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Raiders’ Jett Is Anything but Plain : Pro football: Speedy rookie has made a splash, averaging 29.3 yards a catch. His 74-yard touchdown against Broncos was an eye-opener.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is he a football player who ran track or a track star who wants to play football?

That question has echoed down NFL halls for at least three decades. Since the days of Bob Hayes, football teams have been intrigued with the potential that speed can bring to the wide receiver spot. Hayes won gold medals in the 1964 Summer Olympics in the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter relay, then dashed onto the roster of the Dallas Cowboys and with them enjoyed a sometimes spectacular 10-year career.

But with all the track stars racing into the league, the doubts are always the same. People question their hands and their heart.

It’s one thing to kick into a higher gear with only the finish line looming ahead. It’s quite another to grab a football with a 230-pound linebacker looming ahead. And it doesn’t matter how fast any receiver is if he can’t catch the ball.

These concerns came up again in the case of James Jett.

If ever a man was aptly named, it’s the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder from West Virginia.

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Speed is his name and speed has long been his game. The holder of five track records at West Virginia, Jett ran the fastest 200-meter race in the country in 1992, 19.91 seconds.

But Jett’s biggest accomplishment was achieved last year in Barcelona, where he won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team.

For most, that would have been the peak of an athletic career. Jett had other plans.

“Football was always in the back of my mind,” he said.

It’s not as if he suddenly thought of it after coming home from Barcelona, either. Jett has been a football player since high school, and at West Virginia, he was a receiver and returned kickoffs and punts.

Playing on a team that didn’t throw a lot of passes, Jett had to make the most of what he got. And he did. As a senior, he caught only 19 passes. But he averaged 20.1 yards a catch and scored four touchdowns. In his last collegiate game, Jett scored on a 78-yard pass play.

None of that was lost on the Raiders. No one in football reveres speed more than Al Davis. The prettiest sight on earth to the Raider owner is a receiver blowing past a defender and down the sideline, stretching out to gather in a bomb thrown by a quarterback in silver and black.

They didn’t name former Raider quarterback Daryle Lamonica “the Mad Bomber” for his soft touch, and they haven’t stopped featuring the bomb in Raider game plans in the two decades since Lamonica’s departure.

So Jett seemed to be made for the Raiders.

They watched him play at West Virginia, sent scouts to talk to him and studied game film.

“He was a sort of undersized guy,” Raider scouting coordinator Jon Kingdon said. “We knew he had good speed, but there was a question about his hands.”

There was a question, too, in the minds of many NFL teams, about one of Jett’s knees. It seems Jett had had a knee injury when he was 12.

Twelve?

Didn’t that gold medal around his neck pretty much prove the knee was OK?

No matter. Football people take few chances.

So the Raiders figured they could take a chance that Jett would still be there after the draft.

He was, sitting in the Arizona home of his agent, Bruce Allen, still waiting for someone to call when the draft ended.

Then, the Raiders called. Would Jett be interested in signing as free agent?

He would and he did.

But when he got to training camp in Oxnard, the odds seemed overwhelming. Not only did the Raiders have a star receiver in Tim Brown, another starter in Alexander Wright, veterans James Lofton and Willie Gault, reserve Sam Graddy and hopefuls Daryl Hobbs and Charles Jordan, they were also expecting the arrival of Rocket Ismail.

Jett had an impressive training camp, but then came the first exhibition game. The Raiders were facing the Green Bay Packers at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.

It was too much for the rookie.

“I was nervous,” Jett admitted. “So nervous I couldn’t even pick my hands up to catch the ball.”

He dropped two passes and his spirits dropped as well. Had he blown his opportunity?

No way. The Raiders intended to stick with Jett.

He made it onto the field in the regular season in the team’s second game, caught his first pass in the fourth, pulled in a 42-yard touchdown pass in the fifth and electrified the nation by catching a 12-yard pass and turning it into a 74-yard touchdown play in the sixth game, a Monday night exercise against the Denver Broncos. Overall, Jett has caught eight passes and is averaging a league-leading 29.3 yards.

And now everyone knows. He is a football player who ran track.


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