Top 10 Track Athletes that Excelled in the NFL by Lloyd Vance


Former L.A Rams WR/KR and 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist Ron Brown is one of the fastest men to ever play in the NFL

In honor of Bullet Bob Hayes going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, here are my top 10 Track Athletes that Excelled in the NFL.

1) Halfback Ollie Matson – A  bronze medal (400-meter run) and a silver medal (4×400-meter relay) winner from the 1952 Summer Olympics held in Helsinki, Finland –Matson (6′2, 220) was drafted in the first-round of the 1952 NFL Draft by the Chicago Cardinals. Matson was a big powerful halfback especially for the NFL of the 1950’s, who was an All-American in football and track at the University of San Francisco and later became one of the best kick returners in NFL history.  Matson’s conversion to the NFL didn’t take much coaching as he had been a stellar running back going back to his youth and  excelled at both sports.  Matson held off on signing his professional contract until after the 1952 games foregoing the plush NFL life for Olympic glory.  However once Matson arrived in the NFL, he was an instant hit for the basement dwelling Cardinals.  In fact at times he was a one-man gang for the Cardinals running, catching, and returning kicks.  Matson’s NFL career spanned 14 years playing for the Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, and Philadelphia Eagles.  The six time Pro Bowl selection’s career ended at the Pro Football Hall of Fame with unbelievable numbers of 12,884 combined net yards, 5,173 yards rushing, 222 receptions, and nine TDs on punt/kickoff returns and you thought Bears explosive returnman Devin Hester had the total package.  

2) Wide Receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes  – This amazing receiver revolutionalized the NFL’s view of elite game-breaking speed (Gold Medalist in 100 m and 4X100 relay in 1964 Olympics).  Was identified as the “World’s Fastest Man” after running an amazing 8.6 second relay split in a come from behind victory at the Tokyo Games.  Though he played on a team geared most toward running the ball, Hayes still made the long bomb a staple in Tom Landry’s offense causing other teams to start looking for their own game-breaker and staying up nights designing defenses.  This 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee from Florida A&M had 71 career receiving touchdowns, which places him ahead of hall of famers Michael Irvin and Art Monk. Won a ring with the Cowboys in 1971 helping them win in Super Bowl VI.  Played 10 years for the Cowboys before finishing with one non-descript season for the San Francisco 49ers at age 33.  Finished with career numbers of 371 receptions, 7414 yards, and an eye-popping 20 yard per catch average with a long of 95 yards.

3) Wide Receiver Willie Gault – This speedster played 11 NFL seasons and was one of the first of many University of Tennessee pure-speed fliers (Donte Stallworth, Anthony Miller, Peerless Price and many others) to make it in the league.  Gault (6-0, 181) made the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted, but he did help the U.S 4X100 meter relay team set a world record (37.86 seconds) at the 1983 world championships in Helsinki before taking his act to the NFL as a 1st Rd pick (18th overall by the Bears.   Gault was Bears head coach Mike Ditka vertical threat for fiery quarterback Jim McMahon.  Teams couldn’t load the box against NFL legend Walter Payton as they knew Gault could blaze by them on the outside.  Gault was the Bears main receiver for their 1985 Super Bowl champion team before finishing his career with the Raiders speedy core of receivers.   This eclectic athlete also danced with the Chicago Ballet and was an alternate on 1988 U.S Bobsled team.  Gault acts today plus he is still running well into his forties as he recently set a master’s division (runners aged 45 to 49) world record of 10.72 seconds in the 100 meters shattering the mark of 10.96 set by Neville Hodge in 2001.  His career numbers were solid at 333 receptions for 6,635 yards, a 19.9 ypc average, and 44 TDs with a long of 87 yards

4) Wide Receiver James Jett – The aptly named “Jett” was a 7-time All-American in track and won an Olympic gold medal in 1988 as he ran in the heats for the 4X100 relay team.  Playing for the Raiders for 10 years, Jett was one of the fastest men in the NFL for his entire career.  Signed as an undrafted free agent in 1993, Jett was pretty raw coming out of West Virginia mostly catching “Go” patterns from Major Harris.  But this fast receiver worked hard to establish himself as a polished NFL receiver posting career highs in 1996 of 882 yards on 45 receptions (19.6 ypc) and 6 TDs in 16 starts.  Jett won the NFL Fastest Man Competition following the 1996 season and was a finalist after 1997 season.  His career numbers include 256 receptions for 4417 yards, 17.3 ypc, and 30 TDs with a long of 84 yards.

5) Defensive Back James Trapp – This tough battling defensive back was an amazingly fast and sometimes volatile player on the field, who excelled in the NFL at nickel coverage and special teams.  Trapp (6-0, 195) was a champion track athlete and football player at Clemson (school’s hall of fame). He was an alternate on the 1992 Olympic team in the 4X100 relay and in 1993, plus he won the U.S. Indoor Championship and outdoor world championship both in the 200 meters.  After being drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in the 3rd round (72nd overall) of the 1993 Draft, Trapp went on to an 11-year NFL career (Raiders, Ravens, and Jags).  Trapp won the NFL’s Fastest Man competition after the 1995 season narrowly beating Raiders teammate James Jett.  After the Jon Gruden regime took over, Trapp fell out of favor with the Raiders, but the Baltimore Ravens saw something special in this tremendous athlete.  With the Ravens, Trapp excelled as a gunner on kicks and playing tough in the slot on one of the greatest defenses of all-time.  He was special teams captain of the 2000 Super Bowl Champion team.  Finished his career with 9 INTs and 302 TKLs

6) RB/WR/Special Teams Michael Bates – Selected to the All-NFL 1990’s team as kick returner this former decorated track champion in the PAC 10 and 1992 Olympic Bronze medalist (200 meters) was an impact player in the NFL.  Bates (5-10, 189) was drafted in 1992 by the Seattle Seahawks in the 6th round (150th overall) out of the University of Arizona.  When he first arrived in the NFL the Seahawks didn’t know if the blazing fast speedster was a running back or receiver, but they soon learned his game-breaking speed had to be on the field.  Bates was added to every special teams unit and he never looked back.  Returning kickoffs is where Bates made his mark with the Carolina Panthers earning five Pro Bowl invitations (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000) and one first-team All-Pro selection.  Bates also excelled at covering kicks, which he used his tremendous speed to sprint past everyone. Finished with career numbers in Kickoff Returns of 373 returns for 9110 yards with 5 TDs and a long of 100 also had modest career receiving numbers of 18 receptions for 477 yards (26.5 ypc) and 3 TDs with a long of 80 yards.  

7) WR/KR Raghib “Rocket” Ismail – This guy was so special at Notre Dame –reportedly ran 4.16 in forty while running in pads and full equipment — that teams did everything in their power to not kick the ball to the “Rocket”.  I can still remember Ismail’s (5-11, 180) record-breaking performance returning two kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan in the 1989 opener after he had been a part-time contributor to the 1988 National Championship team as a freshman.  The Rocket and his brother Qadry “the Missle” single-handedly helped their high school win the Pennsylvania AA track title.  At Notre Dame, Ismail convinced head football coach Lou Holtz to also allow him to run track and the Rocket excelled in the 55 meter indoor race finishing second at the 1991 NCAA Championships.  After college, Ismail went up North chasing Canadian money while playing two years for the Toronto Argonauts (MVP of 1991 Grey Cup Championship).  When it came time to play in the NFL, the Los Angeles Raiders (drafted him in the 4th Rd in 1991 – 100th overall) added Rocket’s speed to their blazing receiving core.  Though not as decorated as in college, the Rocket went on to a nice 9-year NFL career playing for the Raiders, Cowboys, and Panthers.  His career numbers stand at 363 receptions for 5295 yards (14.6 ypc) with 28 TDs and a long of 80 yards.  He also returned 109 Kickoffs for 2334 yards (21.4 ypr), and no touchdowns with a long of 66 yards.

8) WR/KR/RB Eric Metcalf – An all-time favorite of Cleveland Browns’ fans for his multi-threat ability.  Metcalf, who is the son of former St. Louis Cardinals scatback Terry Metcalf, defied his smallish size (5-10, 188) to be one of the most dangerous NFL returners in the 1990’s.  Metcalf was a 3-time Pro Bowl selection and was named an All-Pro twice. Before being draft in the 1st round (13th overall) in 1989 draft, Metcalf excelled at track and football at the University of Texas.  In high school,  Metcalf was a nationally ranked long jumper and is still listed as having the 7th best indoor long jump of any U.S high schooler (25′ 5 ¼).  He also competed against Carl Lewis and others in long jump at the 1988 Olympic trials.  The 13-year NFL veteran played for the Browns, Falcons, Chargers, Cardinals, Panthers, Redskins and Packers.  Metcalf finished his career with 2,392 rushing yards, 541 receptions for 5,572 yards, 3,453 punt return yards, and 5,813 yards returning kickoffs with 55 touchdowns (12 rushing, 31 receiving, 10 punt returns, 2 kickoff returns).

9) DB/KR Allen Rossum – A blazing fast NFL return man who has stuck around the NFL for 11 seasons playing for the Eagles, Packers, Falcons, Steelers, and SF 49ers.  Rossum is a small (5-8, 178) by NFL standards, but he has a knack for creating explosive plays in the return game.  He is a one-time Pro Bowl selection and won the NFL’s Fastest Man competition at the 2005 Pro Bowl.  Rossum was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 3rd round (85th overall) of the 1998 Draft out of Notre Dame.  At Notre Dame, Rossum competed in football and track while earning All-American honors twice after seventh-place finishes in the 55-meter dash at the 1995 and 1997 NCAA Indoor Championships.  Currently on the Niners roster, Rossum’s current numbers stand at Punt Returns: 280 returns for 2749 yards with 3 TDs and a long of 75 yards. Kickoff Returns: 459 returns for 10,520 yards (22.9 avg) with 4 TDs and a long of 98 yards.

 10) WR Johnny (Lam) Jones – I know Jets fans will always say his name as a set of “dirty” words, but Jones excelled first in track and then brought this straight-line speed to the NFL.  Jones (5′ 11, 190) won a gold medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay at the 1976 Summer Olympics and he also finished 6th in the 100 meters at the same Olympics after replacing an injured Houston McTear. Jones’ NFL infamy started when the University of Texas sprinter  was drafted by the New York Jets with the second overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. Needless to say his high draft status always made a big shadow follow him around throughout his six-year NFL career (1980 to 1985).  Jones was always good at getting deep, but he had difficulty catching the football failing to maximize his world-class speed and causing Jets fans to say he played just like a little “Lamb”.  Jones finished his career with 138 receptions for 2322 yards (16.8 ypc) and 13 TDs.

Other World Class Speedsters with NFL experience have included:

Wide Receiver/Kick Returner Ron Brown (1987 NFL’s Fastest Man Winner, Pro Bowl Kick returner for the Rams in ‘85 and in 1984 Olympics finished 4th in 100 Meters and won gold 4 X 100 setting a World Record w/ Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith, and Sam Graddy), WR Alexander Wright (former Auburn speed demon was a two-time winner  of the NFL’s Fastest Man), WR/KR Sam Graddy (5-year NFL veteran playing for the Broncos and Raiders finished 2nd in 100 Meters and won gold in 4 X 100 at ‘84 Olympics), Patrick Johnson (Former Ravens WR once defeated Carl Lewis in a 100 m at the Drake Relays),  John Capel (Won 2003 World Championship in 200 Meters after flaming out with the Bears and Chiefs), Rod Woodson (2009 PFHOF inductee was an All-Big Ten Hurdler at Purdue), Darrell Green (HOF was 3-time NFL’s Fastest Man Winner), Jerome Mathis (Came in second by inches in NFL’s fastest man at ‘06 Pro Bowl), *DeAngelo Hall (Won NFL’s fastest man at ‘06 Pro Bowl), Eric Dickerson (Hall of Fame RB was a college sprint champion at SMU),  Michael Timpson (Former Patriots receiver ran in 1984 Olympic Trials in 200m), Tyrone Wheatley (Former Michigan RB competed in the 1992 Olympic Trials in 110m hurdles), Former Heisman Trophy winner and Cowboys RB Herschel Walker (Ran 10.32 in 100m plus was 7th in the 55m at the 1981 NCAA Indoor Championships),  Former Heisman Trophy winner and Oakland Raider Billy Cannon (Reportedly ran a 9.5 in the 100 yard dash), Bo Jackson (ran a 6.18 in 55m indoors in college and just ask the Seahawks how fast he was on MNF),  Future HOF Deion Sanders (Reportedly ran a 4.19 at ‘89 NFL Combine and there is the legendary story he ran the fastest 100 m in FSU history in baseball pants), Dallas Cowboys WR Richmond Flowers (6-year NFL veteran was a champion hurdler in HS and at Univ of Tennessee), former Falcons QB Michael Vick (Ran a 40-time of 4.25 seconds at VT and a 4.36 seconds at a Falcons Rookie OTA in ‘01), *Devin Hester (Rated a “100″ in speed on ‘08 Madden ratings topping the previous high of 99, given to Deion Sanders), Raiders WR Cliff Branch (Kenny Stabler’s deep threat was said to have beaten Bob Hayes in a race after ‘64 Olympics), *Randy Moss (Said to have run a 4.3 forty at 30 when timed by the Patriots and always seems to have a second gear), Tim Dwight (former Falcons kamikaze kick returner set sprinting records at Iowa in indoor sprints), Qadry Ismail (the “Missle” was a very good hurdler at Syracuse), Jim Hines (1972 Olympic 100m champ played briefly for the Dolphins), *Justin Miller (The Raiders speedy CB/KR won NFL’s fastest man at ‘07 Pro Bowl), Renaldo Nehemiah (Former world record hurdler was part of 1988 Super Bowl Champion 49ers), Dwight Stone (former Steeler could not be overthrown, but was known as “Stone Hands” around Pittsburgh), *Jamaal Charles (KC Chiefs running back was a sprinter at Texas) and *Michael Bennett (former Big 10 track champion in the 60m)

Also look out for LSU explosive small running back/kick returner Trindon Holliday , Cal RB/former Junior Olympic Champion Jahvid Best, Clemson RB CJ Spiller and University of Florida running back Jeff Demps in the next couple of years.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

“The Forty” is the glamour event of the combine as guys want to show the world how fast they are. The player starts from a three-point stance and runs 40 yards as fast as possible. The player is timed in 10, 20 and 40 yard increments. The event is used to gauge a player’s explosion and speed.

Fastest NFL Combine 40-Yard Times

4.12 – Bo Jackson (RB), Auburn – 1986 (Super Dome Combine) 

4.19 – Deion Sanders (DB), Florida State – 1989 (Hand Timed)

4.24 – Chris Johnson (RB), East Carolina – 2008

4.24 – Rondel Melendez (WR), Eastern Kentucky  – 1999

4.28 – Jacoby Ford (WR), Clemson – 2010

4.28 – Jerome Mathis, (WR), Hampton – 2005

4.28 — Champ Bailey, (CB), Georgia — 1999

4.29 – Fabian Washington, (CB), Nebraska – 2005

4.29 —Stanford Routt, (CB), Houston — 2005

4.29 — Jay Hinton, (RB), Morgan State — 1999

4.30 – Darrent Williams, (CB), Oklahoma State – 2005

4.30 – Yamon Figurs, (WR), Kansas State – 2007

Complete list of NFL’s Fastest Man Champions

Darrell Green (1986)

Ron Brown (1987)

Darrell Green (1988)

Darrell Green  (1989)

Alexander Wright (1990)

Alexander Wright (1991)

James Trapp (1995)

James Jett  (1996)

Eddie Kennison (1997)

Allen Rossum (2005 Pro Bowl)

DeAngelo Hall (2006 Pro Bowl)

Justin Miller (2007 Pro Bowl)

***Event has not been held since the 2007 NFL Pro Bowl



Lloyd Vance is an NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)


Author: lloydvance

Lloyd Vance is a NFL Writer, Analyst, Draft Expert, Researcher, and Historian. He serves as a Editor for "Taking It to the House and he covers the NFL on a daily basis. He is an Accredited Member of NFL Media and Philadelphia Eagles Media. Member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA), and The Maxwell Football Club

6 thoughts on “Top 10 Track Athletes that Excelled in the NFL by Lloyd Vance”

  1. Darrell Green -1986
    Ron Brown – 1987
    Darrell Green – 1988
    Darrell Green – 1989
    Alexander Wright – 1990
    Alexander Wright- 1991
    James Trapp – 1995
    James Jett – 1996
    Eddie Kennison – 1997

  2. Your list of track athletes who excelled in the NFL omits three men who were track stars in the 60s before having distinguished NFL careers. Two of them were football and track teammates at USC in the ’60s before going on to NFL fame: O.J. Simpson and Earl McCullouch. Simpson was a running back with the Buffalo Bills who had a 2,003 yard season and was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Earl McCullouch was a wide receiver who averaged 18.8 yards per reception in his years with the Detroit Lions. McCullouch held the world record for the 110 high hurdles between 1967-69. He still holds the USC record for that event. McCullouch and Simpson were members of the USC 4×110 yard sprint relay team that broke the world record in 1967 (still the USC record).

    An athlete they competed against in the NFL, Mel Renfro, was a member of the Oregon 4×110 yard sprint relay team that set the world record in 1962. He went on to be a star defensive back with the Dallas Cowboys. He was selected to the Pro Bowl ten times and is a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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