Thursday, July 26, 2012

Citius, Altius, Fortius II

Welcome back to our look at NFL Olympians.  While our last post consisted solely of track and field competitors, you’ll find a little more variety in today’s assembly.

Ron Brown (born March 31, 1961)

Having said that, our first athlete was a runner.  And, like our other profilees so far, he was a successful one.  Ron Brown was born in LA and after attending Arizona State University, he returned to the City of Angels to play for the Los Angeles Rams from 1984 to 1989 at wide receiver.  He changed teams, but not cities, when he joined the (then) Los Angeles Raiders in 1990; he returned to the Rams for his last season in football, in 1991.  Over his career he caught 98 passes for 1,791 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Before his football career began, however, Ron Brown ran for the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics, which were held in—where else—Los Angeles.  Brown just missed the medal platform in the 100 meter dash, placing fourth.  However, he won gold as part of the American 4 x 100 meter relay team, which set a new world record of 37.83 seconds (Ron ran the second leg).  The story of these Games, though, was American star Carl Lewis, who needed the win to match Jesse Owens’ record of four golds in one Olympics.  By the time the relay came around, he had won three (in the 100 meter dash, the long jump and the 200 meter), so anticipation was high.  Here is a video of the men’s gold-medal race, with commentary by Al Michaels, a familiar voice to football fans:

Michael Carter  (born October 29, 1960)

Michael Carter was one of Ron Brown’s track and field teammates in the 1984 Games, but his specialty was shot put.  Though he won silver in the Olympics, his lasting legacy is an accomplishment from high school.  Michael set the national high school record of 81’ 3.5” in the 12-pound shot put in 1979.  No high schooler has come within four feet of his record.  He kept with the shot put in college at Southern Methodist University, and was part of the school’s championship team in 1983.

Despite his obvious skill at track and field, Carter actually focused on football, which had gotten him a scholarship at SMU.*  Carter played nose tackle and was selected in the fifth round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.  He stayed with the Niners for his entire career, which ended in 1992.  During that time he was a three-time Pro Bowler and won a Super Bowl with the team in 1984—making him the only athlete to win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring in the same year.**  

Incidentally, Carter’s daughter, Michelle, has followed in her father’s footsteps and, like her father, she has her own national high school record!  Michelle has competed on the world stage as well:  she finished 15th in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but has since medaled in the 2011 Pan American Games and 2012 World Indoor Championships, earning bronze at both.  And, yes, she’ll be part of Team USA in London.  The shot put competition takes place on August 6th.

Herschel Walker (born March 3, 1962)

Anyone familiar with college football history knows the name Herschel Walker, who carved out a permanent place for himself in the history books as a running back at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s.  No individual player before, or since, has created the kind of adoration and frenzy that Walker inspired with his dazzling performances and domination of every opponent he and the Bulldogs faced.  He wasted no time building his legacy at UGA:  he set the NCAA freshman rushing record with 1,616 yards and was the first true freshman to be named a first-team All-American (only two players have done it since). 

The ‘Dawgs went undefeated and won the national championship that year by beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.  The only player to finish in the Heisman voting top three every season he played, Herschel won the award in his junior year.  He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.  Here’s a teaser from the “SEC Storied” series installment about Herschel:

At the time, NFL rules prohibited players from entering the league before they graduated college.  After his junior year, Walker decided to sign with the New Jersey Generals, a team in the newly formed United States Football League (Donald Trump would buy the team the following year).  During his time in the USFL, Herschel set the pro football record for rushing yards in a single season, with 2,411 yards.  Sensing the end was near for the USFL, the Dallas Cowboys drafted Walker in the fifth round of the 1985 draft; Herschel joined the team when the league folded in 1986.  Herschel continued his phenomenal production with the Cowboys, with the 1988 season being his highpoint:  he played at seven different positions and amassed over 2,000 combined yards rushing and receiving (only the tenth man ever to accomplish that).    

In 1989, the Cowboys traded Herschel to the Minnesota Vikings in one of the most lopsided trades in football history.  For Walker, the Vikings gave Dallas five players and six draft picks—through which the Cowboys acquired future stars Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson.  Resenting the price paid for this one-man show, the Vikings coaches never really shined to the idea of centering their offense around Walker.  After a monster debut against the Green Bay Packers, Herschel never quite lived up to the high expectations of the Minnesota faithful. 

He was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1992, where he earned some redemption.  In his first season with the team, he rushed for over 1,000 yards, and in 1994 he became the first player to have gains of 90+ yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks in a single season.  Walker retired after the 1997 season, having played for the New York Giants and again for the Dallas Cowboys.  Over his career, Herschel Walker amassed over 17,000 all-purpose yards:  8,000 rushing; 4,000 receiving; and 5,000 returning kicks.

I could go on and on about Walker and his many exploits outside of football:  his brief stint with the Fort Worth Ballet, his recent entry into mixed martial arts, his sprinting competitions, a season of Celebrity Apprentice, his successful food company….  What’s relevant for our purposes, though, is that in 1992, he joined the U.S. bobsled team.  He made the team and competed in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, at the age of 29.  In the two-man bobsled, he and partner Brian Shimer placed seventh overall. 

James Jett (born December 28, 1970)

James Jett attended West Virginia University, where he was a starting wide receiver all four years.  He excelled in track and field as well, earning All-American status seven times in that sport.  For his impressive track record (no pun intended) at WVU, Jett was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.  The high mark of Jett’s track career was his gold medal run in the 4 x 100 meter relay team in the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona, Spain.

In 1993, Jett signed with the L.A. Raiders as an undrafted free agent.  The gamble on an undrafted player paid off for the Raiders right away:  in his rookie year, James led the NFL with 23 yards per reception.  However, he wouldn’t become a starter for the team until the 1996 season, when he started every game.  When he retired in 2002, he finished with 256 career receptions for 4,417 yards, 30 touchdowns and an average of 17.3 yards per reception.

Stephen Neal (born October 9, 1976)

Our last athlete didn’t actually make the U.S. Olympic team, but I wanted to include him because he was a true star in his second sport.  Stephen Neal represents the Fortius element of the Olympic motto:  “Stronger.”  A letterman in five sports in high school (football, wrestling, swimming, tennis and track and field), Neal became one of the top wrestlers in the country during his college years at California State University, Bakersfield.  During college, he earned four All-American titles and compiled a 151-10 record.  He won NCAA Division I titles in both his junior and senior years.  In 1999, Neal won the U.S. Freestyle Championship, the Pan-American Games and the World Championship.  All this led up to the trials for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.  He was edged out for a spot on the team and retired from wrestling.   

In 2001, Neal was signed by the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent, despite the fact that he did not play football in college.  He joined the team as a guard, but remained on the Pats’ practice squad for most of his rookie season.  With a shoulder injury in his first start in the 2002 season, Stephen did not see action again until the 2004 season, when he started the last 14 games of the regular season.  He had a complete season in 2005, but after that season, and until his retirement in 2011, his career suffered several pauses due to injury.  In all, Neal started 81 games, but earned three Super Bowl rings.

I hope you've enjoyed our look at NFL Olympians, and that it's inspired you to cheer on Team USA as they strive to be Faster, Higher and Stronger than their competitors in London!

*SMU had a strong football program until 1987, when their entire season was cancelled by the NCAA as punishment for multiple serious violations of NCAA rules and regulations regarding paying players.  The impact of the penalty was devastating for the SMU football program.  The University did not field a team again until 1989 and it took twenty years for the school to play in a bowl game.  It’s record since 1989 is 66-169-3.

**You’ll remember from our last post that Bob Hayes is the only athlete to win a gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

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