Sprinters find there’s always a greed for speed in football

Olympic sprinter Akeem Haynes signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in February hoping to fulfil a deferred dream. Before he grew into the leadoff man who helped propel Canada to a bronze medal in the 4×100-metre relay in Rio, or ran 6.51 seconds to become the third-fastest Canadian ever at 60 metres, Haynes starred in football at Crescent Heights High School in Calgary.

The 25-year-old illuminates a paradox about the market for world-class foot speed. Haynes has covered 100 metres in 10.15 seconds, but he has plenty of company. Roughly 100 sprinters will run 10.15 or faster each season. There are few players that run that fast in football, and teams will pay a premium for it.

“Track is evolving and getting faster, and you can’t make a living at 10.1,” Haynes says. “It’s a tough market. (The CFL) pays better by far. By quite a bit.”

Markham’s Andre De Grasse and American Trayvon Bromell shared world championship bronze over 100 metres in 2015, each finishing in 9.92 seconds.They parlayed those medals into big-money shoe deals, Bromell choosing New Balance and De Grasse signing a record-breaking $11.25 million deal with Puma.

But for sprinters a couple of strides slower, pay shrinks quickly. Male sprinters rarely land rich apparel deals and appearance fees unless they’re reliable sub-10 second performers, says veteran track agent Renaldo Nehemiah. The best of the rest are summoned to fill lanes in bigger meets, or chase modest paydays on second-tier circuits. Nehemiah says that setup strains both athletes and their representatives.

“You’re racing for $300 and I’m working for 10 per cent of $300,” says Nehemiah, a former world record holder in the 110-metre hurdles who also played in the NFL. “Then you’re not happy and I’m not happy.”

Some athletes have cashed in on foot speed as a novelty. Former college sprinter Nigel Talton gained international fame last year as The Freeze, a spandex-clad super hero who would race civilians between innings at Atlanta Braves games.

But most male sprinters looking to switch sports find buyers in pro football, where a robust economy has sprouted around the sport’s endless search for speed.

For many prospects at the NFL combine, draft placement and rookie salaries are linked to how well they perform in the 40-yard dash, the NFL’s ultimate test of speed and the combine’s main event.

Two years ago, Adidas offered $1 million to any prospect wearing their brand who could break the combine’s 40-yard dash record. They offered a private island last year but didn’t have to pay out when receiver John Ross ran a record 4.22 seconds. He did it in Nikes.

LSU defensive back Donte Jackson negotiated a shoe deal with Adidas this year over Twitter, premised on running a fast 40 at the combine, which he did at 4.32. Jackson has run 100 metres in 10.22 seconds.

Paydays like that make the NFL alluring for sprinters with football experience, while verified world-class speed can almost always earn a pro football tryout.

“If you’re approached by someone with (Akeem Haynes’) athletic ability, you need to at least take a look,” says Tiger-Cats assistant GM Drew Allemang. “The notoriety wasn’t really a part of it. It was more just the speed, and the fact that he had played football before.”

Football coaches stress the sport requires constant changes of direction and speed and that straight-line sprinting doesn’t always transfer to the gridiron. But a player with quickness plus 100-metre speed can turn a 40-yard punt return into a 90-yard touchdown, giving his team a concrete payoff on their investment.

“There are a lot of . . . 40-yard dash guys, but if they have to go 100 metres, they can’t, and people catch them,” Argos GM Jim Popp says. “A lot of it is initial quickness to get by someone, but if they’ve got that 100-metre speed, a lot of people can’t catch back up.”

Without a women’s equivalent of the NFL, female sprinters looking to switch sports face a much tighter market for their foot speed. But Sandro Fiorino, Rugby Canada’s women’s head coach, keeps a sales pitch ready for fringe world-class sprinters regardless of gender.

American Carlin Isles has turned his 10.15 speed into a spot with the U.S. rugby sevens team, and a strong personal brand as The Fastest Man in Rugby. He might not be the program’s best player but he is its most visible and traded on that profile to earn endorsements with companies such as Citigroup and Red Bull.

Fiorino realizes that Canada’s Carlin Isles might be a woman who runs 100 metres in 11.1 seconds, especially if she has played other sports. Or it might be a 400-metre runner, who likely brings more endurance to the rugby pitch than a 100-metre specialist would. Either way, he works to form relationships with teenage track standouts, just in case they want a Haynes-type career change later.

Fiorino points out that players in the sevens program are eligible for Sport Canada monthly stipends plus performance bonuses and can sign up sponsors the way Isles did.

“There are opportunities to make your $40,000-$70,000 a year, and then get a sponsor. There is some upside,” said Fiorino, who specializes in talent identification. “If you were to play pro rugby, outside of the sevens, you could make a lot of money. More than the CFL.”

But just as Isles had to learn rugby’s subtle skills, Haynes realizes foot speed alone won’t guarantee CFL success, even if his wheels earned him a tryout. Haynes has spent the off-season working on catching and route-running, and hasn’t followed a track-centric training program since the summer.

And if the focus on football dulls his world-class speed, Haynes isn’t worried.

“I don’t have to be in 10.1 shape,” he said. “If I’m in 4.2 or 4.3 shape, I’ll be able to outrun everyone.”