Publish date:

Back in the fast lane now Renaldo Nehemiah, the ex-NFLer, returned to the hurdles a winner

Crouched on a dusty track in Viareggio, Italy, last Wednesday,
Renaldo Nehemiah stared up at the first full flight of 10 high
hurdles he had faced in almost 4 1/2 years. He had worked on the
race's parts, but had not put them all together until now. ''I like
the feeling,'' he would explain, ''of going into the unknown.''
In the next lane was Keith Talley, the NCAA champion from Alabama,
whose 13.31 for 110 meters was the third-fastest of the outdoor
season. Talley confessed to nerves. So did Nehemiah. ''My mind was
filled with all the things I had to do,'' Nehemiah said. ''Get out of
the blocks. Not hit hurdles. Not fall down. I'd been antisocial all
night, imagining the headlines I couldn't stand to actually read,
ones saying NEHEMIAH LOSES.''
It would be an extraordinary comeback, both physical and
political, if the 27-year-old Nehemiah were simply competitive his
first time out. But he cut short that kind of talk. He allowed
himself no goal but to win.
As the hurdlers came to the set position, Nehemiah thought about
his delicate left Achilles tendon, which he had tightly taped,
wondering if the tendon would hold. The gun and Nehemiah seemed to
fire simultaneously. The reflexes were still there. He drove at the
first hurdle, lifted off and flew into the unknown.
On Aug. 19, 1981, in Zurich, Nehemiah, then 22, set the world
record of 12.93 seconds in the 110-meter high hurdles. Behind him,
archrival Greg Foster ran 13.03. Those two remain the fastest ever in
that event. After the following indoor season, Nehemiah signed to
play wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, making him ineligible
for the Olympics, or indeed any track meet at all. ''I was the best
at hurdling,'' he says. ''And I had been since I was 18. I just had
gotten tired of it. I went to football for the change, for the
challenge of it, not the money.''
He found plenty of all three. Over the next four seasons he was
paid a total of almost a million dollars, but he caught only 43
passes and never established himself as a starter. ''Bill Walsh is
an extremely feeling man,'' he says of the 49ers coach. ''And my
satisfaction was unlimited when I got a chance to play. But I was
saddened by not getting to use all my talents. There were all the
usual football frustrations -- injuries, drops, missed assignments --
but what stands out now is simply not playing.''
A parallel frustration was that he still loved to race the high
hurdles. Every January, after the NFL season, Nehemiah would return
to track training and retreat from his football weight of 188. He had
raced best at 170. ''I felt like a slob for six months a year,'' he
says. ''But without races, my enthusiasm for track would disappear.
I'd want to quit all the time. But Ron would say, 'Train. Train.' ''

Ron is Ron Stanko, Nehemiah's attorney, agent and friend, the man
who got him into football. Now Stanko began to look for ways out. In
1982 Stanko and Nehemiah embarked on a kind of Dickensian legal
crusade to regain Renaldo's track eligibility. Its twists and turns
were absurdly complicated, but basically this is what happened: In
early 1983 the U.S. Olympic Committee, under the forceful hand of
William Simon, pressed The Athletics Congress, which runs track in
the U.S., to reinstate Nehemiah for domestic competition. The
International Amateur Athletic Federation, which runs track worldwide
under the direction of the gravel-voiced Primo Nebiolo of Italy,
said get serious.
''Renaldo's lawyer tried to explain that under U.S. law a sports
body can decide about its own domestic rules,'' says Nebiolo now.
''We were obliged to say no. If an athlete is disqualified by us, he
must be disqualified everywhere. It was a long dispute. When I went
to the U.S., lawyers gave me injunctions. I was very happy because in
this way I became more and more famous.''
Stanko sought to make the IAAF see that Nehemiah's pro football
career didn't give him an unfair advantage in track. In 1984 Stanko
flew to Canberra, Australia, carrying videotape and blackboard, to
address an IAAF council meeting. When he stood, Nebiolo reacted as if
poisoned. ''You are the man who is suing me,'' the IAAF president
cried. Later Stanko phoned Nehemiah. ''I got thrown out,'' he said.
Eventually the question went before a three-man IAAF
arbitration panel. Stanko listed the knee, shoulder, eye, ankle and
back injuries Nehemiah had sustained with the 49ers. Then he showed a
collection of greatest hits, supplied by NFL Films. ''It ended with
me stretched out unconscious on the field after my concussion in
Atlanta,'' says Nehemiah. ''Afterwards, the arbitrators asked how I
ever made it to the hearing.'' The panel ruled that football was no
help to track. The IAAF blithely ignored that determination and
continued the ban.
This summer, with legal pressure mounting because of a similar
suit in basketball, Nebiolo decided to negotiate. ''He is a good
sailor,'' said an Italian journalist. ''He knows always which way the
wind is blowing.''
Nebiolo asked that Nehemiah write a letter saying he was done with
football and would abide by IAAF rules. Nehemiah wrote one. He got
his reinstatement on July 16.
By then, Nehemiah knew he couldn't blend his two sports. If it had
to be one or the other, it would be track. The 49ers released him in
June. ''Recycled again,'' he says with a grin. ''I left team sports
for track in high school because it was more objective and required
more self-discipline. After years of success (at track) I felt that I
could be more mature about how the opinions of others are so influ-
ential in team sports. Now I realize that I've got to take
responsibility for my own welfare.''
He scheduled his first race for Viareggio, and who but Nebiolo
showed up, exuding vapors of forgiveness. ''I am happy to welcome Mr.
Nehemiah back into our family . . . '' he rasped.
''He took his own sweet time,'' said Olympic 100-meter champion
Evelyn Ashford.
''. . . and to add,'' continued Nebiolo, ''that because of the
four years of discussions he forced upon us, at this month's IAAF
Congress we propose to change the rule. From then, all athletes can
be eligible in track and field even if they are professional in other
Nehemiah finds his event much as he left it. Foster, who often
pressed so hard chasing the fast-starting Nehemiah that occasionally
he concluded his race by splintering the 9th or 10th hurdle,
inherited his mantle, but his best time since Nehemiah's departure
was 13.11. ''There is no way Nehemiah will ever beat me,'' Foster
said in Houston two weeks ago. ''He can't. He can't be away, take
the hits, suffer the loss of flexibility he has, and still beat me.''

In fact, Nehemiah acknowledges his debt to Foster. ''I don't know
if I could have done 12.93 without someone doing 13.03 to push me
the way Greg did.''
In Viareggio, Nehemiah clipped the first barrier slightly, but by
the second held a clear lead over Talley. ''I couldn't believe I
was out in front,'' he said. His form over the hurdles was surgically
precise, but between them he was ''full of funny stops and starts,''
as Ashford put it. ''When I got up on my toes, really
sprinting, the Achilles hurt,'' said Nehemiah. ''So I went
flat-footed. Back and forth.'' He won by two yards in 13.48 to
Talley's 13.68. ''Looks like you're back,'' said Talley. The time
showed that his potential is still immense. Nehemiah calmly slowed,
turned, produced a chipmunk-like grin of relief and set about icing
the sore tendon. ''It's a start,'' he said. ''My goal for the season
is 13.2.''
He intended to race Foster two nights later, in London. But as he
warmed up, he said, ''The tendon hurts more than it did in
Viareggio,'' and Nehemiah withdrew. Foster, obviously pressing, led
by a yard, got too high over the sixth hurdle, lost balance, smashed
through the seventh, and ended up stunned under the eighth. Roger
Kingdom, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, won the race in 13.67.
Nehemiah watched Foster being helped from the wreckage. ''I would
have won that one,'' he said drily. Then he turned jauntily away.
''Well,'' he said, ''I'm undefeated.'' END


STEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORT Wife Patrice caught a buss in Viareggio.

ANDY HAYT Nehemiah's NFL career never got rolling.

STEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORT After his comeback in Viareggio, Nehemiah took a backseat to his agent, Stanko.