'...But Can He Take A Hit?'

That was the annoying refrain as world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah tried out the pros—and they him. In the end he chose the 49ers
That was the annoying refrain as world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah tried out the pros—and they him. In the end he chose the 49ers
April 25, 1982

The way Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah has it figured, the last remaining skeptics in America will become true believers on Oct. 4, the first time next season that the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers will appear on Monday Night Football. That evening—barring some totally unforeseen act of God—wide receiver Nehemiah, No. 83 in your program, No. 1 in the world of high hurdling for the past four years, will answer the final question. Not "Can he catch the football?" But "Can he catch it and take a hit?" That has been the one and only doubt—not Nehemiah's, of course—that the savants of the National Football League have been noising about since Feb. 23, the day he decided to set his sights on pro football.

Nehemiah's self-confidence has a disarming effect, for the fact is that he has never, ever, in his 23 years, set out to do something that he has not done superbly. A few cynics might think that what he has set out to do now is to get a fat NFL contract and that he has slickly conned the 49ers, but then a smart man like Bill Walsh, the head coach and general manager, wouldn't be likely to give a pure trackman a four-year deal—first year guaranteed, plus a six-figure signing bonus and an incentive plan that could make the package worth $1.5 million—on a whim. It's important to realize that the 49ers were the winners: Washington, New England and Oakland made Nehemiah offers that were very nearly as good.

"You might call it a risk on our part," said Walsh last week, "but it's not a long shot by any means. There's every reason to believe that Renaldo Nehemiah can play National Football League receiver and be very competitive for a job."

For the moment, Nehemiah is certain he has done the right thing by leaving track, if for no other reason than this: After running a marathon of pro tryouts—the equivalent of traveling around the world in 40 days to be tested by eight different NFL teams—he has received more attention than he did for any of the 13 indoor and outdoor world records he set in four years of gliding over hurdles. And what happened during that trip? Well, suffice it to say that Nehemiah and his lawyer, Ron Stanko, mostly remember it from the movies they watched on their transcontinental hops. On their first three tentative trips from Nehemiah's home in Gaithersburg, Md. to visit teams on the West Coast and in Dallas, they saw Rollover three times. Late in the odyssey, when they needed encouragement, it was Absence of Malice. Finally, with the pot of gold clearly in sight, what should come up on the in-flight screen but Rich and Famous.

It had to be. If one were to search for a male "10" to describe the contemporary incarnation of the American dream of good looks, intelligence, personality and superb athletic qualities, here is a prime candidate. Nehemiah has established himself as one of the greatest performers in the history of track and field, easily the best high hurdler ever, possessed of a body with perfect wide-receiver proportions—6'1", 177 pounds; a 43" chest narrowing to a 29" waist; muscled but supple 22" thighs—perhaps the best all-around athlete in the world.

In the hurdle sprints Nehemiah was virtually unbeatable, except—and usually only when injured, Nehemiah is quick to point out—by his longtime rival, Greg Foster. From the track world he will be taking with him a legacy of doing what was once considered impossible—breaking 13 seconds in the 110-meter highs. Last summer, Nehemiah produced that stunner, a 12.93 in Zurich.

Bob Hersh, the records chairman for The Athletics Congress, says, "I doubt that we'll see anyone else under 13 seconds in the 110 meters for many years. And we may not see a new world record in this century."

But Nehemiah says he has run his last race. For the record, it was the 60-yard hurdles at the Millrose Games in New York last February, one month before his 23rd birthday, in 6.84, .02 off his own world record. A few weeks later he decided finally that the hurdle sprints were simply too easy, not challenging enough. He had talked in the past about training for other events—the 200, the decathlon, the 400 hurdles, over which Edwin Moses has reigned undefeated for nearly five years. But now he was admitting to himself that such talk was a smokescreen. What it meant was that his motivation had dried up. The 13-second barrier was gone. There was no satisfaction in beating Foster anymore.

He also wanted—craved—more exposure. He has movie-star looks, glibness and a positive personality, but his sport wasn't of the kind to give him a high profile in non-Olympic years, and the Olympic limelight of 1980 was denied him because of the U.S. boycott. When the opportunity came for him to participate in the made-for-television competition, The Superstars, in 1981, he won it going away, and this year he won it again, against the likes of James Lofton, Gary Carter and Bob Seagren.

It was at the Superstars competition in Key Biscayne, Fla. last February that the football idea first took root. Nehemiah was wowing everyone, winning the half-mile bicycle race and holding his own in bowling and the half-mile run. In golf, a three-shot, closest-to-the-hole contest at about 150 yards, Nehemiah, who figures he has played the game only a dozen times, barely hit the ball on his first attempt. On the next, he nailed a nine-iron to within 13 feet of the hole, which proved to be the winning shot. In the obstacle course event, which he also won, he became one of the few competitors ever to vault the 12-foot wall without using a rope—he simply leapt, kicked with one foot, and was over. But it was his weightlifting that caused the greatest stir. He placed second, pressing 265 pounds, to Mark Gastineau, the 6'5", 280-pound defensive end for the New York Jets, who lifted 300.

Shortly thereafter, Gastineau approached Nehemiah and said, "Hey, man, have you ever thought about playing pro football?" Cris Collinsworth, last season's sensational rookie wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, asked the same question. And Dwight Clark, who could never have imagined that within two months Nehemiah would be a fellow member of the 49er receiving corps, agreed. "First of all," said Clark, "I always thought he had the greatest name I had ever heard. Renaldo Nehemiah. I was star-struck, especially when I saw him go over that wall without the rope. Seeing the kind of athlete he was I knew he could learn to play football."

Nehemiah characteristically accepts praise as his due, and why shouldn't he? He believes that false modesty is just that—false. But his readiness to acknowledge his own greatness is a trait that many people, especially nonathletes, take for cockiness, a judgment that generally causes Nehemiah to feel uneasy around people he's meeting for the first time. And he had often thought about playing pro football. At Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in New Jersey he had been a 155-pound wishbone quarterback, but he hadn't played the game at all at the University of Maryland, from which he graduated last spring.

The morning after this year's Superstars final, Collinsworth took Nehemiah out bright and early and showed him some pro pass patterns, and that afternoon they enlisted a friend to throw passes. It was confirmed that day—as if there could ever be any question about it—that Renaldo Nehemiah never does anything halfway. He ran hard, cut hard, leaped high in the air, dived into the dirt, and he caught nearly every ball thrown to him. "You sure look like a pro wide receiver to me," Collinsworth said.

Nehemiah ran the pros and cons of signing a football contract over in his mind. Pro: Because he was one year past graduation and had never played college football, he wouldn't be subject to the NFL draft. He would be a free agent, able to choose his own team...and his own price.

Con: Once he signed a contract to play football, he would become ineligible for all time (as the rules stand today) to compete in international track events, including the Olympics, forever sacrificing the chance to win the one prize that has eluded him—Olympic gold.

Pro: He could well be the fastest man in football, possessed of no "bad habits," a clean machine, with an opportunity to learn his team's offense from scratch the way a child picks up a foreign language.

Con: He would be giving up not only his incontrovertible "world's greatest" status in one sport for another in which greatness is measured on a more subjective scale, but also the independence of an international track star for the strict X-and-0 discipline of a coach and a team. Also, he would be sacrificing an annual six-figure income from track, including under-the-table payments, with only the slightest chance that it could all come crashing down because of an injury, for a game fraught with violent physical contact.

Pro: If he were to succeed in pro football, he would find not only fame and fortune but also opportunities, specifically in television broadcasting—he majored in communications at Maryland—that are generally not available to track athletes.

Nehemiah didn't lose any sleep making his choice. "Shoot, here are three professional football players telling me they think I'd be great," he mused. "If they think that, I might as well go and check it out." He gave Stanko, a former teammate and roommate of Marty Liquori at Villanova, the go-ahead to get on the telephone.

"I was the Number One high hurdler with the intent to run and win the '80 Games," he says. "We didn't go, so I missed my gold medal. I've been the best in the world since 1978 and I could probably be the best through '84, maybe through '87 or '89. But I'm not so full of myself that I have to remain Number One for 10 years, or even five. I've experienced it. I mean—I was great. When I finally decided to go all the way with football, it was because I just wasn't getting enough out of my talents in track and field. I wasn't being rewarded enough, and it was humiliating to me. I looked at the other sports and I realized that if we had the same pay scale [in track], I'd be getting over a million dollars a year. It got to the point where I'd have to break a world record every time I ran, not just to make money but to keep from getting bored. Well, after I had broken 13 seconds, something that once was considered impossible, I had done everything in track that I wanted to do. I told Ron that I had to do something different, and the only sport I know that I've always wanted to do was football."

So the odyssey began, under a shroud of secrecy intended to protect Nehemiah from the remote disgrace of failure. "The first thing I told Skeets," says Stanko, "was that we needed a professional opinion as to whether or not he could play football, before we went and made fools of ourselves with this thing." So Stanko put in a call to Sam Wyche, quarterback coach for the 49ers, and was told that his client was welcome to come for an opinion. Meanwhile, it was all Walsh & Co. could do to contain their excitement. As Super Bowl champions, the 49ers have the last pick in the draft. If Nehemiah could play and if the 49ers could meet his price, Walsh would have himself a bonus he could never have expected.

Scouts were dispatched to check with Nehemiah's former coaches; others were assigned to research his track career and injury history. One scout, Proverb Jacobs, who is also a longtime track coach, advised the 49ers about how much money Nehemiah would be giving up by leaving the track world.

When Nehemiah later learned about this snooping, he wasn't upset. Far from it. If Nehemiah the trackman was frustrated because track and field's "amateurs" made so little money compared to athletes in other sports, what bothered him even more was that so many people believed that they make virtually nothing, including several executives on NFL teams. Philadelphia, for example, at first offered him around $35,000 for his first year, and he felt insulted by low-ball offers from other teams, which apparently didn't realize that Nehemiah's income from track was approaching $100,000 per year. And that was over and above his salary and royalties as a consultant for the Puma shoe company, with whom Nehemiah signed a five-year endorsement contract in 1980 that should reach $100,000 a year. A knowledgeable track insider—and the 49ers' Jacobs is one—would know, for example, that an athlete of Nehemiah's caliber can command as much as $5,000 per race in major European meets while luminaries in more glamorous events get as much as $25,000. That so few football people know the facts of economic life in track really surprised Nehemiah and added to his general impression that front-office men were naive, narrow-minded and not very bright as a group. "They act like they're going to give me 10 dollars and I never had a penny before in my life," he said. "That I should be happy just to be allowed into pro football. What burned me most often was when they gave the impression that I wasn't serious."

On Sunday, March 7, Nehemiah arrived in San Francisco. After strapping on a pair of Adidas cleats with the triple-stripe trademark hidden with tape—Puma had yet to be told formally of its' premier track consultant's decision, and Nehemiah had no Puma football shoes with him—Nehemiah took the field. Wyche, a former quarterback, was throwing, Walsh was watching and Clark was on hand for moral support. Clark said he could have been watching an All-America in action. "Sam must have thrown 50 passes and I think Renaldo dropped two," Clark said. "He looked great."

Walsh, who has coached other trackmen-turned-football-players, like Lofton at Stanford and James Owens of UCLA on the 49ers, immediately saw football instincts in Nehemiah. "I was tremendously impressed," said Walsh. "He was very graceful. Often you'll see a track athlete, even a great one, who isn't necessarily a graceful runner. But this man is fluid in his movement. He can slide laterally and run almost effortlessly, achieving direction, whereas so many trackmen can run only in a straight line. He can accelerate, he can glide, he can burst, he can find an object—the football—and sprint to it and then gauge it as it comes down and catch it, where often a trackman cannot adjust his speed to a moving object. Renaldo has a natural instinct for all these things. Plus, I couldn't believe his upper-body strength."

Of course, Walsh kept these opinions to himself and his staff until after Nehemiah had signed, 39 days later. On this particular day, when the workout was over, Nehemiah trotted over to the 49er coaches. "Well, can I catch?" he asked, feeling fairly confident that the question was rhetorical.

Walsh nodded a sort of "maybe," then took Stanko aside and began talking contract conditions.

As Stanko walked with Walsh, Nehemiah winked and mouthed the words, "Piece of cake."

There was no time for exultation, though. First of all, Walsh implied that signing Nehemiah would represent a "calculated risk," seeing as how he hadn't played football since high school, "and we don't know how well he can take a hit." Second, Nehemiah was due in Dallas that very evening, and off he went to catch the plane.

Nehemiah felt very honored to be working out on hallowed Cowboy turf the next morning before hallowed Coach Tom Landry and hallowed Vice President, Personnel Development Gil Brandt. He felt insulted, too, when he was given a "personality test" that included questions such as this one: "If a car goes nine miles in 30 minutes, how many mph is that car traveling?"

The Cowboys liked Nehemiah's potential well enough, but whenever contract discussions came up, they would launch into what Stanko came to call "The Speech." "No one gets any kind of guarantee from the Cowboys. Get serious," they said. "Tony Hill doesn't have one, Dorsett doesn't have one. Danny White doesn't have one. A Cowboy has to prove that he belongs." The Cowboys would be pleased to sign Nehemiah on a trial basis, maybe have him return some punts and kickoffs, and see if he could win a position in two or three years. After all, he had got most of the answers on the "personality test" right.

A few days later Nehemiah received a call from his girl friend, Kyle Copeland, a tennis player at Pepperdine University. She had been in a tournament in Dallas, and the wife of a Cowboy scout had learned who she was; Brandt had called her repeatedly. She was constantly escorted around the town. "You don't have any idea how badly the Cowboys want you," she told Nehemiah.

"Up to that point, I wasn't really sure if anybody really wanted me," says Nehemiah. "That the Cowboys were trying to get to me through Kyle let me know things were getting serious."

It was time for him and Stanko to come up with their basic negotiating scenario. One important factor, they decided, was that the team that signed Nehemiah must, at the very least, match his track income. On top of that, the first year must be guaranteed, so that the team would be contractually committed to giving him a chance to learn its particular offense, and there must be at least two more years with increased salaries for added security. There would also have to be a series of incentive bonuses, because as a trackman, Nehemiah was accustomed to performing under such a system. These would begin with a small bonus for being in uniform on opening day and progress for numbers of passes caught and touchdowns scored, all the way up to the possibility of his making All-Pro. And, just for giving up his "world's greatest" status in track, he would require a six-figure signing bonus.

Stanko, who has represented other trackmen, including Liquori and Don Paige, but was making his first foray into football, insisted that the negotiating ethics must at all times be honorable. Under no circumstance would they "shop" any team's offer to other interested teams. Nehemiah, a bright and sensitive man, didn't want to ask for too much money, because he was already concerned that other NFL players would resent him. "I'm just breaking in," he said. "Already it's obvious that I'm going to be making more money than some receivers who have been playing for a while. My ego says to make a lot of money, as much as I can...but I have to live with these guys, too. And I don't want to give the impression that I'm a real jerk. Although I think my talents are worth a bidding situation, we will not allow that to happen. Still, I'm giving up a lot. I'm the one taking the gamble here."

"This is what I'm telling the teams," said Stanko. "If Skeets hits all these incentives we're talking about in his first or second year, then you guys bought yourselves a superstar. And you didn't pay very much for him."

If Skeets doesn't hit many of the incentives?

"Let's put it this way," said Nehemiah. "Providing I don't get hurt and I get a fair shot, I know I'm going to be a good football player. I actually had déj√† vu on this. The other day, working out in San Francisco, I remembered having done exactly the same thing once before. Oh, I just can't wait to get into a uniform."

Next stop on the tour was Philadelphia. Ron Jaworski threw bullets, and Nehemiah had the impression that the quarterback was deliberately trying to drill holes in his chest. But Nehemiah caught just about everything with his hands, the way a good receiver is supposed to. After the workout, the Eagles had him take something called a Cybex test, which measures leg strength. With Director of Player Personnel Carl Peterson looking on, an Eagles trainer concluded that the greatest sprint hurdler in the world possesses "good wheels."

"Oh, really?" Nehemiah said.

On to Foxboro and the New England Patriots. Nehemiah was dressing in the locker room when Shelby Jordan, a 6'7", 260-pound lineman, sauntered up to him. "Hey Nehemiah," he said. "I'm a defensive back."

"If you're a defensive back," said Nehemiah, "I guess I'll stay a hurdler."

On the field, the Patriot coaches put Nehemiah through a series of "flexibility tests." "You want to find out if a hurdler is flexible?" said Nehemiah. "We have to fill out these forms," said a Pats assistant.

In Washington Nehemiah met Quarterback Joe Theismann for the first time. Theismann didn't say "hello." He said, "Skeets, if I was in Superstars I'd have kicked your ass." But by the end of their workout, Theismann had fallen in love. "I threw him 50 passes and at the end he comes up to me and says, 'Joe, I dropped two I know I shouldn't have,' " Theismann said. "Lord, I think he's going to be the '80s Bob Hayes, or better. Everybody wonders if he can take a hit. Well, plenty of guys who played college football couldn't take a hit in the NFL. Nobody wants to take a hit. I don't. With his speed, he's going to run away from most hits anyway. I know this: He can run and he can catch. I want him on our team."

San Diego made Nehemiah take a physical, and the physician allowed as how he was "in good shape." "Great," said Nehemiah, snickering, to Stanko. "I got 'good wheels' and I'm in 'good shape.' We're dealing with all types of people here. We just have to swallow our intelligence and do what makes them happy."

Oakland's chief of personnel and operations, Ron Wolf, watched him run in the rain and asked, "Can he take a hit?" In another meeting with San Francisco, Stanko told Walsh that Nehemiah expected to be treated like a No. I draft choice. "That's ridiculous," Walsh said, "he hasn't been hit."

"Then let's just wait until somebody gives us the numbers we want," Stanko shot back. "Then we'll see what you have to say."

A trip back to Washington provided the first breakthrough. It came at the baronial Virginia estate of Owner Jack Kent Cooke. General Manager Bobby Beathard was there, along with Coach Joe Gibbs and Cooke's son, John. After all the introductions had been made, Cooke shooed most of the others into the library and cornered Nehemiah in the living room.

"Tell me, Renaldo," said Cooke. "What are you going to do when a 260-pound lineman falls on you?"

"Well," said Nehemiah, "a 260-pound lineman shouldn't be in the secondary in the first place. But if he is, and if he does fall on me, and if I'm able to open my eyes, I'll just get up and walk back to the huddle."

"I like you," said Cooke.

Six hours later, Nehemiah and the Redskins seemed to have a deal. The Redskins agreed to everything: the salary, the bonuses, the guarantee. Only one thing kept Nehemiah from signing—food. There was none. "One of the richest men in America, and in six hours he offers nothing but pistachio nuts in a saucepan," said Nehemiah. Anyway, he and Stanko still had dates with Pittsburgh, Detroit and the Giants. In their hotel room that evening, Stanko and Nehemiah each wrote on halves of a match-book cover the name of the team they expected to sign with. Stanko wrote "Red." And Nehemiah wrote "Skins."

The next morning, a bright and beautiful one, they flew to Pittsburgh and went directly to Three Rivers Stadium. Nehemiah took an unusually long time to stretch himself out, while Assistant Coach Tom Moore, Vice-President Art Rooney Jr. and Quarterback Cliff Stoudt waited. When Nehemiah said he was ready, Moore told him he would be put through all the evaluation tests the Steelers administer to prospective draftees. For the computer. Nehemiah groaned. "These tests are a joke," he said, out of the Steelers' earshot. "It's like they don't even know who I am. They see what I've done in The Superstars and they don't believe it. They think a 4.1 40-yard dash is fast, but I could run 4.5 over hurdles. In the 110s, I run every 10 yards in point-eight something. Come on. Put it together."

But Nehemiah dutifully ran the tests, and before each, made it a point to ask what was the Steeler record. He broke just about all of them—10 yards, 20 yards. He ran the 40 in 4.36. "Just taking it easy," he said. He broke the Steeler standing long jump record with a leap of 10.36'. He hit a personal best of 39 inches in the standing vertical jump, five inches over the team record. In the 60-yard change-of-direction—15 yards right, 30 yards left, then 15 yards back to the starting line—he positively blew them away with an 11.16.

"I've never seen anything like that done before, have you?" Moore asked Rooney.

"What did they expect?" said Nehemiah to no one in particular.

Rooney sidled over to Stanko and said, "Er...does he have any, um, bad habits?"

Meanwhile, Nehemiah was catching whatever Stoudt threw. "Well, he's a football player, all right," said Moore.

"Yeah, well they're all fast," said Stoudt. "I tried to convince them to bring Jack Lambert out here this morning. Let him stare at the guy awhile. Then see if he can catch."

Stanko went into the office to talk with Rooney and got another version of "The Speech." Pittsburgh is set with wide receivers—Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jim Smith, Calvin Sweeney and Ricky Martin—but Nehemiah might be able to return punts and....

"No thanks," said Stanko.

That evening in Pittsburgh, Stanko worked the telephone while Nehemiah ate ice cream sundaes and drank Amaretto and Seven-Up. With the Redskins' offer on the table, Nehemiah was anxious to get the ordeal over with, so the Giants, who had been dragging their feet, were out of luck. Nehemiah could no longer be bothered. The same went for Kansas City, which made an 11th-hour inquiry; Detroit bowed out of the bidding. Suddenly, however, Oakland was coming in with a two-year guarantee, Dallas might be able to work something out, a New England official said he'd do "anything it takes" to sign Nehemiah, and Philadelphia's Peterson wanted another shot, although there was still that question of whether or not Nehemiah could take a hit. Finally, it was Stanko who heard that question once too often.

"Look," he told Peterson, "if that's all that's holding you back, get in your three biggest linemen, your three best defensive backs, then suit up Skeets and tackle him."

"What if he gets hurt?" said Peterson meekly.

Within two days, the 49ers had beaten the Redskins' basic offer by a quarter of a million dollars and had thrown in an extra year: Four years—the first year guaranteed—beginning at $125,000, and escalating to almost $200,000; a $100,000-plus signing bonus spread over the life of the contract; plus incentives that could total a half-million or so more. The Redskins were given one more chance, but failed to land Nehemiah. Last Thursday, Nehemiah flew to San Francisco and signed.

Walsh admitted that he still had a few concerns, but none had anything to do with whether or not Nehemiah could take a hit. First, there was the question of Nehemiah's ego, the transition from being his own man, the best high hurdler in the world, to being a member of a team, and just another wide receiver. "We certainly have to account for that," Walsh said. "Renaldo is definitely very unique to our sport. I do swallow a little hard being involved in his removal from track, but let's face it, track has become a professional sport. I only hope people appreciate what he has done and wish him success in his new career."

For his part, Nehemiah wasted no time putting on his 49er uniform—helmet, pads and all—and admiring his new look in the mirror. He will have 22 special 49er workouts before the full team reports for training camp. "Now I'm almost there," he said. "I can see myself catching that pass everyone is concerned about—over the middle—and bang, getting hit hard. Flattened. Then I get up, trot back to the huddle, and say, 'See? I did it. I passed this test.' "


MODRAPHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn his restaurant, Theismann (center) provided Skeets and Stanko with more than nuts.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn the film room, Redskin assistant Dan Henning briefed Nehemiah on pro pass routes.PHOTORONALD C. MODRASkeets leaped a pr of 39 inches for Art Rooney Jr.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAJust cruising, Nehemiah ran a 4.36 40 when Pittsburgh assistants timed him.PHOTORONALD C. MODRALast year in Zurich, Nehemiah ran a world-record 12.93 and beat archrival Foster (left).PHOTORONALD C. MODRA"Superstars" champion Nehemiah opened NFL eyes when he pressed 265 pounds.PHOTORONALD C. MODRANehemiah made a hit with 49er Coach Walsh (left) even without taking a hit.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)