– Derek M. Hansen –
I had the pleasure of being in Times Square in New York City last weekend for the announcement of the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. As soon as his name was announced, I thought of fellow strength coach and friend, Chris Ruf of Baylor University, and his contributions to the achievement of this award. When I contacted Coach Ruf and congratulated him, he mentioned that track and field’s loss was Baylor Football’s gain. And, on further research, I discovered Robert Griffin III could very well have represented the United States in the 2012 Olympics in the 400m hurdles.
As a track and field athlete, Robert Griffin III broke state records for the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles. He ran the 110-meter hurdles in 13.55 seconds, and the 300m hurdles in 35.33 seconds. The 300m hurdle time was one-hundredth of a second short of breaking the national high school record. He was also won gold in the 110 and 400-meter hurdles on the AAU track and field circuit. As a high school junior, he sprinted 13.46 in the 110-meter hurdles and 49.56 in the 400-meter hurdles. In 2007, as a junior, he was rated the No. 1 high school 400-meter immediate hurdler in the country, and was tied at No. 1 for the 110-meter sprint hurdler in the nation. In 2008, at the age of 18 years, he qualified for the semi-final in the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in the 400m hurdles running a world-class time of 49.73 seconds. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last few months, I don’t believe I need to elaborate on his football accomplishments.
Strangely enough, I had a conversation a few weeks ago with legendary strength coach, Al Vermeil. He was commenting on how he thought hurdlers made good football skill players. He mentioned Willie Gault and a few others. And, I know that the San Francisco 49ers were evaluating Renaldo Nehemiah – the world record holder in the 110m hurdles, with no college football experience – in 1982 when Al was still the strength and conditioning coach for the team. It made me ask the question, “What other great hurdlers became professional athletes in the NFL?”
Transferable Qualities of Hurdling
If there is a correlation between hurdling and football success, what are the factors that contribute to this relationship? If you examine the key elements of hurdling, you can see that there are some significant abilities that could transfer over to football as follows:
To be a good sprint hurdler, you must be fast. If you examine the sprint abilities of the top hurdlers, you will find they have excellent sprint times. In most cases, these athletes have possessed great speed abilities (i.e. much faster than most NFL players), but are not fast enough to rise to the top of the 100m rankings. For example, Terrence Trammell has run 12.95 seconds in the 110m hurdles and has also run 10.04 seconds in the 100m. Mark McKoy, the 1992 Olympic hurdle champion, ran 10.08 seconds in the 100m and 6.49 seconds in the indoor 60m. Does a great 100m time make you a fast hurdler? Absolutely not. But the faster hurdlers are fast sprinters, relatively speaking, and can transfer that speed to success in football.
Without a doubt, great hip mobility is required for success in hurdling. Is it a coincidence that most strength coaches are using hurdle walk-over drills in an effort to build more hip mobility? No. In football, greater hip mobility allows athletes to change direction, both horizontally and vertically, with greater quickness, power and efficiency whether it means getting around or over obstacles. More flexibility in the hips also reduces stresses through the lower back, knees, quads and hamstrings. This quality definitely allows a hurdling athlete to make a smoother transition to the football field.
Vision and Focus
Pure sprinters simply need to focus on the finish line. Sprint hurdlers have to get over ten 42-inch barriers in as little time as possible. Their vision is not focused on individual hurdles, but an array of barriers. Focusing too much on one particular barrier can result in disaster as attack angle, rhythm and flight mechanics can be disrupted. Good vision is not about locking onto one specific hurdle, but scanning through the rows and not panicking about any one in particular. While you are focusing on what you need to do, barriers are crashing around you and limbs are flying into your lane. These are qualities that transfer well to football, particularly if you are a quarterback like Robert Griffin III. Over the longer hurdle races, such as the 400m hurdles, this focus must be maintained as severe fatigue sets in and consistent stride length must be maintained.
Athleticism and Technique
The technical requirements of hurdling lend themselves to the intricacies of football. Great hurdling athletes are not inattentive. They must be aware of the technical requirements of their sport and work on the individual elements every training session. This quality must be combined with significant athleticism and coordination. Running at near full speed and executing technique that allows you to clear a 42-inch hurdle be a mere fraction of an inch takes years of careful practice. It is no different than the skill required to catch a pass at near full speed with defenders draped all over you, all while having the presence of mind and skill to get both feet down inside the sideline.
Stride Frequency and Length
Running between each of the ten hurdles in the 110m hurdles requires quick, consistent stepping in order to post a fast time. The strides between the hurdles tend to be significantly shorter and quicker than those applied in a straight sprint such as the 100 meters. On average, the fastest portion of the men’s 100 meters at the world class level involves 4.8 strides per second, 2.3 meters per stride and a horizontal velocity of 11.8 meters per second. Whereas in the 110m hurdles, a world class athlete can put down as many as 6.0 strides per second in between hurdles, at a shorter 1.80m per stride and a peak horizontal velocity of 9.3 meters per second. Thus, sprint hurdlers put down shorter, quicker strides at a sub-maximal horizontal sprinting velocity than 100m sprinters. This is a much more compatible stride pattern for football, where quicker, shorter, nimble strides are more effective for starting, stopping and cutting movements.
Anyone who has trained and competed in hurdles knows that at any given time, you could end up on the ground in a split second. As a youth, I vividly remember a training session where I cleared the first hurdle and then, on the second hurdle, I broke the cross-board between my legs, skidded for 8 yards and then found my face buried underneath the third hurdle. Like a good hurdler, I got up and readied myself for the next repetition. Football is no different, although a spindly hurdle tripping you is not a good comparison to a fast moving 240lb linebacker putting you on your back. But of all the track and field events, hurdling is most likely to knock you on your butt with annoying regularity.
The Hurdling/Football Athletes
Now that I have put forward my argument as to why I feel hurdlers make good football players, here is my incomplete list of the athletes, in no particular order, I have found to have had significant successes in both the hurdles and professional football:
– Jerry Tarr attended the University of Oregon where he competed in both football and track. Tarr was a member of Oregon’s 4 x 110 yard relay team with Mike Gaechter, Harry Jerome, and Mel Renfro, setting a world record in the event in 1962. Individually, Tarr excelled in the 120-yard hurdles. He was the first athlete to win back-to-back NCAA titles in the high hurdles in 1961 and 1962, and in doing so, helped Oregon win its first ever NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in 1962. Tarr went on to play professional football rather than continue his track career, completing one season as a wide receiver with the Denver Broncos of the AFL in 1962.
– Richmond Flowers played football for the University of Tennessee and was also a member of the track team. Alabama football coach Bear Bryant hired Billy Hardin, the former Olympic hurdler, to try to persuade Flowers to attend Alabama. Flowers ultimately went to Tennessee and, as a Junior, defeated Southern University’s Willie Davenport in the 120-yard high hurdles, winning the race in 13.3 seconds. The time was a tenth of a second slower than the world record. Soon after, Flowers injured his right hamstring while doing sprints in Knoxville. The injury prevented him from competing in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where Davenport won the gold medal in the 120 highs. Flowers eventually played in the NFL as a safety with the Dallas Cowboys (1969-71) and New York Giants (1971-73). Flowers was a backup safety on the Cowboys team that lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13, in January 1971. He made six interceptions, all with the New York Giants, in his five-year NFL career. Four of his interceptions came in 1972.
– Earl McCullouch played college football at the University of Southern California and was one of five USC Trojans players taken in the first round of the 1968 NFL Draft after his senior year. In the 1967 and 1968 seasons, McCulloch played wide receiver on the USC offense that featured tailback O. J. Simpson. McCullouch was difficult to cover in pass routes and pursuit due to his world-class sprinting speed. As a member of the USC Track & Field team, McCulloch was the NCAA 110 Yard High Hurdle champion in 1967 and 1968, the NCAA 55 yard indoor high hurdle champion in 1968. He was the world record holder for the 110-meter men’s high hurdle sprint from July 1967 to July 1969, and also was the lead leg sprinter of the USC NCAA 4 X 110-yard world record (38.6 seconds) sprint relay team in 1967 and 1968 (the team also featured Simpson and future Olympian sprinter Lennox Miller). McCullouch played for the Detroit Lions (1968-73) and the New Orleans Saints (1974). He was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1968.
– Willie Gault played in the NFL for 11 seasons for the Chicago Bears (1983-87) and Los Angeles Raiders (1988-1993). Gault was a standout in both football and track at the University of Tennessee receiving All-American honors as a receiver in 1982. Gault was a member of a world record-setting 4 x 100 meter U.S. relay team and earned a spot on the 1980 Summer Olympic team as a 110 meter hurdler only to miss the games due to the U.S. boycott. His best times are 13.26 in the 110 meters hurdles and 10.10 in the 100 meters. Gault was drafted in 1983, selected 18th overall in the first round. In Super Bowl XX, Gault had four receptions for 129 yards, and four kickoff returns for 49 yards. Gault finished his 11 NFL seasons with 333 receptions for 6,635 yards. He also returned 9 punts for 60 yards, rushed for 154 yards, returned 45 kickoffs for 1,088 yards, and scored 45 touchdowns. More recently, Gault has gone on to compete in Master’s track and field, recording world records in both the 100m (10.76) and 200m (21.80) in the 45-49 year old age group category.
– Rod Woodson is a former NFL defensive back best known for his 10-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers as well as contributing to the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV championship season. While attending Purdue University, Woodson excelled at both track and football, receiving All-American honors on two occasions. Woodson established school records in both the 60m and 110m hurdles and earned five Big 10 championships during his collegiate career. He qualified for the 1984 Olympic trials in the 110m hurdles, but elected to pursue a career in football following graduation. In addition to playing for Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Woodson also played for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, wearing No. 26 throughout his career. He holds the NFL records for career interception return yardage (1,483) and interception returns for touchdowns (12), and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993. His 71 career interceptions places him third overall in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 2009.
– James Owens played in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers (1979-80) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (81-84) over six seasons. He played both the running back and receiver positions throughout his career. While at UCLA, Owens was the NCAA 110m hurdle champion in 1977, while placing second in 1975-76. Owens also competed for the U.S. in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, placing sixth overall in the final. His personal best times were 13.46 in the 110m hurdles and 10.47 in the 100m. He still ranks second on UCLA’s all-time 110m high hurdles list. As a halfback for the UCLA Bruin football team, Owens had eight 100-plus yard games finishing his career with 2,074 yards and a 5.01 average. Owens was voted team MVP in 1977 and received the outstanding senior award in 1978. Ironically, sprinting and hurdling legend Jesse Owens’ original name was James Cleveland Owens. He became Jesse when a teacher accidently wrote down his name as “Jesse” instead of J.C.
– Renaldo Nehemiah was known more for his hurdling prowess than football achievements. In 1981, Nehemiah became the first person to run the 110m hurdles in under 13 seconds posting a 12.93 second World Record at the Zurich Weltklasse meet. Nehemiah dominated the hurdle events in high school running 12.9 seconds in the 110m hurdles and 35.8 seconds in the 300m hurdles (remember, RG III ran it in 35.33 seconds). At the University of Maryland, Nehemiah achieved three NCAA hurdle titles, two indoor and one outdoor. Despite dominating the sprint hurdle event in the late seventies and early eighties, Nehemiah decided to pursue a football career in the NFL, even though he had not played collegiate football. He played two-and-a-half seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and amassed career totals of 754 receiving yards, four touchdowns and an average of 17.4 yards per reception. After a lackluster career in the NFL, Nehemiah returned to the hurdles in 1986 to achieve world rankings four more times from 1988 to 1991.
– Tedd Ginn, Jr. currently plays for the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL and played for the Miami Dolphins from 2007 to 2009. Ginn was a national champion 110m hurdler as a high school senior running a time of 13.40 seconds (he ran a wind-aided 13.26), also running a time of 36.73 seconds in the 300m hurdles. Ginn was recruited to run track at Ohio State, but decided to focus on football. He finished his career at OSU with 125 receptions for a total of 1,943 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also set a Big 10 record for most career punt returns for touchdown (6 in total).
– Paul Lowe, an Oregon State graduate, was a high hurdle champion in high school and college. “That’s where I got my style from with the high knee action. I was only 170lbs, so I wasn’t going to run over anyone.” Lowe amassed 4,995 yards as a running back for San Diego and Kansas City in the NFL averaging 4.9 yards per carry from 1960 to 1969.
– Reyna Thompson played defensive back for the Miami Dolphins (1986-89), New York Giants (1990-92) and the New England Patriots (1993). In his senior year in high school in 1981, Thompson clocked the nation’s fastest time in the 110m hurdles at 13.4 seconds. He then enrolled at Baylor University on a track scholarship. He qualified for the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials in the high hurdles, but was not able to compete due to a hamstring injury.
– Roger Craig, the star running back for the San Francisco 49ers from 1983 to 1990, outlined how he attributed much of his football success to running the high hurdles in his book, Tales from the San Francisco 49ers Sideline. “My football running style helped me when I was running the hurdles – and my form in the high hurdles helped me on the football field, too. Ira Dunsworth, my track coach, taught me the correct form to use on the track. I finished in second place in the 110m high hurdles and the 400m hurdles at the Iowa State Track and Field Championships my senior year. I found that I could be even more effective on the football field if I applied the same principles of running with my knees up.”
– Bobby Mitchell played for the Cleveland Browns (1958-61) and the Washington Redskins (1962-68) as a halfback in the NFL and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Mitchell had a successful hurdling career, setting an indoor world record in 1958 in the 70 yard low hurdles with a time of 7.7 seconds. Mitchell had an opportunity to try to make the 1960 Olympic team, but instead opted to play for the Cleveland Browns.
– Tyrone Wheatley played for the New York Giants (1995-98) and the Oakland Raiders (1999-2004) in the NFL, totaling over 6,500 all purpose yards as a running back and kick returner. As a high school track and field athlete, Wheatley ran the 110m hurdles in a time of 13.87 seconds in 1991. At the University of Michigan, Wheatley placed eighth in the 1995 NCAA outdoor championships in the 110m hurdles, earning him All-American honors. He finished his college career running 13.77 seconds in the 110m hurdles and 10.46 seconds in the 100 meters.
– Gene Washington was NCAA Indoor Champion in the 60 yard high hurdles in 1965 for Michigan State University. Washington played for the Minnesota Vikings (1967-72) and the Denver Broncos (1973-74) as a wide receiver. Washington made the Pro Bowl in 1969 and 1970.
– Qadry Ismail played wide receiver in the NFL between 1993 and 2002 for a number of teams including the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens and the Indianopolis Colts. Ismail won a Super Bowl in 2000 while with the Baltimore Ravens. As a high schooler, Ismail finished his senior year as the third-fasts 110m hurdler in Pennsylvania State history with a time of 13.71 seconds. He went on to play football and run track at Syracuse University, posting a best 110m hurdle time of 13.60 seconds.
– Jabari Greer currently plays for the New Orleans Saints as a cornerback. He was initially signed by the Buffalo Bills in 2004 after playing his college career at the University of Tennessee. In 2003, Greer won the SEC 110m hurdle title with a personal best time of 13.32 seconds, the second-fastest time in school history behind Willie Gault’s 13.26 seconds.
– Nolan Cromwell played defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams from 1977 to 1987. He was named to the Pro Bowl over four consecutive years (1980 to 1983) and played in the 1979 Super Bowl with the Rams. As a college athlete at Kansas University, Cromwell earned All-American honors in the 400m hurdles with a performance of 49.47 seconds. In 1975 and 1976, Cromwell was the Big Eight 400m hurdle champion.
– Mel Renfro placed second in the 1962 NCAA Track and Field Championships in the 120-yard hurdles while competing for the University of Oregon. Renfro was also a member of the 1962 440-yard relay team, coached by Bill Bowerman, that broke the world record with a time of 40.0 seconds. As a football player, Renfro had a 14-year career in the NFL playing as a defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first ten seasons in the NFL and played in four Super Bowls. Renfro was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
– Hugh McElhenny was a running back in the NFL from 1952-1964, playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Detroit Lions. He gained a total of 11,375 all-purpose yards in his 13 year career. While with the 49ers, he was nicknamed “The King”. McElhenny was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970. When attending George Washington High School in Los Angeles, McElhenny held city school records for the 120 yard and 180 yard hurdles. He claimed that the training he performed for track and field helped him in football.
– Glenn Davis was a world class sprinter and hurdler who won a total of three gold medals in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic games. Davis ran the 120 yard high hurdles in 14.0 seconds and had world records in the 200m low hurdles (22.5 seconds) and the 400m hurdles (49.1 seconds). His Olympic titles were in the 400m hurdles in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and the 1960 Rome Olympics. Davis is the only man to have set world record in the 400m with hurdles and without. After his illustrious track career, Davis played wide receiver for the Detroit Lions in the 1960 and 1961 seasons.
– Clyde Scott competed in both track and football at the University of Arkansas and the US Naval Academy. Scott won the 110m hurdles for Arkansas in the NCAA Championships in a time of 13.7 seconds. He competed for the U.S. in the 1948 London Olympics and won the silver medal in the 110m hurdles. In 1948, Scott was chosen in NFL draft, playing three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and one season with the Detroit Lions.
As I noted before, this is not a complete list. In fact, I may have omitted several professional football players who actually competed in the hurdles as part of their careers in the decathlon. Jim Thorpe is one name that comes to mind. And there may have been several great hurdlers who made the decision to stick with track rather than invest more energy into football. David Oliver, who has a personal best time in the 110m hurdles of 12.89 seconds, also played wide receiver at Howard University. Does anyone know whether or not Tim Tebow ran hurdles in grade school?
Regardless, there are many reasons why hurdling is compatible with football. Would I recommend that athletes who want to excel at football take up hurdling? I don’t see why not. I believe that performing a number of hurdling drills can have a positive impact on many of the qualities I have identified. I currently incorporate hurdle sprints into several of the training sessions I provide for football athletes. As a general philosophy, I believe competing in several track and field events and other speed and power dependent sports can have a beneficial influence on an athlete’s overall development. Hurdling is just another activity that has the ability to vault an athlete over the competition.