- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

NFL training camps in the late ‘60s were a sight to behold. In Dallas, you had Bob Hayes — World’s Fastest Man, 1964 — catching bombs for the Cowboys. In Miami, you had Jim Hines — World’s Fastest Man, 1968 — going deep for the Dolphins. In Cincinnati, you had Tommie Smith, 200-meter gold medalist in the ‘68 Olympics, blazing by defenders for the Bengals. (Twice a year, Hayes even got to run pass patterns against Henry Carr, who won the 200-meter gold in ‘64 before covering receivers for the Giants.)

Pro football was never more in love with Pure Speed than it was in that period. It didn’t matter if you had two left hands or had never played college football. If you were a world class sprinter — and didn’t mind getting knocked around a bit — NFL teams were more than happy to take a look at you.

Nowadays, sad to say, the game is less experimental. Or maybe the trackmen are less adventurous … and less hard up for cash. Or maybe it’s just the specialized, one-sport-to-an-athlete times we live in. Whatever the case, it’s rare that a 100-meter champ surfaces at an NFL minicamp, the way Justin Gatlin did this past weekend in Tampa.

Of course, Gatlin would be nowhere near the Bucs’ training facility, nowhere near these helmeted hellions with hurtful intentions, if he weren’t suspended from track and field for his involvement in a doping scandal. That said, there’s always room in pro football for a receiver who can run a 4.1 — provided, that is, he can produce a clean urine sample.

“I’ve got the speed thing down,” said Gatlin, who also has been worked out by the Cardinals and Texans. “Now I have to learn my routes.”

Would that it were so simple. Heck, if it were just a matter of outrunning/outfoxing DBs, an NFL game would probably resemble a 4-by-100 relay. But there’s much more to this wideout business than that. There’s also the starting and stopping … and starting and stopping … and starting and stopping. This isn’t good for a sprinter’s delicate hamstrings.

Neither are sudden changes of direction. Then there’s the whole blocking thing.

And I haven’t mentioned the most difficult skill of all: catching a spiraling football — coming at you at speeds in excess of 60 mph — with the footsteps of a 230-pound safety ringing in your ears. Not exactly the same as taking a baton pass.

The odds are long that Gatlin will turn out to be the next Hayes. The odds are long, in fact, that anybody will turn out to be the next Hayes. That’s because Bullet Bob — the gold standard among sprinter/receivers (371 catches, 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns in 11 pro seasons), wasn’t just a Track Guy. Between footraces at Florida A&M;, he was developing his football abilities under the famed Jake Gaither.

(The same goes for Pro Football Hall of Famer Ollie Matson, the ‘52 bronze medalist in the 400 meters. Matson didn’t just decide, on a lark, to give the NFL a crack after hanging up his track spikes; he’d been an All-American halfback at the University of San Francisco.)

It was easier for athletes to play two and even three sports back then. Seasons didn’t overlap as much, and football coaches weren’t such martinets; they saw the benefit in what we now call cross training. In the years since, though, the sprinters who have shown up at NFL camps have tended to be football novices like Gatlin. Justin hasn’t buckled a chinstrap, he says, since high school, almost eight years ago.

So it’s doubtful we’re looking at a future Pro Bowler. It’s much more likely we’re looking at another Jim Hines (two receptions for 23 yards for the ‘69 Dolphins) or Tommie Smith (one catch for 41 yards for the ‘69 Bengals) or John Carlos (who beat Smith in the ‘68 U.S. trials). Carlos hurt his knee and never played a regular-season game for the Eagles, though he did spend some time with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.

If Gruden is really resourceful, he might be able to wring a Renaldo Nehemiah-type career from Gatlin. How many balls did Nehemiah, the former champion hurdler, grab for Bill Walsh’s 49ers in the early ‘80s, 43 in three seasons?

But give Gatlin a gold medal for bravery (or is it desperation)? Most world-class sprinters wouldn’t set foot on an NFL field. They feel the same way Don Quarrie — another member of the World’s Fastest Man Club — did in 1971, the way any sensible, non-football-playing trackman would.

“I don’t like to get hit,” he said. “Also, broken bones and twisted ankles never appealed to me.”

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