Fastest On the Football Field, Slowest On the Track
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Imagine a 6’4”, 230-pound behemoth barreling toward you at the speed of an Olympic sprinter. That’s what Budda Baker, a safety for the Arizona Cardinals, experienced during a game against the Seattle Seahawks last October. Baker had come off an impressive interception and was close to securing six points for his team when he was chased down and tackled at the seven-yard line by number 14 on the Seahawks, DK Metcalf. In the play, Metcalf hit a top speed of over 22 miles per hour, an especially impressive feat considering the helmet and pads he was wearing while running.
Metcalf, the 23-year-old wide receiver from Oxford, Mississippi, is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the NFL. Despite his colossal size, he is able to attain speeds that few others in the league can match. At the 2020 Combine, he recorded an impressive 4.33 second 40-yard dash, one of the highest speeds in his draft class. To put this number into perspective, the average 40-yard dash time for a wide receiver like Metcalf is 4.48, a huge difference in a sprint often decided by hundredths of a second.
It’s no secret that Metcalf is an elite athlete. But how does he stack up against track athletes, who train for the specific purpose of attaining the fastest speeds possible? Metcalf participated in his first 100-meter race against professional sprinters in the USATF Golden Games on May 9. He finished last in his heat and 15th out of 17 total competitors, recording a subpar time of 10.36 seconds and proving that there remains a huge disparity between track and football speeds. Following the race, Metcalf said, “These are world class athletes. They do this for a living. It’s very different from football speed, from what I just realized.”
The NFL star’s lack of formal training and experience in the 100-meter event was clear from his technique. At the beginning of the race, Metcalf got a strong start and was able to keep pace with his competitors. However, he couldn’t maintain his acceleration in the long run and ultimately finished behind everyone else in his heat. Metcalf’s inability to maintain his top speed was crucial in determining the end result as sprinters need to be strategic with how they accelerate. Most runners hit their maximum speed somewhere between the 60 and 80-meter marks, and the athlete who wins is usually the one who manages to slow down the least rather than the one who can speed up the fastest. The ability to maintain as much speed as possible while decelerating to the finish line is a difficult one to master, which is why most football players such as Metcalf fall short in sprint events despite possessing raw speed. “There is as much strategy running 100 meters as running a marathon,” Noah Lyles, one of the world’s fastest sprinters and winner of the 200-meter event in the 2019 Track World Championships, said. Lyles’s 100-meter personal record is 9.86 seconds, a massive 0.5 seconds faster than Metcalf’s recent performance. “Fans have been egging this [idea] that our speeds are comparable [on for a long time]. They’re not,” Lyles said.
Though Metcalf ultimately failed to qualify for the final at the Golden Games, the All-Pro receiver earned respect for challenging himself against the top talent in the world in another sport. Metcalf only trained for two or three months prior to the event and did not embarrass himself, which is an already considerable feat.
From the current lineup of NFL players, one other player stands out besides Metcalf: Tyreek Hill. A wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, Hill is known to be a speed demon (hence, the nickname “Cheetah”) and recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.29 seconds at the 2016 NFL Combine. Hill previously pursued his track talents in high school, but due to the wear and tear he has experienced during his five-year NFL career, his performance as a world-class sprinter has diminished. At age 18, Hill was able to compete with the top sprinters in his age group. He recorded a personal best of 10.19 seconds for the 100-meter event and 20.14 seconds for the 200-meter event (ranking him sixth in the United States in 2012). Hill has also won a multitude of track awards, including a gold medal for the 4x100-meter relay event and a bronze medal for the 200-meter event at the World Junior Championships in 2012. Of course, Hill is a great exception among other NFL players due to his extensive track background and skills. However, he would still require much more training to be able to compete with Olympic sprinters.
Given Hill’s times, it’s clear that a vast majority of NFL players would not be able to compete at the Olympic level. This sentiment has also been expressed by Ato Boldon, a former track and field athlete for Trinidad and Tobago and a four-time Olympic medalist. Boldon also coaches NFL players in preparation for their 40-yard dashes at the NFL Scouting Combine and claimed that Hill’s chances of qualifying for the Olympics would be a “long shot.”
The possibility of competing at the Olympics has intrigued many football players, but most will never have the opportunity to do so. Being able to compete with world-class athletes in a different sport would require years of focused training, which would be impossible to maintain in conjunction with an NFL season. It’s probably best for NFL players to do what they do best: play the game of football.