Track world should ease up on Tyreek Hill — he's not just a football jock looking for publicity

The reaction to Tyreek Hill's first track race since 2014 highlights his ability to drive people on both sides of the track vs. football debate out of their minds, writes CBC Sports senior contributor Morgan Campbell.

NFLer drives people on both sides of track vs. football debate out of their minds

A male football player wearing number 10 looks toward the field from the sideline without his helmet on in a stadium filled with fans.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill sprinted to victory in 6.70 seconds at the USATF Masters Championships this past Saturday in his first track race since 2014. (Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill ran in his first track meet since 2014 this past Saturday, lining up in the 60 metres in the the 25-to-29-year-old division at the USATF Masters Championships.

Before last week, each of the other four guys in the race, hobbyists probably looking to crack 7.3 seconds, thought he had a strong chance to win. Then Hill, a seven-time Pro Bowler, entered the race and sprinted to victory in 6.70 seconds, winning by a margin that befits his nickname.


The moniker works, of course, because Hill, an all-conference sprinter at Oklahoma State, and the owner of a 4.25-second 40-yard dash, is the fastest person most folks have ever seen.

But most folks aren't hardcore track and field fans, a group of people who saw Hill's results float across their social media timelines and, justifiably, cast a side-eye toward his level of competition. 

"[Three] high school boys ran faster at #NBNationals this morning," tweeted Jasmine Todd, a sprinter and podcaster whose 7.15-second personal best makes her faster than all the men Hill defeated on Saturday.

Some track experts also sniffed at Hill's 6.70 clocking.

"Puts him outside the top 200 in the [world]," added Travis Miller of NBC Sports.

If you need me to point it out, I will:

That's shade.

The tweet looks like perspective, but actually obscures an outstanding performance. Hill's best time at Oklahoma State was 6.64 seconds, so he's only half a stride behind his college self, even though he's several pounds heavier these days, with nine more years on the calendar, and seven NFL seasons on his odometer.

Track vs. football debate

The reactions to the race also highlight another of Hill's gifts — the ability to drive people on both sides of the track vs. football debate out of their minds.

NFL fans seem to think Hill's the fastest man on the planet, capable of running straight from the gridiron to the Olympic podium. Our friends in football media didn't help when they superimposed his 200-metre personal best (20.14 seconds) on the Rio 2016 final, concluded he'd have won bronze, then cooked up a video to "prove" it.

(For the record, head-to-head Hill is not faster than Andre De Grasse or Adam Gemili.)

And a lot of track fans seem to view Hill as a cocky NFLer who, in reality, is only football fast. In their world, Hill's 6.70 was an ugly win, and a humbling lesson on the gap between field sport speed and world class wheels. And it is a point of fact that Trayvon Bromell or Christian Coleman would dust Hill the way Hill did those weekend warriors last Saturday.

The whole push-pull is a product of the data-rich, context-poor environment we all inhabit, and a sports and social media world that puts debate above discussion. So we frame Hill and his feats as points in an argument we're trying to win, instead of just letting the numbers and accolades help us appreciate a once-in-a-generation athlete.

Maybe living in the era of early sports specialization numbs us to the possibility that high-level multi-sport athletes can even exist. Deion Sanders stopped playing baseball in 2001, so his memories of his last at-bat are older than most of the players he currently coaches at the University of Colorado. Most folks under 30 haven't watched a favourite athlete choose between, or balance, two sports at the pro level. So if they're world class in one, we figure they're interlopers in the second.

Otherwise why would people categorize an athlete with Hill's verified, easily Googled, track stats, as strictly a football guy when he laced up his spikes for the first time in nine years? Why would track experts treat him like an unwanted guest, instead of a prodigal son?

Again, this is a gold medallist in the 4x100 relay from the World Junior Championships in 2012. He also won bronze in the 200, and finished fourth in the open 100, just .01 seconds from the bronze medal.

You can retire for good on credentials like those, or you can keep training to achieve next, next, next level speed. But you should have lifetime immunity from people questioning your track and field bona fides, or your intentions for entering a 60-metre dash. And you don't have to convince yourself — as many of us have — that you're either a track guy or a football guy. Win a world junior title and a Super Bowl, and you're both. 

It's easy for football fans to forget, but it's worth remembering that Hill, whose 100-metre personal best is 10.19 seconds, isn't the fastest player in NFL history. That honour might go to Bob Hayes, who held the 100-metre world record before joining the Dallas Cowboys in 1965, or to Trindon Holliday, a former Broncos kick returner, and a two-time NCAA sprint champ who ran 10.00 at LSU.

Hill might not even be the fastest player in the NFL right now. Judging by 100-metre times, it's Cleveland Browns receiver Anthony Schwartz, who once ran 10.09.

Rare combination

But Hill possesses the best blend of agility, positional awareness, ball skills and linear speed since Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, a national collegiate champion with a 10.08-second personal best. A rare combination of track speed and game speed. That's Hill's super power.

As for his performance this past weekend, Hill is keenly aware of how he compares to a world medallist. He knew a 6.70-second 60 would look more impressive in a win over weekend warriors than it would in a loss to a pro who runs 6.45.

He also knows that 6.70 speed in the 60 is like running in the 10.20s over 100 metres. 

Fast enough to land you in an NCAA conference final, and threaten the top 200 globally, which is actually a huge achievement. The world's 200th-best basketball player is still in the NBA.

It's the kind of result you only achieve by training full time, but it's a one-way ticket to what my good friend Melanie Scherenzel-Cherry, a former college track star and current USC public relations instructor, calls "The Wasteland." Unimaginably fast by any objective measure, but not quite quick enough to make a comfortable living.

You can still monetize that kind of speed, if you don a superhero costume and race Atlanta Braves fans. Or you can package it with some other skills to terrorize defenders in rugby sevens or the NFL. Those sports might bring you more fame than track ever could, and make people forget you ever ran.

But if you decide one off-season to test your top speed in a track meet, you're not a football jock dabbling in track for cheap publicity.

You're just a dual-sport athlete getting back to your roots.


Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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