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Houston Texans flirt with banned Gatlin

5 December 2006

By Robert Falkoff

It's like pulling the lever at the casino or grabbing a few lottery tickets at the convenience store. You don't really expect to hit the jackpot, but there's always that tantalizing chance for instant riches.

That's how the Houston Texans must have been looking at things on Nov. 29 when they conducted a 90-minute workout for Justin Gatlin, the Olympic champion sprinter and would-be wide receiver.

Those who truly dare to dream big can close their eyes and imagine Gatlin transforming himself into a modern-day Bob Hayes, who went from 1964 Olympic sprint champion to Pro Bowl receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s and 1970s. But the odds of another Hayes bursting from the track to the football field are long indeed.

No matter how fast you can run minus the pads and no matter how good your hands might be in non-contact passing drills, NFL defenses will eventually swallow you up unless you can take a licking and keep on ticking.

The stunning collisions between receivers who venture into the middle of the field at full throttle and defensive backs and linebackers who are paid to separate man from ball are not for the faint of heart.

Could Gatlin handle that type of vicious contact after not playing football from the 10th grade on through the age of 24?

Conventional wisdom suggests it's probably a pipe dream. Yes, some former track standouts besides Hayes -- like Willie Gault, Tim Dwight and even Gatlin's own agent Renaldo Nehemiah -- have made a successful transition from track-and-field glory to the NFL. But the vast majority of top-notch sprinters or hurdlers either don't have the hands or the stomach to use blinding speed as a golden ticket to NFL prosperity.

Having said that, a Gatlin-Texans flirtation still makes sense as a low risk and potentially high reward endeavor for both parties.

After drawing the ire of many Texans fans last spring during the draft by passing on Reggie Bush and Houstonian Vince Young in favor of defensive player Mario Williams, the Texans need a dynamic offensive player the way Alaskans need heaters in the winter time. And it isn't as though other teams haven't also been intrigued by the notion of Gatlin zipping past cornerbacks and safeties.

The Philadelphia Eagles showed interest in Gatlin last summer, but the interest wasn't reciprocal. Gatlin, at the time, was only concerned about running by Asafa Powell in the 100 meters and temporarily settling the question of who's the world's fastest human.

Then came the news that Gatlin was facing a suspension for up to eight years from track and field because of a positive test for a synthetic testosterone. Unless an upcoming appeal of his suspension to an arbitration panel is upheld and the suspension is significantly reduced, Gatlin may be done as a mover and shaker on the international athletics circuit.

The mere fact that Gatlin recently worked out for the Texans suggests that he has mentally turned the page and is now serious about a pro football career. You can't teach speed -- particularly Gatlin-type speed -- so it makes sense for the Texans to take on such a speculative investment. They don't have to mortgage the draft, trade players or empty owner Bob McNair's piggy bank to find out if Gatlin's speed is a step toward escaping AFC mediocrity.

Even if he didn't turn out to be a complete receiver with route-running instincts, fly-paper hands and a penchant for making the downfield blocks that often spring runners for big gains, Gatlin could make sure that the defense was vertically challenged.

Sending Gatlin long would force Houston opponents to seriously honor the deep pass with plenty of safety help over the top, which could in turn open up multiple opportunities for other offensive players in quarterback David Carr's arsenal.

Would Gatlin become another Bob Hayes? Probably not. Keep in mind that Hayes was a two-sport athlete at Florida A&M and came to the Cowboys with football still fresh on his resume.

But it's worth the time and effort to find out if Gatlin could make a golden transition from a non-contact sport to a contact sport with speed being the common denominator.

Take a pull of the lever. Clutch that latest lottery ticket.

If you're the struggling Texans or the suspended Gatlin, what do you have to lose?

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