to do it, but he and Coach Lovelady almost jumped through hoops to make sure that it happened.”
That included being accommodating to Plumlee’s often-hectic schedule, balancing the demanding time commitment required from both sports. The investment from both the coaching staffs and the support staff around UCF has been invaluable, Plumlee said, when it comes to his ability to excel simultaneously on the gridiron and the diamond. It certainly isn’t a singular effort.
“They went the extra mile to schedule times and practices, and make sure there is enough time in the day to do both,” he adds. “Along with the coaching staffs, a ton of other staff made it to where I was able to do both, whether it was the strength & conditioning coaches, the training staff in the training room, or the nutritionist. Obviously my teammates as well, realizing that I’m doing it, and supporting me the whole way.”
To say Plumlee is well-rounded athletically would be an understatement. He possesses an exceptional speed that reveals itself on the basepaths, or when he is tracking down a high-arcing fly ball in center field. It also shows when he breaks from the pocket and travels downfield for a significant rushing gain on the football field.
The arm strength is another thing, and while his strong arm has played a role in his ability to throw touchdown passes one minute, and relay a flyout to home plate the next, the thought behind throwing motions of each do not exactly go hand-in-hand.
“The football throw, more relates to a baseball swing, to me,” Plumlee said. “The two pieces of the mechanical tendencies in both of those. Obviously, they are different, but they’re two rotational-type actions.”
Sometimes, using the skills developed in baseball add to his football skill set, and vice versa. Other times, trying to compare and mix the two is a fool’s errand. But the unique experience Plumlee has had at the college level certainly contributes to his evolving success.
“When you do both, why would you not try to incorporate one thing into another?,” Plumlee notes. “It’s been really good for me. In the spring, when football days would get long, and maybe I had a bad day, I could go over and play baseball. And vice versa. If I have a bad day at the plate, I could go over and focus on football. My mind wouldn’t be trapped in one spot.”
It is not only because of his versatility as an athlete that “well-rounded” is one of the first adjectives that comes to mind when describing the 6-foot, 245-pound standout. Believe it or not, he can also play the piano. And he can play it well.
“My parents told me when we were little to do something now that we can enjoy now, so for us, that was always sports,” Plumlee said. “It was something you could enjoy in the moment, as of today. But they also said, ‘We want you to do something you can enjoy later in life.’”
Insert: piano. Inspired by his grandmother, who has played the piano in church for 33 years, Plumlee began learning too, starting in second grade. Soon enough, he was listening to country music songs on the radio, and going home and playing the chords.
“I figured out that I could look up the chords, and play the stuff that I heard on the radio,” Plumlee recalls. “My focus shifted from classical music to playing what I heard. And I enjoyed it that way.”
Even now, in the midst of his balancing act, Plumlee still sits down at the piano every so often, and begins playing.
“Now it’s something that I enjoy doing when I get a little bit of down time,” he added. “Through long days, it’s cool to be able to hop on the piano and forget about school and ball for a little while, and be in your own little world.”
Such is what makes Plumlee unique. He has an ability to juggle enormous responsibility on both the football and baseball fields for the Knights, yet doesn’t seem to be worn down by all of it. He’s in his own world when he is taking snaps at quarterback or fly balls in center field. And he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“When you love something, it shows,” Plumlee said. “I’m living my dream, to say the least.”