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

Track vs Football

Jan 22nd, 2010
7:16 am PDT
Track and Field: NCAA Championships

Recent news out of Washington State University is that Jeshua Anderson, former national high school record holder in the 300H, will be giving up playing both football and track in favor of just focusing on track.

I would imagine that most track fans are considering this a coup of sorts for the sport as Anderson is a young rising star in the sport. The Washington State junior, has already won a World Jr championship over the 400 meter hurdles (2008), as well as NCAA championships as a frosh and soph (2008, 2009) over the barriers. He has personal bests of 48.47 over the barriers and 46.08 over the flat 400 meters. At 20 years of age (he turns 21 in June) Mr. Anderson has a very bright future in the sport and I too am happy at the news for the sport of track and field.

However, the fact that he felt that he had to make a decision brings forth an issue that has puzzled me for some time – why can’t an athlete do both? After all, there have been some stellar two sport stars that have participated in both track &field and football. Cliff Branch (Colorado/Raiders), Wesley Walker (Cal/Jets ), Isaac Curtis (Cal/Bengals), Darrell Green (Texas A&I/Redskins), Curtis Dickey (Texas A&M/Colts), Herschel Walker (Georgia/Cowboys), Eric Dickerson (SMU/Rams), and of course Bob Hayes (Florida A&M/ Cowboys) are just a handful of all star professional football players that excelled at both track and field and football in college before turning their interests to professional football.

As a matter of fact, “back in the day” two sport stars were a common occurrence on both the high school and collegiate levels. We still see standout performers in both sports in high school with such recent track and field standouts as Jeff Demps, Xavier Carter, Bryshon Nellum and Marquis Goodwin excelling on both the track and the gridiron.

So with a rich history of successful two sport stars, why suddenly do we see talented athletes feeling forced to “decide” between one or the other? Well, talking with collegiate track coaches it seems that the onus may lie with football.

Track coaches seem to have no problem with their athletes competing in both sports. Football helps keep the athletes in shape and competitive. Football also is able to funnel talented athletes their way via football scholarships, freeing up track dollars and increasing the flow of talent into the program. The seasons don’t overlap, so after a brief period of getting over the bumps and bruises of the football season, the athletes are ready to roll early in the indoor season.

Football, on the other hand, seems to have more problems with the situation. College football has begun to see itself as a year round endeavor. While football is a 10/11 week sport in the fall – plus a month break and additional game if you qualify for a bowl game – it makes the attempt to keep its athletes engaged throughout the year. This starts right at the beginning of the outdoor track season with “Spring” practice during the months of March and April.

Collegiate football coaches view this as valuable time to help their athletes prepare for the upcoming season. That season is some four months away from the end of Spring practice however. So that whatever “conditioning” that took place is long gone unless the athlete continues some sort of regimen on his own. In the past that regimen has been track and field for many star athletes!

No, the athletes aren’t on the field running patterns and plays. But they do get in incredible shape! Running backs, wide receivers, and defensive backs that sprint, hurdle, long or triple jump sharpen their speed and quickness – invaluable in the sport of football. Even linemen that throw the shot, discus or hammer are able to work on their explosion and footwork – ask Olympic shot put silver medalist Michael Carter, a three time pro bowl nose tackle for the 49ers!

Personally I think that it would behoove college football coaches to rethink the concept that only football practice can prepare an athlete for football. Nike, a huge sponsor of collegiate sports, pioneered the idea of “Cross Training” – and athletes competing in both football and track are doing some of the best cross training available.

So, while I too am excited to hear that Jeshua Anderson has chosen my favorite sport to place his focus, I feel for him and all those other young athletes out there that seem pressured to choose! College should be a time of exploration and fun for these young people. And until they have to choose on their profession as adults (and not all will be professional athletes) they should have the ability to test themselves in a variety of activities – sports included. Because where an athlete is at the age of 19 in either sport, can change significantly over the course of four years – they deserve the opportunity to see just how much!

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