April 10, 2007) – For most wide receivers battling to make an NFL Europa team, a 12-yard catch over the middle during the first set of game-condition scrimmages wouldn’t be a big thing. But for Dwain Chambers, the former British sprinter playing for the Hamburg Sea Devils, it was a huge accomplishment, and the noise from the Hamburg sidelines confirmed that.

At 29, Chambers, a former European 100-meters champion, a bronze medalist at the world championships, and a former European record holder with a 9.87 time set back in 2002, is attempting to make the transition from the track to the gridiron. Chambers’ personal role model in this effort is Renaldo Nehemiah, the world record-setting hurdler who had three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, coming out of gridiron nowhere to the Super Bowl. Nehemiah had a limited football background, but, of course, he was American and grew up with the game. Chambers is British, and apart from television, American football is not part of his background. And, like Nehemiah, he’s trying to make it as a wide receiver, which means, of course, he’s got to catch passes.

American kids grow up playing games in which throwing and catching are integral. British kids don’t. They aren’t used to watching a ball into their hands. Chambers has none of that experience, and at times it shows. “I never even played the British team sports, soccer or rugby or cricket, when I was young,” he told me. “I was focused completely on the track.” That makes for a sharp learning curve.

Catching the ball has been part of the learning process for Dwain Chambers.
But Chambers has that rare thing that scouts search for, and which cannot be taught. He’s got speed. “When I first got into the idea of American football, I ran a 4.19 40,” he says. Cue scouts’ mouths to open wide and drool to appear.

Nehemiah lost out on the pinnacle of his track career when the boycott cost him his shot at the 1980 Olympics. Chambers’ track career was sidetracked, too, when in 2003 he tested positive for the ‘designer’ steroid THG, and was suspended for two years. It didn’t help his case that his coach was a partner of Victor Conte’s in the KMA Track Club. But Chambers returned in 2006, running a 10.07 100, not bad by most standards, but well off his best. But faced with a judgment that would force him to pay back anything he won in track, Chambers turned to the gridiron.

Olympic sprinters have already played in the NFL. Ollie Matson’s in the Hall of Fame and Bob Hayes, who ran a 10.0 100 meters on a cinder track in Tokyo in 1964, ought to be, but both were football players who sprinted, rather than track guys who turned to football. So were Willie Gault and Ron Brown. People forget that when O.J. Simpson was at USC, he was part of a 4x220 relay team that held the world record.

Nehemiah’s success with the Niners was limited, but he was a valuable deep option in their West Coast offense. In the 1960s, the New York Giants signed 200-meter specialist Henry Carr to play cornerback, specifically to defend against Hayes’ speed. More recently, and perhaps more relevant to Chambers’ experience, was John Capel, who played football at Florida State, but couldn’t make the grade in the NFL after being suspended from track for testing positive for marijuana, which is a performance-enhancing drug only in snowboarding.

Chambers knows he has an uphill battle to prove himself, both on and off the field. Opposing defensive backs are fully aware of his lack of experience. They line up right on him, trying to stop him from getting into his pattern, on virtually every play. Chambers can’t always get off the line, but he takes the hits, then accelerates into space with amazing quickness. That ‘simple’ 12-yard catch was a great step forward: He got into his pattern, made the catch, and took a hit and hung on to the ball.

Dwain Chambers never had to face much resistance on the track.
“He’s got his work cut out for him, but he works hard,” said then-Hamburg coach Jack Bicknell in camp. “He may be 29, but he’s young in football terms, hasn’t taken any hits, and he could be a weapon in this league.”

Chambers actually isn’t even the first sprinter in NFL Europa: The London Monarchs had Willie Hinchcliffe one year, who had been a sprint champion in New Zealand. He had the advantage of some rugby background, but he wound up being used one-dimensionally as a deep threat. Watching Chambers in practice, the long passes which represent his greatest threat are also a problem. He just isn’t used to running and looking over his shoulder, much less tracking a ball through the air. Harry Williams is a wide receiver for Amsterdam, who also ran track at Tuskegee. “It’s a different style of running,” he says. “In football, you have to run under control, to not always go as fast as you can. I learned that first, so sprinting seemed easier by comparison. Going the other way, that might be harder.”

Chambers says neither catching the ball nor getting hit is the hardest bit of the adjustment. “It’s the mental preparation. This game is so complicated, and there’s so much to learn, it’s like my brain’s on overload. Adjusting physically is easy by comparison.” After training for football and running in pads, Chambers can’t run a 4.19 these days. “I would probably crack 4.3 right now, maybe a little bit lower.” That would do.

But Europass has another suggestion. Why not assemble Chambers, Harry Williams (10.3 100 meters/21.3 200 meters at Tuskegee), Berlin cornerback Dennis Davis (10.3/21.1 at Georgia Tech), and Hamburg corner Justin Wyatt (10.4 in high school) into an NFL Europa relay team and challenge the German national team? They’d probably lose on the track, but not if they ran a rematch in pads.

6’0 197 isnt bad size for wr.

OJ Simpson was part of the USC WR team in the 4x110y relay.