Nehemiah Clears a Hurdle; Amateur Standing Restored

Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, when Renaldo Nehemiah, the world record-holder in the 110-meter hurdles, decided to pursue a career in professional football, the immediate comment from one veteran was that Nehemiah wouldn't find any aluminum linebackers in the NFL.

He was correct, but that didn't stop Nehemiah from playing for four seasons as a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. In the back of his mind, though, there was always the desire to return to track and field.

The one hurdle that he couldn't skim, however, was the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), which in 1981 ruled that Nehemiah had forfeited his amateur status by joining the NFL and therefore could no longer compete in track.

Nehemiah took up the challenge and fought the decision at every level possible. On Wednesday, he won.

Sort of.

The IAAF announced in Athens that in return for Nehemiah's giving up his career in football, it was restoring his amateur standing. The world record-holder could hurdle once again.

"I heard about it yesterday, right after the (IAAF) meeting," Nehemiah said Wednesday from his home in San Francisco. "I really couldn't believe it. . . . I'm very excited. I'm anxious to get back out there and see what the young legs can do."

Nehemiah, who turned 27 in March, was released by the 49ers in May after being unable to reach agreement on a new contract. He has been in hurdles training since February, however, in the hope that the IAAF finally would rule in his favor.

Now that it has, he said he hopes to be running competitively within two or three weeks and expects to join the European tour next month.

"Every year, I used to train in my off-season with the anticipation that I might have a chance (to compete in track again)," he said. "So I never really lost it. I guess when you've hurdled as long as I have, it is ingrained. It didn't take much to get it back. The toughest challenge was shedding 16 pounds, going from 192 back to 176. I ran at 170, 169, but I figure (gaining) six pounds in four years is about right.

"That was the toughest part, that and accepting the challenge of hurting. The training is totally different from football. It took me from February until now to really acknowledge that this is what I'm going to be doing and get that desire back.

"I'm in great shape. I couldn't tell you as far as a time, but I'm in competitive shape. I've been working. In four years you get kind of hungry.

"Four years ago, I was a little bit burned out, and that's probably why I chose a different sport. But I've been away from it, and I have Edwin (Moses) to thank for my outlook at this time because he's stayed around so long and preserved his ability.

"This time, I'll pick and choose when I run and I'll run for me, not so much for notoriety. I think before, I was trying to put hurdling on the map and let everybody know how great of an event it is."

Nehemiah said he is not giving up football without regrets. His four seasons with the 49ers were enjoyable in many ways but also frustrating, he said.

"I think I tasted a little bit of everything," he said. "The highs and the lows. I got knocked unconscious, scored touchdowns, caught passes, pulled a hamstring. My body has endured all the lumps and bruises, but I'm fortunate that I did come out in one piece and am able to compete (in track) again.

"I enjoyed it a lot and would have loved to have been able to continue it. But monetarily we were apart, and I always wanted to get back to track and field."

Football, Nehemiah said, never really gave him the chance to showcase his talents.

"Reviewing the last four years, I did get a Super Bowl ring and I did do a lot," he said. "But I just felt I had too much ability that football wasn't enabling me to explore or to show. . . . Running 10 yards here, 20 yards there, wasn't satisfactory. I just love to run and I run extremely fast and I wasn't able to satisfy myself.

"I still love the sport and I had a great time with it. I just think the smart move is to do something that you know you can do and do it really well. Football is very opinionated. The best (player) isn't always playing. Track and field is clean and dry. If you're the best, it shows."

Financially, too, the move back to track is a wise one, as Nehemiah was not slow to point out.

"Track and field isn't like it used to be," he said. "There are many other avenues available--shoe endorsements, etc. The trust funds are available now. So it's kind of a different market. . . . My worth in track and field is far more than it was in football. So now it's a whole different area and you have to go in and renegotiate."

Nehemiah said he harbors no bitterness toward anyone, despite the time it has taken to regain his amateur status.

"Initially I did, because I felt I was being penalized because I could do more than one thing well," he said. "But it's been four years, and I'm just thankful that I'm of an age to be able to reap the benefits, to be a pioneer for tomorrow's athletes, saying that you should be able to do one thing and if you want to come back and run track and field you shouldn't be penalized for it."

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