Collegiate Track & Field Stars In The NFL
There are different paths to every destination.
Take the NFL, for example. Some football players hone their skills on the gridiron by putting in years of blood, sweat, tears and hard work, donning shoulder pads and helmets during grueling summer two-a-days in the hopes that they may one day taste success at the NFL level.
Others are able to parlay their speed and strength on the track or in the field into an opportunity to play professional football.
With the announcement this week that sprinter Cyril Grayson of LSU and multi-star Garrett Scantling of Georgia signed contracts with the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons, respectively – despite the fact neither of them played college football – we here at the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association got to thinking: Can success in track & field translate to the gridiron?
The answer is yes.
Over the years, there have been a plethora of track & field athletes at the collegiate level who have had the opportunity to take their skills to one of the most physical sports out there.
Some like Eric Metcalf, Willie Gault, Rocket Ismail, Darrell Green, Eddie Kennison, Johnny “Lam” Jones and Rod Woodson were outstanding track & field athletes in college who happened to also be fantastic football players. All but Ismail – who turned down being the No. 1 pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 1991 to sign a record-breaking deal with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts – were 1st round draft picks.
Jim Thorpe is another name that comes to mind. The all-everything athlete was a superb track & field competitor, capturing gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. The Oklahoman was also a collegiate football All-American, making his debut in professional football in the APFA, which was the precursor to today’s NFL.
There were also some outstanding collegiate track & field athletes that were given an opportunity to compete in the NFL, but just couldn’t make it work.
A 3-sport star at Oregon, Jordan Kent was a 4-time All-American track star for the Ducks who decided to give football a go during his junior season in Eugene. Due to his combination of size and speed, the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the 6th round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Spending most of his time on special teams, Kent recorded 5 tackles in 14 games – in addition to securing 1 reception – across two seasons for the Seahawks and St. Louis Rams.
Bennie Brazzell, a 5-time NCAA relay champion at LSU and a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team, was a 7th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, but didn’t record a reception during two injury-plagued seasons.
Jeff Demps won 5 NCAA Championships (3 indoor, 2 outdoor) at Florida while also rushing for 23 touchdowns as a member of the football team. Undrafted, he played in 2 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after winning a since-stripped silver medal in the 4×100 relay at the 2012 London Games.
Grayson and Scantling are taking a path similar to that of Renaldo Nehemiah, who, like them, did not play the sport in college. After winning 3 NCAA hurdle championships at Maryland – in addition to setting the collegiate outdoor record in the 110 hurdles of 13.00 on May 6, 1979 that still stands today – Nehemiah was signed as a free agent by the San Francisco 49ers. While he did win a Super Bowl in 1984, he played sparingly in 3 NFL seasons.
Like Nehemiah, Jim Hines did not step on the football field in college. Instead, Hines was a track star at Texas Southern, winning the 1967 NAIA Championship in the 100-yard dash before moving onto the Olympics, where he won two gold medals during the 1968 Mexico City Games in the 100 meters and 4×100 relay. With no prior football skill set, the Miami Dolphins chose Hines in the 6th round of the 1968 NFL Draft. However, he logged just 2 receptions over 3 NFL seasons.
Even household names Carl Lewis (drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 12th round of the 1984 NFL Draft) and Justin Gatlin (attended a rookie free agent camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007) had their shot at NFL riches.
However, none of them were triumphant in the NFL after being thought of as a superior track & field athlete first.
Below is a chronological list of 10 men have had solid NFL careers after dominating the track & field scene in college.
Bob Hayes, Florida A&M
They didn’t call this guy “Bullet” for nothing.
Bob Hayes was one of the fastest men in the world in the 1960s, capturing the 1964 NCAA Championship in the 200 meters with a wind-aided 20.4 time in Eugene, Oregon. And while he scored a team-high 11 touchdowns as a junior in 1963, he was much more valuable to Florida A&M – and his country – as a sprinter.
Legend has it President Lyndon B. Johnson called Rattlers’ head football coach Jake Gaither to ask that Gaither give Hayes time off to rest from football prior to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. That call proved fruitful as Hayes captured gold in the 100 meters and the 4×100 relay in Japan.
Also thinking ahead were the Dallas Cowboys, who used a then “future draft pick” – which allowed teams to draft athletes before their collegiate eligibility expired – in the 7th round of the 1964 Draft. Hayes went on to play 9 years for the Cowboys and 1 year for the San Francisco 49ers, amassing 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns through the air.
A 3-time Pro Bowler, 2-time First-Team All-Pro selection and Pro Football Hall of Famer, as well as the only man to ever win a Super Bowl and an Olympic gold medal, Hayes is arguably the finest track & field athlete to ever play professional football.
Ron Brown, Arizona State
Ron Brown was sort of a prophet.
An All-American in the 100 meters and 4×100 relay in Tempe, Arizona, Brown also played wide receiver for the Sun Devils. But before it became a popular decision, Brown balked at the idea of playing for the Cleveland Browns – who selected him in the 2nd round of the 1983 Draft.
Turning down a multi-million dollar contract from Cleveland, Brown instead trained for the 1984 Olympic Games where he would go on to win gold in the 4×100 relay.
After achieving his goal, Brown then turned his sights on the NFL despite a collegiate career that saw him switch positions halfway through his career. He played for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Raiders from 1984-91, earning a spot in the 1985 NFL Pro Bowl after serving as a stellar return man for the Rams, posting 918 yards on 28 kickoffs in addition to scoring 3 touchdowns.
Winning a gold medal, playing in the NFL and avoiding the Cleveland Browns. Ron Brown was just a winner.
Michael Carter, SMU
Quite possibly the most decorated shot putter in NCAA history, Michael Carter also anchored the defensive line for one of the top NFL dynasties of all-time.
Carter won 4 NCAA Indoor Championships and 3 NCAA Outdoor Championships in the shot put at SMU in addition to helping the 1983 men’s squad capture an NCAA Outdoor team title. Before stepping foot on campus in Dallas, though, Carter set the national high school shot put mark of 24.77m (81-3½) that still stands today.
On the gridiron, he was a good – not great – defensive tackle that garnered just one All-Southwest Conference selection. As a matter of fact, Michael Carter may not have even been the best ‘Carter’ on SMU’s football team at the time. That feat belonged to Russell Carter (no relation), an All-American defensive back and eventual 1st-round pick.
That didn’t stop Michael Carter from working to play in the pros. Shortly after being selected in the 5th round of the 1984 draft by the San Francisco 49ers, Carter won silver at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. His year wasn’t over, though, as he helped guide the 49ers to its 2nd Super Bowl title, becoming the only man in history to win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl in the same year.
Carter was a mainstay on 3 49ers Super Bowl teams, while earning 3 trips to the Pro Bowl and being named a First-Team All-Pro on 3 occasions. Carter’s daughter, Michelle, won gold in the shot put at the Rio Olympics this past summer.
Christian Okoye, Azusa Pacific
Before he came to be known as the “Nigerian Nightmare” on the football field, Christian Okoye was an incredibly gifted thrower at Azusa Pacific.
Okoye was a 17-time NAIA All-American and 7-time NAIA National Champion in the discus, shot put and weight throws for the Cougars. Hoping to compete for his home country during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he was left off the roster.
What was Nigeria’s loss was the Azusa Pacific’s football program’s gain. After picking up football for the 1st time in 1984 after deeming the sport “boring”, Okoye excelled on the gridiron, earning NAIA All-America honors.
His rare combination of speed, size and strength led the Kansas City Chiefs to select him in the 2nd round of the 1987 draft, and the rest was history.
Okoye bruised and battered his way through NFL defenses during a successful 6-year career that saw him lead the NFL in rushing yards in 1989 (1,480), earning First-Team All-Pro status and AFC Offensive Player of the Year honors. A 2-time Pro Bowler, Okoye rushed for 4,897 yards and 40 touchdowns – both Chiefs team-records at the time of his retirement – across 79 career games.
Michael Bates, Arizona
A 1990 All Pac-10 Honorable Mention honoree in football for the Wildcats, Michael Bates was much more accomplished on the track.
A Pac-10 Champion in the 100 and 200 meter races during the 1990 and 1991 outdoor seasons in addition to being the runner up in the 4×400 meters during the 1990 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Bates went on to edge Carl Lewis for the final qualifying spot at the 1992 Olympic Trials in the 200 meters. The speedster eventually won the bronze medal in the event at the 1992 Barcelona Games and then embarked on a successful NFL career.
A 6th-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1993, Bates enjoyed a 10-year NFL career that saw him suit up for 6 teams, totaling 373 kickoffs for 9,110 yards and 5 touchdowns.
How good was he though?
How does being named to 5 Pro Bowls and 5 All-Pro Teams sound? Also, Bates was in good company when he was named to the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team, chosen by voters of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as that squad features 21 men who are enshrined in Canton, Ohio. To this day, Bates still owns a number of Carolina Panthers franchise records, as well as Pro Bowl return records.
James Trapp, Clemson
James Trapp went to Clemson on a football scholarship, but he quickly became known in the small South Carolina hamlet for his track exploits.
Winning the 1992 NCAA Indoor Championship in the 200 meters after serving as a member of the 1991 NCAA Outdoor runner up in the 4×100 relay, Trapp was named Clemson’s Athlete of the Year for the 1991-92 season.
After serving as U.S. Olympic Team alternate in the 4×100 in 1992, Trapp joined the Los Angeles Raiders – who tabbed him as a 3rd-round draft pick earlier that spring.
Trapp went on to play 10 years in the NFL, tallying 324 tackles and 9 interceptions while helping guide the Baltimore Ravens to the franchise’s 1st Super Bowl title in 2000.
James Jett, West Virginia
James Jett is the perfect name for a track athlete.
A four-year starter for the Mountaineers at wide receiver, Jett never hauled in more than 31 passes in a single season in college.
He was, however, a 7-time All-American on the track, placing 2nd in the 100 and 200 meter races during the 1992 NCAA Outdoor Championships after finishing 3rd in the 55 meters and 200 meters during the 1992 indoor campaign.
After his final collegiate season, Jett earned a spot on the U.S. 4×100 relay team in the 1992 Olympic Games, running the 1st two rounds of the event. He did win gold, despite giving his spot on the team to Carl Lewis for the final.
Going undrafted, Jett signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Raiders, whose owner Al Davis was a huge fan of speed. The signing paid off for Davis, as Jett went on to play 9 years, totaling 256 receptions for 4,417 yards and 30 touchdowns. He ended his career as the 8th-leading receiver in Raiders history.
Jacoby Ford, Clemson
A speed demon on the track and on the gridiron, Ford was an outstanding sprinter for Clemson during the latter half of the last decade.
Ford began his career at Clemson with a bang, winning the ACC Indoor Freshman of the Year award in 2007 after setting an ACC Record and the top time in the 60 meters in the entire nation that year with a finish of 6.52. Two years later, Ford won the 2009 NCAA Indoor 60 meter title, running three one-hundredths of a second faster than Trindon Holliday.
For the Tigers’ football team, Ford scored 18 career touchdowns from scrimmage while adding 2 punt returns and a kickoff for touchdowns.
Viewed as an asset for his speed, the Oakland Raiders (see a trend here?) selected Ford with their 4th round pick during the 2010 NFL Draft. Ford did a little bit of everything in 4 seasons for the Raiders, hauling in 57 receptions for 848 yards and 3 touchdowns, while rushing 19 times for 2 scores.
His return game was just as potent in the pros as it was in college, as he totaled 1,874 yards on 75 kickoff returns while adding 4 touchdowns to his resume. Twice he returned kickoffs for 101-yard scores during his career.
Trindon Holliday, LSU
One of the smallest players to ever play in the NFL, Trindon Holliday may not have made this list if it was for former LSU football coach Les Miles.
Taking the head coaching job at LSU after a stint at Oklahoma State, Miles viewed Holliday as too small to play college football, nearly rescinding his scholarship offer. He wasn’t wrong, as Holliday only truly became a starter on his high school football team during his junior campaign because of his size.
Alas, Miles was talked out of it by then-offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, and both the football and track & field squads in Bayou Country benefitted greatly from the decision. Holliday returned 2 kickoffs and 2 punts for touchdowns during his football career, helping the Tigers win the 2007 BCS National Championship, but he really made his presence felt on the track. The 5-5 speedster won the 2009 NCAA Outdoor 100 meters, running a 10.00 flat, in addition to anchoring the 2008 NCAA Outdoor 4×100 relay champion Tigers.
The Houston Texans took a shot on Holliday, drafting him in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. After battling injuries, and some fumble issues, the Texans released him where he was quickly scooped up by the Denver Broncos.
In two seasons in the Mile High City, Holliday returned 39 kickoffs for 1,133 yards, including 2 105-yard scores in addition to posting 63 punt returns for 605 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 76 and 81-yard returns. During a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 12, 2013, Holliday became the 1st player in NFL history to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same playoff game. Holliday still owns a slew of Denver Broncos team records.
Marquise Goodwin, Texas
A solid wide receiver for Mack Brown’s Longhorns, Marquise Goodwin’s collegiate football career was highlighted by a 2-touchdown performance versus Oregon State in the 2012 Alamo Bowl.
The long jump was another story for Goodwin.
In 2010, Goodwin destroyed the competition in the long jump at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, leaping 8.15m (26-9) to outdistance his nearest competitor by over 8 inches. Two years later, he achieved the feat again, posting an 8.23m (27-0) for his 2nd NCAA title.
Goodwin made the 2012 U.S. Olympic Squad, posting a long jump mark of 8.33m (27-4¼) at the Olympic Trials that would have been good enough for gold the following summer. He did qualify for the finals in London, but finished 10th overall.
That didn’t stop the Buffalo Bills from taking a flyer on him the following spring, selecting Goodwin in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Goodwin has battled injuries on the gridiron through his 1st 4 years in the league, but has managed to compile 49 receptions for 780 yards and 6 scores. Just last month, he signed a 2-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers in free agency.
If football doesn’t end up working out for him, never fear. Goodwin returned to the long jump in 2015, winning a silver medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games.