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Career change? Sprinter Gatlin tries out for NFL

30 November 2006

By Anthony Caruso

Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin excels in the 100-meter dash, but how well can he run a five-yard slant?

Gatlin, who took gold in the 100 meters at the 2004 Olympic Games, worked out at wide receiver for the NFL's Houston Texans on Tuesday. The Texans, who also worked out two other players and may be looking to inject some speed into their receiving corps, can begin signing free agents to future contracts in late December.

Gatlin, 24, set the world record in the 100 meters at 9.76 seconds at the Qatar Grand Prix in May, but accepted an eight-year ban from track and field after testing positive for a prohibited substance in April. Gatlin has denied ever using any banned substances.

While his speed may be intriguing to NFL scouts, his experience leaves something to be desired. Gatlin attended the University of Tennessee, but didn't play football for the Volunteers, opting instead to run track. His most recent experience on the gridiron came as part of his 10th-grade high school team.

Still, his 6-foot-1 frame and relative youth make Gatlin an attractive prospect at receiver or kick returner, where his straight-line speed could have the most impact. Indeed, the Philadelphia Eagles thought enough of Gatlin's ability to send out feelers to his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, earlier this year.

Nehemiah, a star hurdler who went on to play four seasons in the NFL in the 1980s, rebuffed the Eagles' inquiries at the time.

"Football isn't a necessity [for Gatlin]," Nehemiah told the Associated Press before Gatlin's ban was handed down. "He's doing well enough. He doesn't need it."

While Gatlin's NFL aspirations may seem far-fetched, they're not without precedent. Many former Olympians have made a successful jump to football. Bob Hayes played in three Pro Bowls as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys after winning 100-meter gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Willie Gault, a track star at the University of Tennessee and likely Olympian in the 110-meter hurdles had the United States not boycotted the 1980 Games, starred as a receiver for the Chicago Bears. More recently, the Eagles drafted Olympic freestyle skier Jeremy Bloom in the fifth round to handle kick-returning duties.

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