Everyone wants to know if Olympic sprinting champion Usain Bolt with his combination of size and speed could make it in the NFL
(Philadelphia, Pa) — Ever since Usain Bolt of Jamaica blazed his way to Olympic glory by winning three sprinting events in world record fashion — won gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in the 100 meters (9.69 seconds), 200 meters (19.30 seconds), and 4X100 relay (37.10) — I have been inundated with emails and text messages regarding a possible career move for the chest thumping sprinter into football. Everyone wants to know if Bolt – BTW: great name for a speedster – with his size (6’5, 190) and speed could be the next Terrell Owens (6’3, 220). Sure being tall with the ability to run faster than any man makes you a “special athlete”, but in no way does it guarantee that you will be a top flight NFL receiver. There are requisite skills that the 22-year old phenom sprinter would need to learn probably over many years before he could even step on an NFL practice field. Impactful NFL receivers have the entire package of strength to beat press coverage, an ability to read coverage, running precision routes with a short choppy cutting running style (track requires long strides), following the flight of a ball into their hands while running, and the courage to secure a catch with defensive backs baring down on them all while playing in pads and a helmet. Football is a game that requires instincts, quickness, intellect, agility, toughness, awareness, and several other characteristics that can compensate for pure speed. Having blazing speed can get a receiver past someone on a go route, but not being able to stay in bounds, get off a jam, take a hit, or most importantly catching and holding onto a ball can cause a “world class” sprinter to be a non-entity on the football field. Tampa Bay Bucaneers head coach John Gruden summed up the connudrum of “world class” speed in the NFL when he said at the tryout of former world record holder Justin Gaitlin, “If (his speed) can transfer to football, you have a real threat,” and then he added, “If it can’t, then it won’t work.”
But you have to wonder if Bolt wanted the opportunity to play in the NFL if someone would take a flyer on him. My guess is that Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders would be the first in line to give him a tryout as these two franchises have coveted speed probably more than any other NFL franchises. The Raiders at one-time had three former world record holders in the 4X100 relay on their roster at the same time (Willie Gault, Sam Graddy, and Ron Brown) and the Cowboys went as far as drafting wiry sprinter Carl Lewis in the in the 12th round of the 1984 NFL Draft (right before his herculean four-gold medal performance), despite the fact that the he had never played organized football in his life. The NFL’s fascination with “world class” speed goes back to the advent of the game when the world’s greatest athlete Jim Thrope returned from the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden with golds in the Pentathlon and Decatholon before stepping back on the gridiron in 1915 with the Canton Bulldogs of the APFA (America Profefssional Football Association, which became the NFL in 1922). There have been so many world-class sprinters that have filtered in and out of the NFL during it’s 89-year existence that you would need at least thirty hands to count them all. But where does the fascination with speed come from?
I believe the NFL’s fascination with speed comes from a need to stretch the field on offense and on the defense there is a distinct need to apply pressure through speed that leads to turnovers. The need for speed in the NFL is never more prevalent than at the NFL Combine each year as NFL prospects (RB, WR, DB, DE, OLB) careers are potentially made or broken based on 40-yard dash times. The need for speed is so immense that now the majority of college players looking to make the jump to the big leagues are paying large sums of money at cheat-sheet camps in an attempt to “manufacture speed” to enhance their draft status (see Wasington State WR Jason Hill circa 2007 NFL Draft). Fans and media also eat up world-class speed talk faster than a basket of Oreos at Vikings huge defensive tackle Pat Williams’ house. The buzz is so great that every year the internet is a saturated with news that creeps out of the RCA Dome about “who” ran the fastest forty. We also hear during every college and pro game, the hyping of world-class speed by commentators talking about how this guy runs a 4.2 or lower in the forty and how every NFL speedster was a former state or college sprint champion at one time. Over the years, all the world-class speed talk even spurred a made for television sporting event called “The NFL’s Fastest Man” where football road runners Deion Sanders, Hall of Famer Darrell Green (three-time champion), Rod Woodson, Willie Gault and others strutted their stuff. The monniker “The NFL’s Fastest Man” became so special that players specifcly trained for the event and wore their crown around the NFL like they were the heavyweight champion of the world. The event lives on today as each year at the Pro Bowl, the fastest man sprint competition is one of the highlights of the NFL’s Skills Competition.
The league’s fascination with world class speed has never disappated as year after year some track speedster is in an NFL camp trying to prove that their speed can equate to success in the NFL. With the highest impact going to Hall of Fame halfback Ollie Matson and former Dallas Cowboys receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes (fringe hall of fame candidate). Unfortunately too often the other part of the spectrum is the case with sprinters trying to make it in the NFL with stories like that of 1968 Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos. Carlos after being an outcast on the track scene after he and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute on the medal stand after the 200 meter finals, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles to be their new secret weapon speedster wideout. However there was one fundamental problem, Carlos had never played the game of football before he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1970’s. The game was so “foreign” to him that he even needed the assistance of a couple of reporters just to put on his pads and uniform when he joined the squad during his brief 1-year stint in the NFL. After many dropped passes and injuries associated with the tough game of football, Carlos left the NFL just as quickly as he arrived.
My advice to Bolt would be to stay on the “safe” track as he will quickly find out that breaking Michael Johnson’s almost impossible 12-year record of 19.32 sec in the 200 meters will be a lot easier than making the transition to the NFL. And if Bolt is really obstinent and wants to try football all he has to do is consult former world class hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, whose 3-year NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers amounted to 43 catches for 754 yards with 4 TDs and a ton of missed assignments, dropped passes, and injuries (knee, shoulder, eye, ankle and back injuries). The worst of the injuries came at Atlanta’s Fulton County stadium where the spindly former hurdler ran an in-pattern that ended with on of the NFL’s most gruesome concussions ever thus proving once and for all that track is much safer than playing in the NFL.
Also checkout my Top 10 List of NFL Track Athletes
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)