FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 22 -- James Rodger House -- known as J.R., a nickname given in his home town of Charleston, W.Va. -- was once a top baseball prospect and a heavily recruited high school football star who threw 10 touchdowns in the 1998 state championship game. Yet he sits in front of a tiny locker in the back of the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse, several feet from starting catcher Ramon Hernandez, but miles from the major leagues.
Life has not turned out the way many expected for House, 27, who was so talented that he gained national attention for splitting his school year between West Virginia (football) and Florida (baseball). Now he is a non-roster invitee in spring training, trying to become a backup catcher for a team that has been at the bottom of the standings for almost a decade.
But anyone who labels House a failure quickly would draw the ire of his former teammates and coaches at West Virginia, where House was the Mountaineers' third-string quarterback during a 10-1 regular season in 2005. They will point to a speech House made to the team before its meeting with Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
House, giving baseball another chance, skipped the trip to Atlanta (the game was moved because of Hurricane Katrina) to participate in major league drills in Florida but asked the coaching staff if he could address the team. The coaches quickly shuttled the players into the team room at Mountaineer Field, and everyone became quiet as soon as House, a beloved team leader even as a 26-year-old freshman, stood and began to speak. He told them how much he cherished the opportunity to play college football, even if only for a year, and he hoped they would all work hard to live their dreams, too.
"That type of speech was not out of character for J.R.," West Virginia strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis said. "I honestly think that's how he feels about everything: passionate. He puts other people first."
House starred on youth baseball teams, but he did not take up quarterbacking until the ninth grade. Because his father had dual residence, House played football at Nitro High School in Charleston and baseball at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Fla. As a senior at Nitro, House set a national record with 14,457 career passing yards. That spring, House hit 15 home runs and drove in 60 runs at Seabreeze. He took football recruiting trips to West Virginia, Marshall, Georgia, Tulane and Duke and signed a letter-of-intent with the Mountaineers before being selected in the fifth round of the 1999 baseball draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"I was kind of disappointed when the draft came around," House said. "We were really hoping to be able to get in the higher round. It really made me dig down deep inside and think about whether this is what I really wanted to do, to play ball or to go to college."
House chose baseball, and spent six injury-riddled seasons in the Pirates organization. Among the injuries: two hernia surgeries and Tommy John surgery in 2002 and rotator cuff surgery in the spring of 2005. House was released by the Pirates two weeks after the shoulder surgery. On the drive home after being released, West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez called to offer him a spot on the football team.
"He's been recruiting me since, like, I was in the ninth grade," House said.
Though he was older than every player on the team, House assimilated quickly at West Virginia, spending most of the spring and summer rehabilitating his shoulder. When running back Owen Schmitt heard that a man in his mid-20s was joining the team, he began to ask about House and found he was a hero in his home state. One of Schmitt's friends said he had gone to see many of House's high school games.
"I think that says a lot about J.R.'s reputation about how good of a player he was," said Schmitt, who became friends with House. "People were coming from all over to watch him."
House did not play much during his single season, though his first appearance at Mountaineer Field drew a standing ovation. In two games, House completed 2 of 4 passes for 38 yards, but once he had proven his shoulder was healthy, he also began to attract attention again from baseball teams. Though it pained him, House knew he had to give baseball, his first love, another chance.
When he addressed the team before the Sugar Bowl, House had not planned to give an inspiring speech. He merely wanted to say goodbye and to wish the team well. But the team found inspiration in his honesty. By the end of the speech several players, including Schmitt, were in tears.
"It was the most emotional meeting I've been a part of in my 31 years of coaching," Mountaineers assistant Bill Stewart said.
The Mountaineers went on to win the Sugar Bowl, 38-35, on Jan. 2, 2006, and House eventually signed with the Houston Astros. He had two 15-game hitting streaks for the Class AA Corpus Christi Hooks before moving up to Class AAA Round Rock and then to the majors, where he appeared in four games for the Astros.
House signed a minor league contract with the Orioles and is listed as a catcher; Manager Sam Perlozzo has asked him to try his hand at first base and in the outfield.
"It's really been a wild ride, a lot of ups and downs, lots of surgeries," House said of his journey. "But at the same time, being able to rebound and make it to the big leagues a couple times, I've enjoyed the whole experience."