Renaldo Nehemiah was one of the greatest athlete
s of the early 1980s. However, circumstance has caused not only his triumphs to be forgotten, but for his failures to be widely known and ridiculed. Many remembered him as a joke; in truth, he was a champion.
Nehemiah, born March 24, 1959, attended the University of Maryland at College Park on a track scholarship starting in 1977. He was good sprinter -- a damn good sprinter. Before graduating, he set world records in the 55-, the 60- and the 110-meter hurdles. He later broke his own 110-meter record twice -- an unprecedented feat. Nehemiah was young and undoubtedly the greatest hurdler in the world at the time; perhaps the greatest ever. All he would need was an Olympic gold.
But the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics invaded Afghanistan, and Jimmy Carter pulled America out of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Nehemiah was crushed. He continued running for a bit; in 1981, he was the first to break the 13-second barrier in the 110-meters with a 12.91 time in Zurich, a mark which would last until Roger Kingdom's 12.92 in 1989. However, the politicial side of the Olympics bothered Nehemiah, and he was looking for something else.
"I am just now able to talk about (the boycott)," Nehemiah told BET. "Who knows what we would have done had we been able to go to Moscow. I was 21 years old and the best hurdler in the world, and then my dream of winning the gold was taken away from me just like that. I felt it was a gross injustice to the entire nation and the other nations who didn't take part. To this day, I don't enjoy politics or anything political, because that's what (the boycott) was all about."
Dwight Clark was a tall, large wide receiver for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. In 1981, they had just won Super Bowl XVI, but their offense was missing a speedster who could stretch the defense -- if the defense's safeties are worried about the long pass, it opens up short passes, as well as the running game.
Clark saw Nehemiah participating in ABC's "Superstars" Individual Athletic Competition -- kind of like the "World's Strongest Man" contests on ESPN, except the events rewarded general athletic ability, and the participants wore cheesy 80s outfits. Clark knew that Nehemiah was pissed off, and he also knew that Nehemiah was an excellent athlete. So, he asked him to play football for the first time in his life. Nehemiah agreed, and in 1982 he was a 49er.
It only lasted three years. Nehemiah was fast, but he had trouble catching the ball. (Catching a speeding football is harder than it looks.) Also, his body had difficulty adjusting to getting walloped by cornerbacks and safeties.
Plus, as football coaches were learning, there's a difference between "track speed" and "football speed." The former is running in a straight line, and though sprints are very short, there's a strategy for the beginning, middle and end of the race. In football, however, the focus is on proper route-running and breakaway speed -- the ability to quickly accelerate now. Nehemiah didn't have it. His replacement, a man drafted in the spring of 1985 from a small college in Mississippi who wasn't particularly fast on the track, did have "football speed." His name was Jerry Rice, and most think he's the greatest wide receiver ever.
Nehemiah's career statistics are unimpressive. Three years, only 43 catches and four touchdowns. (He did average 17.5 yards per catch, which ain't bad.) Moreover, since he was moderatly famous before coming into the NFL, his failure labeled him a "bust," and ignorant American football fans took it as proof that hurdlers aren't real athletes.
In the meantime, Nehemiah battled in the courts to reclaim his amateur status. (Back then in the dark ages of athletes' rights, the Olympics prevented anyone who received payment for any athletic ability to compete.) Finally winning in 1986, he returned to the sport of hurdling, but Nehemiah's best years were behind him.
He currently works as a sports agent for Octagon.