Renaldo Nehemiah could have been excused if he had been overwhelmed by it all, even though, superficially, it was only an NFL exhibition. But his first game as a San Francisco 49er was also the final Bay Bowl, which annually has pitted Oakland against San Francisco and from which the loser had emerged as Super Bowl champion the past two years. Here were the storm troopers in the defensive backfield of what are now the L.A., or A.L. (Al Davis) Raiders. This was national television, and Nehemiah, the world-record holder in high hurdles, was The Experiment. Nehemiah wasn't to be spared despite a right hamstring the 49ers said was strained but Nehemiah thought was pulled. He suited up, which was unexpected; he was called, also a surprise; and he answered with authority. He made two catches, a quick out for nine yards and a down-and-in for 12, which, with a rather nifty move, he turned into 19. And he made it look easy.
"I was a little surprised," said San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh after the Raiders had won, 17-14. "He didn't give one indication of nervousness before the game. He was smiling. He certainly is a unique individual."
Nehemiah in fact appeared to be playing championship-level NFL football at a skill position despite having zero college experience. Everyone from Dallas' vice-president for personnel development, Gil Brandt, to Raider Cornerback Lester Hayes had thought it would be at least one year before Nehemiah could really contribute. But after Saturday's game, Walsh, who last April signed Nehemiah to a four-year contract that could amount to $1.5 million, and had suggested that 12 to 15 catches would be a reasonable output for the rookie this season, said, "I think now there's reason to believe he'll be a factor this year."
"This was my first stepping-stone," said Nehemiah. "Actually, a lot of pressure was off, especially after running patterns against the NFL's best secondary in practice all week. And failing."
Indeed, Nehemiah had been targeted by the 49ers' aggressive young defensive backs during camp. But there his hamstring had spared him. "He was hurting when we first got here," said Cornerback Ronnie Lott. "Walsh kept us away from him." Safety Dwight Hicks said, "He had to keep us away from him. We would have destroyed him."
"I had track men before, Jim Hines and John Smith," said CBS analyst and former Raider Coach John Madden. "It's difficult for them. Not the contact so much as the catching, the understanding of routes, the defensive recognition." Not to mention the disconcerting effect of large, swift, helmeted beings whizzing about.
"I was a track athlete in college," said the 49ers' new tight end, Russ Francis, who holds the national high school record of 259'9" in the javelin. "I played only one year of football at Oregon. I was around world-class track athletes in Eugene. They had three things in common—heart, concentration and confidence. He can cope with the contact. What Renaldo has to learn is how to catch the football while he is coping with the rest."
Nehemiah had seemed subdued earlier in the week. He had missed a number of practices. "A lot of guys thought he was just taking it easy," said Lott. The .hamstring injury had occurred two weeks before the Raider game, near the end of a vigorous practice. Nehemiah stretched to catch a sideline throw and the hamstring gave. "And I can't remember ever having had a hamstring pull," Nehemiah lamented. Said Francis, "His legs are his pride, everything to him. It had to be hard on him."
The 49ers designated Nehemiah "questionable" for the game, which was considered just as well, because the Raiders are known for their rough treatment of receivers. "They say this team hits hard, or that team hits hard," said the 23-year-old rookie. "I'm 177 pounds. To me, they all hit hard."
When Nehemiah entered his first NFL game, 11:40 remained to play in the second quarter. On second-and-17 from the Raiders' 37-yard line he showed how valuable the threat of his speed could be. He lined up wide right, in front of Hayes, who retreated immediately into a deep zone. At the snap, Raider Safety Mike Davis also moved to Nehemiah's area. The play was a screen to the other side to Running Back Amos Lawrence for 19 yards and a first down, which led to the 49ers' first touchdown.
Nehemiah's next series came in the third quarter. On second-and-two from the Raiders' 49-yard line, Nehemiah lined up wide right. The Raiders zoned and Safety Ken Hill's responsibility was the quick out, which Nehemiah ran. Guy Benjamin's throw was a trifle behind Nehemiah. He gathered the ball against his pads and eluded Hill before being tackled by Cornerback James Davis. He then grinned unabashedly as his teammates gave him taps of congratulation and acceptance.
"I was impressed with his overall performance, but I wasn't as dubious as the rest of the guys," said Hill, who as a sprinter for Yale had competed against Nehemiah in a track meet. "I knew he was a competitor." With 13:35 left in the final quarter, Nehemiah, flanked right once again, drove to the inside of James Davis, positioned himself like a veteran for an outside move, and then broke back inside. He caught rookie Quarterback Bryan Clark's short pass and executed a fine cutback move, making it look innate. Lott, a hard critic, was impressed. "I think his confidence and his competitiveness will carry him farther than his speed will," he said.
Madden said that in leaving track for the football field, Nehemiah was "going from driving on a country road to the Los Angeles freeways." But Nehemiah, for once in his life, was in no hurry, merely adjusting to the pace of the traffic. "If I start trying to prove things," he said, "I'll outsmart myself. There's still so much that I have to learn."