It’s Week 1 of the 2013 NFL season, and the New England Patriots have made their way west to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., to take on the Bills. The snow and cold have yet to fall on the Greater Buffalo metro area, but the September temperatures are a far cry from anything rookie receiver Marquise Goodwin is used to back in his hometown of Garland, Texas or what he played in during four years as a Longhorn. To return to a place of comfort before making his NFL debut, Buffalo’s third-round draft pick, No. 78 overall, will, as he has done for years, wear his track uniform under his football equipment.
"He would not go to football practice — he will not, I repeat — go to football practice if he don’t have his track tights underneath his football pads," says D.J. Monroe, his teammate on both the football and track squads at the University of Texas. "He has to have some kind of track something on when he’s playing in a game, and when he’s running track, he’s got to have some sort of football thing on."
The trick must work for Goodwin. Since setting out on what has developed into a 13-year career as a two-sport athlete that began when he was just nine years old, his athletic achievements have already propelled him to some of sport's brightest stages. After Rivals labeled him a three-star football recruit out of Rowlett High, the majority of Big 12 schools recruited him heavily before he accepted an offer to Austin. Of course, he's since spun that into a chance at football's highest level with the Bills, but not before becoming a four-time college All-American and two-time national champion, as well as a two-time U.S. champion, all in his blue-ribbon event on the track, the long jump. The accomplishments in his second sport even led him all the way to the Olympic Games in London last year, fulfilling one of his childhood dreams. He went on to finish a respectable 10th in the event last August.
At the NFL Combine, everyone, including himself, expected the 5'9, 180-pound speedster to dazzle in what is the most talked about drill of the event, the 40-yard dash. Asked before the test how fast he thought he could run it, Goodwin responded simply, "Really fast," adding that he hoped to produce one of the quickest times on record. He didn't disappoint.
Goodwin hit the finish line in a blazing 4.27 seconds, taking the bragging rights by a slim margin over, among others, a player to which he has often been compared, West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin (4.34). The time tied him for the third fastest on record, just three-hundredths of a second behind the recognized leader, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, who holds the title from 2008.
"I don't get why people question whether I'm a football player trying to run track or a track guy trying to play football."(USA Today Images)
Since then, Austin went No. 8 overall in the draft, the first receiver chosen, while Goodwin had to wait to hear his name called until the following day, as the ninth selected at the position. Of course, Austin accumulated back-to-back 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons his final two years as a Mountaineer. Goodwin tallied 120 receptions and just over 1,300 yards in his four seasons at Texas. He had a breakout performance in his final game as a Longhorn, though, collecting 132 all-purpose yards and scoring two touchdowns, including the game clincher, in a 31-27 win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl. By all accounts, Goodwin also showed well in the North-South Senior Bowl on his way to the second-most receptions of any player in the game.
Still, somewhat ironically, it is actually because of Goodwin's level of success in his other sport that he had trouble convincing pro teams he fit the mold of a legitimate receiving weapon. Despite forgoing his final college season of track to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft this past April, it was an issue he received many questions about and tried desperately to dispel. Judging by where he was selected, several teams may have had doubts about the 22-year-old's abilities away from the track. Is he a wideout with world-class speed, which lends itself to the long jump, they wondered, or merely a track star who catches pigskins part time?
"I don't get why people question whether I'm a football player trying to run track or a track guy trying to play football," he told Sports Illustrated in April leading up to the draft. "It's really embarrassing to me to even have to answer the question.
"Track guys just have linear speed. I have proved I have more than linear speed," Goodwin previously stated in February from the combine. "I have good hands, I run routes, I get out of my breaks. I'm tough, I have taken on hits, I've blocked. I have even got MVP for blocking in one game and I didn't even touch a ball that game. I don't think a track guy could go out there and get MVP for blocking."
The concern over Goodwin's football credentials is a practical one, however. It's far from the first time an Olympian has attempted to make the transition to football and teams have been burned before, investing in similar athletes with the same question unresolved. There are even two others trying to achieve the same goal just this season. And while there are certainly exceptions to the rule, Olympians' track records are inconsistent. Of the 35 men before Goodwin to appear on the highest level of international competition and follow that up by playing in at least one regular-season professional football game, nearly a third were in out and of the league within two years. Sure, the list includes 11 Pro Bowlers, nine All-Pros and four Hall of Famers, but the odds of Olympic success leading to similar returns from the line of scrimmage are dubious.
One would think the segue would come naturally, but history shows that has just not been the case. Whether it's been these premier athletes' inability to grasp the game and its many nuances, properly applying those same skills that got them to the Olympics to the NFL, or even simply learning how to catch, something has been amiss.
Regardless, the Bills were apparently satisfied with Goodwin's football acumen, tabbing him based on the potential shown in some of his final games, and inserting him as their deep threat for years to come. Or so that's the thought.
"I had watched a lot of tape and there was another receiver (Austin) that was taken first in the draft that has outstanding ability, and I felt Goodwin possesses a lot of those same traits with the same speed and toughness," said first-year Bills coach Doug Marrone following the draft. "When you get a player with that type of speed then it’s up to us as coaches to develop him and be able to get him the football."
"One of the things in the report about Marquise that jumps out at you, a guy his size, is he's a tenacious blocker," added Bills GM Buddy Nix. "He's a football player first even though he's had all that success in track. I think when you see him play you'll realize he's a football player."
Certainly talented, Goodwin, while contending with his contemporaries on the football field, will also be competing against history, to live up to the best of those Olympians who came before him, as well as eclipsing his own erstwhile results on the track.
Professional football's attraction to the Olympian dates back to perhaps the finest athlete of all time, and the sport has been trying to transform track stars to the gridiron ever since. Unrivaled multi-sport talent Jim Thorpe, who took gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games — in addition to participating in the long and high jumps, placing fourth place in both — set quite an untouchable bar. Thorpe played professional baseball prior to his prolific performance at the Olympics, then returned to the game for several years before moving on to football, and finally playing pro basketball after that. In 1950, The Associated Press named him the Greatest Athlete of the first half of the 20th century, and in a poll conducted by ABC Sports in 2000, he was awarded the title of Greatest Athlete of the Century.
the marriage between football and Olympians has been one of mostly disappointment and fumbled ambitions.
After making his professional football debut in 1915 and guiding his teams to three league championships at fullback, Thorpe helped found the American Professional Football Conference (soon dubbed the American Professional Football Association) in 1920 and was the loosely affiliated league's first president. The APFA was renamed the National Football League two years later. Although Thorpe never played for an NFL title, he was awarded First-Team All-League honors in 1923 as a member of the Oorang Indians — one of six teams for which he played during his NFL career. After he died in 1953 at the age of 64, Thorpe was later named to the 1920s All-Decade Team and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
Since Thorpe’s incredible precedent, the marriage between football and track and field Olympians has been one of mostly disappointment and fumbled ambitions. There have definitely been those who have far-and-away bested the ceilings placed upon them. For one, Ollie Matson, the bronze medalist in the 400 meters and part of the 4x400-meter U.S. relay team that took the silver at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, played halfback at the University of San Francisco before going on to pen one of the best two-sport efforts of all time when he joined the NFL. The No. 3 pick in the 1952 Draft, Matson was a six-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro first-teamer, and finished his 14-year pro career in 1966 second to only Jim Brown in rushing yards. Capping it all off, he gained membership to the Hall of Fame, Class of 1972, enjoying the prestige that came with it for many years until his death in 2011.
After Matson came Bob Hayes, a wide receiver at Florida A&M. "Bullet Bob," as he was known for his tremendous speed, won gold in both the 100 meter and 4x100-meter relay at the Tokyo Games in 1964. The Dallas Cowboys selected him in the seventh round of the draft that year, the No. 88 selection overall, and he more than delivered on that investment. He averaged 20 yards per catch over his entire career and twice led the league in touchdown receptions. Five Super Bowl appearances later, including a victory in 1971, three Pro Bowls, two All-Pro first-teams over an 11-year career, concluding with a posthumous Hall of Fame invite in 2009, and Hayes is one of the greatest Cowboys ever and appropriately included in the their Ring of Honor.
"I always called him 'Rapid Robert,'" says former NFL coach and player Marty Schottenheimer, with a chuckle, recalling playing with Hayes in a college All-Star game in 1965. "He could flat-ass run, there was no doubt about that. I mean, Bob could run like the wind obviously with all of the records that he set, but if they had to throw one pass to win the game, I'm not sure he was the primary target."
Schottenheimer, a linebacker for the AFL's Buffalo Bills and Boston Patriots in the 1960s and a 30-year NFL coach including stops for the head job in Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and San Diego, says he greatly admires the skills and achievements of Olympians — from their unique physical abilities to dealing with the highest levels of pressure when the entire world is watching. But he believes none of the above, particularly pure speed, automatically translates over to triumph once between the hash marks.
"The old adage says speed kills," he explains. "If you've got it, you kill them, and if they've got it, they kill you. But in reality, speed in and of itself is not the be-all end-all of becoming successful as a player in the NFL, regardless of the position."
"Football is unique," adds Schottenheimer. "I don't think you can overestimate the value of being involved in a team sport. If you're a part of an Olympic team it's certainly a team environment, but the actual competition itself is individuals."
This may help explain why many of the rest of the former Olympians who gave the NFL a try are a mixed bag of primarily underperformers, long shots and never-shouldas. The list includes the father of famed writer Gore Vidal (Gene; seventh in decathlon, 1920), the actor who played Tarzan in a 1938 film (Glenn Morris; gold in decathlon, 1936), the first Australian to play in the league (Colin Ridgeway; seventh in high jump, 1956), and one of the symbolic leaders of the Black Panther movement of the 1960s and '70s (Tommie Smith, gold in 200 meter, 1968). All flopped in their efforts to catch on in football, unable to recapture the glory of the international spotlight.
Every Gridiron Olympian
They joined failed attempts by the likes of Jim Hines (gold in 100 meter/4x100-meter relay, 1968), nicknamed "Oops" because he couldn't catch the ball, Johnny "Lam" Jones (gold, 4x100-meter relay, 1976), the No. 2 pick and first player to sign a $1 million contract, but who is considered a Jets top-10 all-time draft bust, and Sam Graddy (silver, 100 meter; gold, 4x100-meter relay, 1984), one of five sprinters who played for the Raiders over an 11-year period to fulfill Al Davis' insatiable desire for speed. Graddy was the worst of them with just 18 receptions and three touchdowns in five NFL seasons.
Then there are those who materialized out of nowhere and found at least measured results, most notable of them Renaldo Nehemiah. The three-time college national champion hurdler at the University of Maryland and the world record holder was the clear-cut favorite to win gold in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Despite winning the U.S. Olympic Trials, he was ultimately unable to compete due to the 64-nation boycott of the Games led by the United States. He did take gold in the alternate international competition that year, the Liberty Bell Classic held in Philadelphia with 29 countries participating — by a time faster than the Olympic champion — and a year later was the first ever to break the 13-second barrier, but he never had the chance at the Olympic crown.
From such disappointment came new opportunities. Nehemiah still amusedly remembers when the surprising offer came to try out for the Super Bowl favorite San Francisco 49ers. He was a quarterback and wide receiver in high school, but had not played in years and football was not even an afterthought. It was 1982 and Nehemiah had just won his second consecutive "Superstars" competition, a made-for-TV contest that pit some of the world's best athletes against each other and was televised in the U.S. annually most years from 1973-2003. Niners receiver Dwight Clark inquired if he'd ever played football. Before Nehemiah knew it, he was on the receiving end of a practical joke when someone claiming to be a future Hall of Fame coach called his hotel room — only it wasn't a gag.
"When Bill Walsh called me the following morning," recalls Nehemiah, "I hung up on him because I thought it was a prank. He called me back and I said, 'If this is really you, here's my agent's name and number and call him.' A couple hours later my agent called me and said, 'Did you just hang up on Bill Walsh?' And I go, 'That was him? Wow.' Within, I don't know, 48, 72 hours, I was in … San Francisco running routes in secret with the Niners."
After picking the 49ers over a handful of other teams that also showed interest, Nehemiah tallied approximately 750 receiving yards on 43 catches and added four touchdowns during four seasons in the NFL, his final one spent on the injured reserve. He was also on the 1984 squad that won the Super Bowl. Many say he never lived up to expectations, but Nehemiah, now president of his own sports agency, takes it in stride.
"those kind of skills are great regardless of what sport that you do."Curley Culp at his Hall of Fame induction. (Getty Images)
"I never went into it thinking that I would sort of be the best," he says. "I checked my ego at the door. I think I proved that it could be done and you can make the transition. To my point, there have been many first-rounders who hadn't lasted four years or in four years hadn't done much. There's so many people who never even had the chance, and many guys who played in college who never even got drafted, so from that standpoint I'm very pleased."
Nehemiah believes it's the overall intangibles coaches are after that particularly draws them to Olympians, with the mental side as a large factor.
"I think a lot of it is just because we can do a lot of things well that they feel that adaptation would probably come about quicker," he says. "We don't lack for confidence because our motivation is very high in an individual sport — day in, day out, having to go through that grind of preparedness by yourself."
Curley Culp, who had a 14-year career at defensive tackle capped off with a Super Bowl in 1969 and induction into the Hall of Fame earlier this month, was the No. 2-ranked American freestyle heavyweight wrestler and named to the Olympic team in 1968, but opted not to attend the Games in Mexico City. Though he notes there are no guarantees, Culp emphasizes the importance of the physical skills Olympians possess, which lend themselves to the more abstract attributes that also make solid football players.
"Wrestling is a very physical, demanding sport, and you have to have a good, strong will, you have to have good work ethic, in order to be successful there," he says. "And I think those kind of skills are great regardless of what sport that you do. Just to say someone is great in one sport doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be great in another sport, but I think some of the skills that were necessary to be successful in competing Olympically, or as a college athlete, transfer to football."
Meanwhile, Marty Schottenheimer says he never once scouted a player strictly because he was an Olympian.
"I certainly recognize the potential benefit that can be derived in taking a player with that type of skill set because he knows how to compete," he says. "But if that was a characteristic, in my opinion, that would ensure that the guy would give you some reasonable assurance he's going to provide you an edge in the competition in the NFL, more people would be going after them and more people would have been successful doing it. We're talking about totally different competition and environment.
"Go back to the number of Olympians that have been signed to contracts," Schottenheimer continues, "not many of them have made it. And those that were taken later on (in the draft), I mean, it was a flyer. I've always said, your top three picks need to make your team, and you'd better do pretty well in the fourth and fifth round."
As a third-round pick to the Bills, Marquise Goodwin will have high hopes immediately thrust upon him by his new team. Whether he will meet them by besting the results of some of his predecessors, in turn becoming the exception not the rule, is at this point anyone's guess.