Nehemiah Waits to Break Out With 49ers : He Passed Up Olympic Gold for NFL Gold and Stands By His Decision

The Washington Post

There are those who insist that Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah's burst has become his bust, that maybe he should have consulted a different book of logic three years ago when he chose to transfer from being the No. 1 hurdler in the world to the No. 4 receiver on the San Francisco 49ers.

"Skeets would have won the gold medal in Los Angeles last summer even if he had run a bad race," said Frank Costello, Nehemiah's former track coach at the University of Maryland and one of his biggest supporters. "And if he had won a gold medal in the Olympic Games, judging from what's happened to Edwin Moses and Carl Lewis, he'd be a millionaire now.

"He was the Eric Dickerson or the Dan Marino of amateur sports back then. He said that he didn't get notoriety in track and field, but I don't really know if he's getting it now, either."

Last week, when someone mentioned the word "bust" to Nehemiah during a media session for today's Super Bowl XIX between Miami and San Francisco, Nehemiah said pointedly, "That's a narrow-minded approach, a narrow-minded opinion. When I've played here, I've done well."

"But everyone is entitled to his own opinion. It's an opinionated society we live in. (But) if I was a bust here, I think Coach (Bill) Walsh would have found someone else to replace me."

And what about the money? "Money," said Nehemiah, who had a $160,000 salary this season, "is not what I'm about."

This season, Nehemiah caught 18 passes for 357 yards, including two 59-yard touchdown passes. "He's got a great future," Walsh said this week. "He's made great strides, especially this season."

But Nehemiah really didn't play much this season. By his calculations, he played 10 plays or less in more than half the games, figuring all the while, "if I get the chance I know I can do it."

He started against Minnesota in a game late in the season and caught six passes for 125 yards, his best game as a pro. This included a 59-yard bombs-away score. "People had been waiting for that one for three years," Nehemiah said.

But even though Nehemiah, 25, has made a statistically steady improvement in each of his three seasons in San Francisco (from eight catches in 1982 to 17 in 1983 to this season's 18), he said he did not enjoy becoming a sort of artificial-turf specialist this season, playing more in games where a synthetic surface allowed him to better use his unreal speed.

"I guess I 'surprised' is the best word," Nehemiah said, when asked his reaction to his smallish playing time this season. "But I would summarize the entire year as positive. Very positive. My confidence is high. My practices are better and when I was called on in games, I did well."

In 1982, the 49ers wooed Nehemiah away from seven other interested NFL teams, including the Washington Redskins, and awarded him a four-year deal that placed him on magazine covers. San Francisco even guaranteed the first year of the contract. This represented the team's first guaranteed contract ever and, at the time, the 49ers had won the Super Bowl and Walsh was saying of Nehemiah, "I don't see any reason why he can't make it."

Three years later, 49er folk are still saying the same thing. Nehemiah, who did not play football in college and who was a member of the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted the Games, still is considered a product for the 49er future.

"In terms of just productivity--number of balls caught and all his potential--I could see people saying he has been a bust," says Paul Hackett, the 49ers' quarterbacks-receivers coach. "But as a coach, you can just see such a great improvement in him. Has it been good enough for him to beat out (starting receivers) Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon? No.

"But there's no comparison in this year to last year, for Renaldo. He's so much more assertive now. The problem this year is we haven't given him enough opportunities. The fact that Dwight and Freddie have had great years makes it difficult for him. We're to blame for him not being further along."

There are ghosts in the football past of track stars who tried to play in the NFL without having played football in college--including sprinters Tommy Smith (200-meter gold medal in 1968), John Carlos (200-meter bronze in '68), Jimmy Hines (100-meter gold in '68) and Frank Budd (fifth in 100 meters in '60).

These four caught a combined 11 passes in the NFL. All were either too fragile or too slow to adjust to a different sport. Smith spent three years on the Cincinnati Bengals taxi squad, then tried Canada. Carlos tore knee ligaments in his first training camp with Philadelphia, took six months to recuperate and, upon returning, found he had to compete against a rookie receiver named Harold Carmichael. Carlos left.

Hines failed to make the Dolphins in 1969, his only pro try. In his first preseason game, he was knocked unconscious while returning a kickoff against the Raiders. Soon thereafter, he retired. Budd caught 10 passes while playing for Philadelphia and Washington in the early '60s. After two years, his career was over.

Nehemiah has been better than all four of those players. "He may have put his shoulder pads on backwards once," Smith said when Nehemiah joined the 49ers, "but he'll make it."

"I wasn't trying to prove anything," Nehemiah said. "I think there was just a pessimistic track stereotype. I happened to come to a great environment with coaches who look toward my best attributes."

Nearly four years ago, Nehemiah set the world record in the 110-meter high hurdles, finishing in 12.93 seconds. His record is still intact.

Now he insists that he has no regrets about leaving track and field. He acknowledges that, yes, it is quite curious that, after clearing so many hurdles, he might win a Super Bowl ring and not a gold medal when he hits the tape.

"I passed up a lot of money," Nehemiah said, reflecting on his decision to leave track for football. "I think I was as big at that time as Carl Lewis is now. I had much more charisma, too. I know I turned down what amounted to millions. But I live for happiness, not money."

Nehemiah said he proven he can take a hit, too. Last season, Atlanta defensive back Kenny Johnson popped him good as he crossed the middle, knocking him unconscious. Nehemiah missed only one game because of the hit.

In the back of his mind, Nehemiah said, he still has some track aspirations. Maybe not the 1988 Olympic Games (when he will be 29), but he hopes for some international competition.

Nehemiah is 6 feet 1, 183 pounds. That's 15 pounds more than he weighed as the world's premier hurdler.

At one point, Nehemiah laughed and said, "I go home and, if I need an ego boost, I put on my old track and field tapes."

But in a moment of greater self-truth, he said, "I think I'm a much better receiver now than I was a year ago."

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