As the announcer honored the baseball team’s fourth-years on Senior Day by reading a synopsis of their career accomplishments, two players found themselves in the unique situation of only hearing half of what they had achieved athletically Chicago.
Saturday marked the end of the line for two fourth-years who were teammates and key contributors in two sports for the Maroons. T.J. Rajcevich wrapped up his career as a leader of the football team’s defense as a safety, and as a versatile catcher and third baseman for baseball. His teammate Frank Brown appeared in 26 games for football at running back, and in 87 games in the outfield for baseball, despite missing his second year due to a torn ACL.
Two-sport athletes are an increasingly rare phenomenon as specialization has come to dominate youth sports. Given Rajcevich and Brown’s experiences at Chicago, it’s hard to understand why. Both fourth-years described their opportunity to play for two teams as largely beneficial to their time here.
“The main reason for me to come here was to be able to play both sports,” Rajcevich said. “This is my free time, and I can’t think of another way to spend it. There are a couple plays, a couple pitches I want back, but I wouldn’t change the decision to play both.”
“I always got a lot of enjoyment out of playing sports, and I wasn’t ready to give that up after high school,” Brown added. “The camaraderie and the ability to contribute in a team setting have been some of the greatest things in my life.”
Their teammates and coaches would agree, given all that the two have provided for their teams over the years. Rajcevich, a three-year starter at safety and a four-year starter at catcher, has been a brick wall on defense, helping football hold opponents to 146.5 rushing yards per game over the past four seasons and consistently calling a top-notch game for his pitchers. Brown provided a similar spark on offense, averaging 3.9 rushing yards per attempt and hitting .320 with 14 doubles and 5 homers over three seasons of playing time. The pair also served as co-captains for baseball this spring, helping to resurrect the team from a 6-14 record to one game over .500 at the end of the season.
Yet, despite these very tangible contributions to the cause, their coaches were both more impressed with the more unquantifiable elements of the game that Brown and Rajcevich brought to the table.
“They’re both outstanding young men who have excelled in two sports and the rest of their lives,” baseball head coach Brian Baldea said. “They’re both excellent leaders, and we benefited from that.”
“Frank and T.J. are two guys who are always looking out for the team. On the field, in terms of something during the game or practice, or going on the road somewhere, their first priority is looking out for the team. We’re going to miss that, along with their on-field accomplishments. They’re solid, high character, young men.”
“These guys are so positive, so trustworthy, so lead-by-example,” agreed football head coach Dick Maloney. “They may be short in stature, but they’ve got awfully big shoulders.”
“You could count on them, you could trust them. I don’t know if there’s anything better that you can say about someone, that you can trust them to make the right decisions and do the right thing. We’re going to miss the contribution of that leadership.”
One would expect these opinions to be extremely gratifying to the two players, both of whom hope their leadership will be their legacy.
“I want people to remember me as being a team player, a guy you can ask a question about the next play, someone who wasn’t worried about personal stats,” Brown said. “That stuff doesn’t matter. As long as I’m remembered as a good guy, someone who helped the team, I’m happy.”
“I aimed to hold myself responsible not only for my only actions, but also for others on the team,” Rajcevich said. “If they needed something, they could come to talk to me, whether they were other players, friends, or coaches.”
This focus on the greater good may be a result of spending so much time playing team sports. As a rule, the coaching staffs for baseball and football have found this to be one of the great benefits of having two-sport athletes around their squads.
“I think, going both ways, their teamness is really enhanced,” Baldea said. “They’ve got a great understanding of what team is all about.”
The players similarly felt that playing each sport helped improve their performance in the other.
“As a football player, you need toughness and endurance, which helps on the baseball field. You’ve got to be mentally tough when things aren’t going your way,” Brown said. “Playing baseball, which is more of an individual game, helps teach you accountability and responsibility. It helps with football, where you might not get noticed on every play, to remind me that I am accountable for whatever I do.”
“Football definitely helped make me a little more hard-nosed,” said Rajcevich, who led the team in times hit by pitch. “It allows me to play a little more physically. The pain of contact doesn’t affect me at any given moment,” Rajcevich said. “Baseball is all mental, because there’s so much time between each play, and each pitch. It helps in football, knowing your mental capabilities and knowing what you have to do each play before it comes.”
Unfortunately, playing two different sports at the Division III level isn’t all fun and games. Baseball players are meant to be playing for at least six months a year, and most college football players engage in strenuous weight-lifting programs throughout the off-season. The time requirements for both sports cut into that off-season training. Beyond that, most of the usual trials of being a student-athlete at Chicago are exacerbated by playing more than one season.
“The biggest challenge is trying to balance time, not necessarily with academics, but also between the two sports. It’s tough to specialize in both, because of the separateness of the training. You learn to be excessively organized,” Rajcevich said.
“The hard part was definitely time management, having to play two sports with the class schedules we have,” Brown said. “On the other hand, that’s been good for me. I can’t sit around and put things off until later.”
If the two seem to have similar opinions on a number of these issues, there may be more behind it than their shared experiences on football and baseball. The two shared a room on football road trips for many years, as well as captainship of the baseball team.
“We know how to feed off of each other. It’s helped us lead baseball together, dealing with the same things, sports, school, outside relationships,” Rajcevich said.
“We see each other 75 percent of the year, three hours an afternoon,” Brown said. “We got to know each other well. It allowed me to be closer to T.J. than some of my other teammates. We wouldn’t have if we hadn’t played two seasons together.”
Beyond Midwestern hotel rooms, the two players also shared some of the same heartaches in their careers. Football went 15-21 over their four seasons at Chicago, with a 4-11 record in the UAA. Baseball had an 81-50 mark over the same time period, including a stupendous 25-6 season in 2003, but was not selected for the NCAA tournament in any of the past four seasons. Both consider the dearth of league titles and postseason berths the biggest disappointment in their athletic careers here.
“Making the playoffs and going as far as you can is the team goal, and that’s been unreachable for us,” Brown said. “I’d think that would’ve have been more enjoyable than anything I’d do here.”
Brown, an economics concentrator, will begin working after graduation as a research analyst for Chicago Consulting Partners, Ltd. He plans to stick around with his college friends, having built some life-long relationships with teammates and classmates.
“I’ll be around for any of my friends, and can still help them out,” he said. “Meeting a bunch of guys playing here translates into friendships off the field. Interactions with other people are part of being a complete person. You never know when you’re going to need help.”
His former teammate will be following a different path. Rajcevich will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines and head to Quantico, Virginia, for six months worth of training in August, followed by 18 months of flight school. He completed a 10-week officer school the summer before his fourth year.
“As part of the program, we were randomly put in leadership positions on a day-to-day basis. My experience with baseball and football helped me stepped right in and lead from the front, like the Marines do it,” Rajcevich said.
“Athletics has helped me so much in accepting leadership roles, and knowing how to read the people around me, and to trust them. That’s the main thing with a team, trusting the people around you who are working for the same goal.”