The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Who’s Fast?

Oct 30th, 2020
2:16 pm PST

So. One of the big stories of this past week of NFL football, was one football player running another one down in the open field. Immediately talk in the sports world went to how fast the guy was. World class speed. Potential Olympic champion, etc. Which, drove, track and field fans, bat shit crazy! Because WE know just how fast these guys, aren’t.

Let’s back up a bit. In the beginning. No, not that far back. More like the 1960’s. Back when professional sports were really becoming integrated. A time when high school and college athletes competed in more than a single sport year round. Before “club sports” became popular. Back then your best athletes played football AND ran track. A novel concept in most states today, but once the standard. As a matter of fact your top linemen did as well. Typically throwing the shot and or discus in addition to playing guard, tackle, or linebacker. But this is about speed, so I’m going to focus on receivers, running backs, and defensive backs. The skilled speed positions.

Back then, the 1960’s and 70’s, college football teams were full of sprinters – and consequently so was the NFL. The most notable early on being Bob Hayes, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys after winning the Olympic 100 title in 1964. Bob ran 10.05 (9.91w) to win that title on a soft dirt track in Tokyo. And many suspect that he would have been competitive even today. Now THAT my friends is fast. The definition of world class speed. Now 100 meters, while run in the Olympics, was not the standard track distance in the 1960’s. The standard was 100 yards – and Bob was also the WR holder at that distance with a 9.1 clocking. So, how did his contemporaries compare to that?

Well, there were actually some football players at that time that compared favorably. Receivers Mel Gray and Cliff Branch both clocked legal 9.2’s, just off the WR! Just a tick off at 9.3 was Isaac Curtis. It’s no coincidence that these men are still listed among the sports all time greats. They caused the league to overhaul rules and change defenses. It is because of men like Hayes, Gray, Branch, and Curtis that NFL players developed a reputation for having “world class speed”, because they did.

Even as the sport moved thru to the 70’s, 80’s, and into the 90’s athletes cross trained and played football and ran track. The signature distance changed to 100 meters, but there remained some true sprinters in the mix. If we look at Olympic champion Hayes as the standard there was some serious speed on the gridiron among true football players during that time. Not just guys hired because they were fast and being “tried out”, but serious contributors like Hayes and company. Ron Brown (10.06), Alvis Whitted (10.07), Darrell Green (10.08), Willie Gault (10.10), Mike Miller (10.11), and Curtis Dickey (10.11). Also a few notable individuals that many don’t know ran track. Like Hershel Walker (10.23), Deion Sanders (10.26), Bo Jackson (10.44), OJ Simpson (10.3h), Eric Dickerson (10.3h) and James Lofton (10.3h). It’s no coincidence that nearly all of the above are either Hall of Famers or honorable mentions. Because speed is a valuable commodity in any sport!

The sporting landscape began to change in the 90’s however. Pick up games after school in the park, and park & rec leagues until you got to high school – the building blocks of athletes for decades – were suddenly replaced. I have my theories as to why (another conversation for another day) but a model was created to make money from kids having fun – Club Sports. Starting with soccer, but quickly branching out to just about every imaginable sport, the basic premise of club sports is this. Start children as young as possible (usually four years old). Convince them that your sport is their sport (kids and parents). Run multiple leagues all year long. Convince them that missing a league endangers their spot in the subsequent league. And charge them for their participation – because cost equals value! Travel as often as possible outside your general sphere of competition, because this can be sold as “better competition” (and gives more reason for additional charges). Repeat annually until child is high school age and now conflicted as to whether or not high school sports is their best option. Except football and basketball where coaches cross over into club sports and convince youth that 6×6 and AAU are necessary to make high school squads!

The result is that today most talent is locked up into single sports by the age of 10, if not sooner. And the likelihood of another Bob Hayes, Mel Gray, or Willie Gault emerging is rather slim. Instead many young people with innate speed are directed to excessive weight training and “fast foot drills” instead of the true “speed work” necessary to create a Bolt, Gatlin, Blake, or Lyles. Don’t get me wrong. There are some “fast” football players. Maybe fast enough to compete in some top level high school meets. But “world class” is now another level.

Let’s start with football’s own measuring stick – 40 yards. In the track world, that’s the start of the race! A solid drive phase barely ends just before that point. In football, you may not even get that far in a single play. Because football is all about short bursts of speed. While track is about sustained speed. Even so, by this matrix, football still falls short. Why? Because they don’t know how to time. Most football coaches and staff are taught to begin their watches upon the movement of the athletes – while every other sport, including dog/horse racing use the outside stimulus as the start of the watch. This could be a gun, horn, bell or some other sound. The result is that by taking out the response to stimulus, football times are inherently “too fast” compared to reality. So all those 4.2’s and 4.3’s you hear about are really closer to 4.4’s and 4.5’s in “competition” if that.

Of course, we’re only talking about the start of a 100 meter dash. The is still the transaction to top speed and speed maintenance to the finish. I’m not going to go thru each detail of the race, but suffice it to say that it is here that any footballers close would see separation occur. Especially without proper training. Currently I would say there’s only one football player with anything close to sprinters speed and that would be Tyreek Hill who ran 10.19/20.14 in high school. I’m sure that focused football training has slowed him a tad – maybe 10.39 now. That unfortunately, while it could win him a high school title still, would not be enough to get him out of the first round of the Olympic Trials.

It would be fun to watch him, and a few others, compete against the best. I think the world needs to see just how much space has grown between football players and real sprinters in the past few decades. It could be good for both sports. Track and field could get the recognition it, and our athletes deserve when it comes to the talent that we bring to the table. And perhaps football might realize that getting back to its roots and “basics” could be a good thing. One of the reasons that Kansas City is so good and so popular is, speed! Fans love watching Tyreek and what he can do when the ball is in his hands. The more things change, the note they stay the same. You can’t beat fast!

One Response to “Who’s Fast?”

  1. Waynebo says:

    It’s always great to see you posting coach! I agree 100%. Because track doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the U.S., most sports fans don’t realize just how fast elite sprinters are. They think these are guys who run track “because they weren’t good enough at football”. Ridiculous!! They don’t recognize that these are the fastest dudes on the planet. They don’t realize that a dude running 4.2 in the 40 would be in 8th place at the 40 meter point of the Olympic final. In track, all of the elite sprinters can run 4.2!!

    The USATF has to figure out ways to show just how talented the elite athletes in track are. It’s shameful that people don’t know.

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