John Capel’s football career was coming to an end, and his life was going nowhere, when Kansas City Chief Coach Dick Vermeil called the fast but undisciplined young receiver into his office.
“Right before I was released,” Capel said Friday night, “Dick Vermeil said, ‘John, you’ve got to go home and evaluate what you’re best at. Do what you do best.’
“Running is what I do best. If anyone gets a chance to talk to Coach Vermeil, tell him I love him.”
Capel was speaking moments after winning the 200 meters in track and field’s world championships at Stade de France.
His time of 20.30 seconds was not particularly fast. In fact, the slowest any man had ever run to win the 200 world championship before Friday night was 20.16 by Calvin Smith in 1987. But it was a drizzly, autumn-like night, the kind of weather perfect for distance runners but not for sprinters.
Darvis Patton ran 20.31 to give the United States a one-two finish and declared that the American kids were OK in the sprints, four nights after Tim Montgomery and Bernard Williams had failed to win medals in the 100 meters.
“The 200 guys, I think, made up for what happened in the 100,” said Patton, from Fort Worth. “I’m letting you guys know the U.S. sprinters haven’t went anywhere. We’re back and we’re back tough.”
It turned out to be the best night of the meet for the United States, or at least for U.S.-born athletes.
Dwight Phillips of Tempe, Ariz., took the lead for the third time on his fifth of six efforts in the long jump at 27 feet 3 3/4 and made that one hold up for the United States’ first gold medal in that event since 1993.
Joey Woody of Cedar Falls, Iowa, won a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles in 48.18. That was almost a second behind defending champion Felix Sanchez, whose 47.25 makes him the seventh-fastest performer of all time.
There will be celebrations in the Dominican Republic, the country Sanchez represents so well that he rivals Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa in popularity. He was mobbed by so many autograph seekers after he’d won in the Pan American Games earlier this month in Santo Domingo that the meet had to be interrupted for 15 minutes.
Sanchez has dual citizenship, having been born in New York and raised in San Diego.
He was an NCAA champion at USC, but he began competing for the Dominican Republic, where both of his parents were born, in 2000 because he was guaranteed a berth on the Olympic team.
Until this year, Capel had become the answer to a track and field trivia question:
When Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene pulled up with injuries during the highly anticipated 200-meter final in the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials, who won the race?
That victory in Sacramento earned Capel a berth on the U.S. team in Sydney, but when he faltered out of the blocks in the 200 final and finished eighth, that was the last anyone in track and field saw of him for more than two years.
Disillusioned by his Olympic experience, he returned to football. He had played at the University of Florida. The Chicago Bears drafted him in the seventh round in 2001, but he was released before training camp even started. He at least made it to training camp with the Chiefs in 2002, but he was released without having played in an exhibition game.
He acknowledges that he wasn’t coachable.
“I was trying to be bigger than the sport,” he said.
But at the root of his frustration, he said, was that he had missed his best opportunity to succeed with a mental lapse in Sydney that can be measured in thousandths of a second.
“Sydney haunted me every night,” he said. “My wife told me, ‘Your life is going to be OK. It was only one race.’ But when that race is at the Olympics, you might as well be shot.”
He became despondent, quit talking to his mother and fought with his wife. He also was involved in a couple of incidents involving marijuana, including testing positive for the substance at the NFL combine in 2001.
Vermeil, he said, put him back on the right track, which was the track.
Now Capel, 24, is one of the favorites in the 200 in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and, considering the difficulties Greene and Montgomery have had this year, he might also be one of the favorites in the 100.
“I’m finally here,” he said. “If the road had to be that bumpy, I’ll take it.”