Darrell Green, the self-proclaimed "ugly duckling" of last Saturday's Sprint/NFL's Fastest Man competition, was about to match cylinders in successive 60-yard races with Phillip Epps, Ron Brown and Willie Gault—the three fastest receivers in football. But Green was already well occupied. He was trying to keep from throwing up. Again.
His queasiness didn't stem from fear of flyers. Green fears no receiver. He can't afford to. He's a cornerback, the fourth-year left corner of the Washington Redskins, the only CB among the proclaimed eight swiftest NFL men who had assembled at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif. Green was really ill. He hadn't eaten solid food in 24 hours, and had gone to a doctor with a 102° temperature the night before. Green was running on Tylenol, Gatorade and confidence. Being sick would have to wait. He muttered softly as he adjusted his blocks and settled into them, next to Epps. "They don't think I can do it," he said.
Green is from Houston; Epps is from Atlanta, Texas. Soon after the starter's gun sounded, one fact was obvious: In the NFL, Texans do it faster. Green had beaten Green Bay's Epps, but only by a headband, in 6.097 seconds. Then Green inhaled Ron Brown of the Rams in 6.11 and blew out Chicago's Gault in 6.12 to earn the right to be called the NFL's fastest man.
At 5'8" and 176 pounds, Green is diminutive for his profession. But for short-sprinting purposes, he is a bullet of the proper caliber. On Feb. 1, he had beaten Herschel Walker and Curtis Dickey to win the Dallas Times Herald pro football 60-yard indoor dash in a time of 6.14.
"I went to a small school [Texas A & I]," Green said. "I ran track, but I don't have records or Olympic medals. Let's be real here. Everybody expects Brown or Gault or any one of these seven receivers to win. Me, I'm just a defensive back." At Texas A & I he could rip through the 100 meters in 10.08—"and sometimes faster," he insists.
Small school or not, he was quick. Maybe cornerback quick, thought the Redskins. Right they were. Green was a good enough football player—defensive back and punt returner—at Texas A & I to be a first-round draft pick in 1983. He made the Pro Bowl in '85. But his greatest sprinting recognition came when he ran down Dallas's Tony Dorsett in the open field of a Redskins-Cowboys game on national TV in 1983. A few beers were lifted in Green's name. That was about it. Meanwhile, Gault was a member of the U.S. world-record-setting 4 x 100-meter relay team at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki. Brown helped break that record and won a gold medal in the event in the '84 Olympics.
At first, Saturday's races appeared to be the usual exercise in inventive television sports entertainment—just another brainstorm to keep athletes busy and advertisers shelling out during the off-season (the event will air on NBC's Sports-World in August). Only there would be no tugs-of-war or rope climbs here. Just good old point A to point B. Five of the players—Green, Epps, Cincinnati's Eddie Brown, Minnesota's Anthony Carter and Denver's Vance Johnson—worked out on the track of carefully clipped Bermuda grass the day before the races. "O.K., men," Green said, "let's take two"—track lingo for two laps. The others looked at Green as if he had invited them to surf across the Mojave. Said NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, "Darrell's kicking himself in the butt. I don't know how much good it's going to do him."
After Friday's workout Green contracted a virus. Doctors gave him medication and told him to drink Gatorade. "I was scared," Green said. "I was scared because I wanted to win it so bad."
For Green, there was more at stake than the $20,000 first prize. "C'mon, you know people want Gault or Brown to win it," he said. Green was seeded fourth and matched first against the unseeded Epps. "Devastating," Green said, shaking his head. "Epps can win this, too."
Gault, the Bears' deep threat and the No. 1 seed, had lobbied to have the distance moved up to 100 yards but was unsuccessful. The first quarterfinal pitted him against the Raiders' Dokie Williams. Gault easily shed Williams, cruising into the lens of the phototimer in 6.34. Gault was pleased. Surely he would meet Ron Brown in the finals. Vance Johnson, the third seed, overpowered Eddie Brown in the second heat, clocking in with a mellow 6.40. No sweat.
Now Green and Epps were up, and there was a stir in the small crowd. Green knelt in Lane 2. The soil beneath the grass was dry, cool and packed solid. Green was wearing a headband that said GIVING BLOOD IS NO SWEAT. Epps came out first—a little high, but moving like a shot. He locked into full throttle at 20 yards, holding the long step lead he had gained coming out of the station. But Green would not be broken. "I got my arms into it," he said. He reeled Epps back to him inch by inch over the final 40. At the tape Green had made up the step plus a fraction of a whisker. The timers had to resort to photo negatives and an eyepiece to verify it. They declared Green the winner.
Ron Brown, the No. 2 seed, easily handled Anthony Carter in the last quarterfinal in 6.28 for the right to meet Green. Uneasy stomach and all, Green then caught Brown from a yard behind to win their semi in 6.11. "I'm surprised the times are this fast," Brown said. "That Green is quicker than I thought."
Johnson stiffened and was no match for the fluid Gault in their semifinal. The timing mechanism wasn't activated, but Gault was caught in 6.18 by at least one hand-held watch. In the final, however, Gault was beaten from the sound of the gun. At 40 yards Green couldn't find Gault in his peripheral vision. A smile broke over his face. "Yeah!" he cried.
And so Darrell Green is the NFL's fastest man—at least until some Bo Jackson-type breaks into the open field. Then the argument will start again. Or will it? "I don't know about that," Green said. "Maybe now the Redskins will move me to offense."