- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's the kind of question I've heard come up over a couple beers in front of a game plenty of times, and one I'd asked in an NFL locker room to a couple of super-fast guys over the years to get a better understanding of their speed.
Put you at one goal line racing against me to the other goal line, and how much of a head start would I need to have even a chance?
During training camp, I set to work on your behalf on this project, a simple stand-in for a Regular Joe. I'm 40, 5-foot-9 and weigh around 190, which is 10 or 12 pounds too many. I like chocolate, and generally find it when I want it. And I want it all the time.
Soccer was my sport, but I haven't played in a couple of years. When I run, which isn't consistently enough, I find a soccer or football field and go sideline to sideline and back, then rest, usually 12 times total -- a fast sweat that takes usually only around 20 minutes, four or five songs on the iPod. I hustle, but have never been called fast.
My four AFC South opponents in this exercise are either universally regarded as the fastest player on their teams or are in the conversation: Titans running back Chris Johnson, Jaguars cornerback and return man Brian Witherspoon, Texans receiver Andre Davis and Colts safety Matt Giordano.
"Say that one more time, give me the scenario one more time," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio says with a furrowed brow when I lay it out for him and ask him how he thinks I'd fare against Witherspoon. "I'm going to think realistically, probably for you, I'd give you maybe 60 yards to go and him a hundred, maybe a 40-yard head start.
"He's gonna get you. You've got to dig, man. Keep your head down and hope you don't blow a hammy. You're going to overextend, you're going to blow a hamstring, you're going to go down at about the 20 and not even finish."
When I talk to them during the preseason, I give each the basics: age, weight, maybe a bit about the unpredictable workouts. From there, I ask the four players to stereotype me off their eyeball tests. I don't offer much else, though I answer any further questions they have.
In my previous life as a newspaper reporter, I kicked field goals with Al Del Greco, dressed in a dog suit for a mascot camp, sold beer at a minor league baseball game and made it through a pre-combine workout with college prospects without throwing up. (OK, I'll admit mascot camp and beer vending weren't especially taxing. But it was hot inside that suit, and awfully humid at that game.)
Why, then, didn't I try to actually race these guys with the head starts they granted me?
Well, I wasn't about to ask the Titans if I could race Johnson after practice, knowing they'd worry about two things: Their hare managing to tweak something chasing this tortoise and their liability issues if I keeled over.
Instead, I gathered the necessary info in those chats. Then Wednesday, I headed to Carlton Flatt Field at Brentwood Academy in Brentwood, Tenn. Darren Mustin, a trainer at D1 Sports in Franklin, Tenn., who played high school ball here and was an Alabama linebacker, joined me with his trusty stopwatch. Five others from DI also joined us, making for an actual audience.
Mustin ran me through a warm-up he thought would significantly reduce my chances at fulfilling Del Rio's prophesy, talked with me a bit about my thinking regarding my start, timed my runs and coached me a bit between them, when he graciously gave me sufficient recovery time.
One important context acknowledgement here: Running these alone against the clock is a lot different than being tempted to look over my shoulder, feeling a professional athlete bearing down. There was no imitating that stress element.
Still, in the best simulation I could create, is it conceivable with the head starts given me I could beat an NFL speedster or two in a race?
Alge Crumpler, who was part of my conversations with Johnson, gave me hope.
"Think about this, a slow-ass offensive lineman runs a 5.5 40," he says. "A normal fast guy runs a second under that. ... If you've only got to run 70 yards in 9 seconds, you can do that. You've got to be able to do that. We've got linemen who can do that."
Sounds good. Then he adds this, as if I am a slow Forrest Gump: "Put your head down, don't look up until you get 15 yards past the line and run. Don't worry about anything, just run."
Let's see, shall we? (Here are more photos of Paul in action.)
While I urged everyone not to worry about my feelings as they considered my lack of speed, Giordano couldn't help himself.
"I don't know, I have to see you run," he says.
"Make assumptions and don't be polite," I push.
"I can't judge, I can't judge," he says. "We actually had this conversation with Dan Muir, our defensive tackle. We were saying if he had a 20-yard head start on a couple of the players who take the ranking of the fastest on the team, if we could catch him. Maybe I'd have to say with you, I'm hoping that you do have some speed. You look like you have a little speed."
"I'm going to run hard, but I am more of a hustler," I share.
"OK," he says. "That's tough. I'm going to have to say I've got to watch you on film before I make that call."
I tell him how Johnson and Witherspoon haven't held back.
He asks what they said.
I say it would violate the sanctity of the exercise to share their number before he names his.
He started out at 15 or 20 and when I show surprise -- probably a mistake given the context of this whole deal, sorry Matt -- he settled on 30.
The number out, as he's been such a nice guy, I now ask for his counsel on how best to "beat" a guy who estimates he can currently cover 100 meters in 10.3 seconds. (Don't worry about the meters, I'll account for the difference with the help of this Web site.)
"I wouldn't look back, we're taught never to look back when it comes to track," he said. "If I had to give you advice, I'd say focus on that goal line and don't look back. Give it all you got. ... That last 20 yards or so, that's going to be tough on you. It's tough on any runner who hasn't run that distance full speed in a long time.
"Football players, we're strong in our first 40s. From 40 to 60 I think that's where track athletes separate themselves, because they know how to run a full 100 meters."
I'm trying to arrange for a JumboTron, I tell him, so I can watch him closing on me while not turning around.
But the funding fell through.
One more tidbit before we get to the opening race: He says I'd fare better if we made it a 50-yard race, that if he started at midfield and put me at the 35, it would be close.
"But you might be a Rodney Dangerfield, you might have a lot more," he says. "You might be coming out there and smoking all of us."
Again, I say, look at me and judge the book by the cover.
Our first set of results:
Giordano's 100-yard time, converted from his 10.3 100-meter time: 9.418.
My time in a 70-yard sprint against that: 8.91.
Verdict: Narrow victory for PK. I'm 1-0. We really should wrap it up here. Aren't those storm clouds closing in?
Inside the Texans practice bubble, Davis sizes me up and says he thinks he'd overtake me if he gave me a 35- or 40-yard head start. (I'm not running both, buddy.)
Because I can't remember the conversation I had 10 minutes earlier, I tell longtime offensive lineman Chester Pitts that Davis says he'd give me a 30- or 35-yard head start. Pitts says I'd need 40.
"No disrespect, you look like a superb athlete, you're in great physical condition, you look good," Pitts says. "But Andre Davis moves like the wind blows. You'll make it. You're definitely going to be down there sucking wind, but you can handle a 60-yard race, dead sprint."
Davis says the 100 is more his thing than the 40 because he's kind of a long strider.
Does he envision me as a long strider?
"Not so much," he says. "You're going to be that quick slot guy."
Not so much that either, I feel confident.
Davis' 100, converted from his 10.29 100-meter time in college: 9.409.
My time in a 65-yard sprint against that: 8.44.
Verdict: A win by nearly a second. A second feels like a lot in these conditions. It's the same as when I tell my wife I'll be there in a second, right?
Mustin's tip: I am too stiff in my upper body, arms and face, I need to be looser. But my "legs look good."
Johnson doesn't hesitate. We had this conversation during OTAs. I circled back on Monday and he quickly said I could start at the 50.
"No, there is no doubt," he says when I ask if there is any chance he can't catch me in that setup.
"You're saying he can't run 50 yards in 10 seconds," Crumpler chimes in.
"Well, I don't think he can do it," Johnson says.
"You can't be twice as fast," veteran linebacker Ryan Fowler says.
"I'm just saying," Johnson says.
Crumpler thinks Johnson is way underestimating me, and says I should be at the 30. Fowler concurs.
There is a little more debate and discussion and then Johnson asks the exercise question.
"You were like, ‘I'm 40, I'm overweight,' you've got to tell me that you exercise," he says.
Johnson amends his verdict and backs me up 5 additional yards. He'll spot me 45.
We bet a Coke. (Unless there is some NFL rule against it.)
Johnson's 100-yard dash, which needs no converting because he knows it: 9.3.
My time in a 55-yard sprint against that: 7.31.
Verdict: The biggest margin of the day. Refer, please, to how I felt about a one-second margin against Davis, then double it. Crumpler and Fowler were right on target. If you use my 70 against Giordano against Johnson, I'd have "won" by just .39.
Mustin's tip: Before finding the right words, he slips and says I need to "re-loose," which I take as a new word the moment demanded to describe me in a relaxed, loose state while sprinting.
"About the 50," Witherspoon says. "I have no doubt, I'd beat you."
So looking at me, I ask, you don't think there is a good chance I could run 50 yards in under 10.1 seconds?
"Nah, not a good chance," said Witherspoon, who grew up dreaming of racing Deion Sanders and Darrell Green and went on to earn Division II All-America honors as a 100-meter track sprinter at Stillman. "I didn't think I would beat them, but I thought I'd keep up pretty good. Now that they are old, I'll get them. Tell Deion I want him."
Fifty yards sounds big, especially later when I talk to Crumpler and he says Usain Bolt isn't twice as fast as me.
Witherspoon's 100-yard dash, converted from his 10.1 100 meter time: 9.235.
My time in a 50-yard sprint against that: 6.64
Verdict: Big win for PK.
Mustin's tip: He might have talked some, but all I could hear was my wheezing.
A bonus round with a player people don't look at -- apologies Alge -- and think "blazer."
Crumpler is listed by the Titans at 262 pounds, which is a very generous number. I've talked with him about his weight, he's said he's fine where he is doing what's asked, which is more blocking than catching these days. And honestly, he's looked good running with the ball in his hands this preseason.
Still, this is a guy I actually think I can beat with a head start.
"I'm a very fast big guy without having to change direction," he reminds me.
More conscious of the math of it all than any of the four fast guys, he said he'll spot me 20 yards.
So after I've done exhausting sprints of 70, 65, 55 and 50 yards, I take a starting stance -- if that's what you'd call it -- one last time at the 20-yard line.
Five for five is on the line:
Crumpler's 100 converted from his estimate of the low 11s, I used 11.3: 10.332.
My time in an 80-yard sprint against that: 10.60.
Verdict: A loss for me, and not even that close. Go figure. I guess a guy lacking supernatural speed has a better sense of the ground he, and others, can cover than some top-end speedsters might.
In conclusion: No, I did not yack. Yes, I am sore all over. No, I did not blow out a hamstring. Yes, I could be sleeping right now.