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Renaldo Nehemiah : He's Looking For Best Of Both Worlds

July 09, 1985|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

As the world's greatest high hurdler turned wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah was a novelty.

But novelties wear thin. Nehemiah didn't play much last year, and reporters stepped around him in the dressing room to interview Joe Montana and Dwight Clark, the pro football stars.

In a different uniform, that of a track athlete, Nehemiah wouldn't have been ignored. So, it appeared, he had given up acclaim and recognition in one sport for journeyman status in another.

Soon, however, Nehemiah and other track stars who are playing pro football will probably have the best of two worlds.

A three-man panel of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body for track and field, has voted to return amateur status to pro football players who competed in track.

The IAAF Council can declare eligible an athlete who competes as a professional in one sport, providing that the practice of that sport is of no direct help to any track and field athlete.

The arbitration panel concluded that football does not aid a track athlete, and its findings are expected to be rubber-stamped by the IAAF Council when it convenes next Friday in Athens.

Among those affected by the decision are Nehemiah, wide receivers Willie Gault of the Chicago Bears, Phillip Epps and James Lofton of the Green Bay Packers, Mark Duper of the Miami Dolphins, Ron Brown of the Rams, and Dokie Williams of the Raiders; running back Herschel Walker of the New Jersey Generals, nose guard Michael Carter of the 49ers, and defensive back Darrell Green of the Washington Redskins.

Nehemiah is the world record-holder in the 110-meter high hurdles at 12.93 seconds. He left track in 1982, saying he was disenchanted with the sport, perhaps bored.

"I was at the stage where I was my only competition," he said.

But he has a different perspective on track now, and his attitude probably is influenced by the uncertainty of his football career.

"I can't wait to get back," Nehemiah said. "When I sit back and look at it now, I think my impact or value to a particular sport is far more greatly needed in track and field. Although it's not an insult what I've done (switching to professional football), now that I've fought three years to get back into track, I've matured and I think I'll make even a greater contribution."

Nehemiah is in the final year of a four-year contract with the 49ers. He said that he will pursue both football and track for one year and then will concentrate on one sport.

"Common sense makes you realize that the two seasons overlap," he said. "There is no way I could be equally proficient at both. There are unknowns that I have to deal with every year in football. In track and field, I know what's ahead of me healthwise. So it will be football only, or track and field only.

"The body can take only one season. I know that at the end of January I don't want to take another step for two or three months."

Nehemiah was in the vanguard of pro football players who fought to regain amateur track status.

"The issue of amateurism vs. professionalism has never thoroughly been addressed, and there was probably no one who had my qualifications of being best in the world capable of taking that issue on," Nehemiah said. "We figured that they (IAAF) would definitely have to take a look at me because it would be a precedent. Even if it took me to age 35, it could be said that I was the pioneer of it all and (reinstatement) happened because of me."

But he and his attorney, Ron Stanko, ran into one roadblock after another after Nehemiah had joined the 49ers in 1982, presumably forfeiting his amateur status.

The word amateur is in question here. Liberalized rules now allow track athletes to accept appearance money, represent shoe companies, and make commercial endorsements as long as their earnings are channeled into a trust fund, from which the athletes can draw training and living expenses.

Coach Bill Walsh of the 49ers noted that Nehemiah probably took a pay cut when he signed with the 49ers. He wasn't being facetious.

Considering today's spiraling six-figure incomes for track and field superstars, that pay cut gets bigger and bigger for Nehemiah, who earns approximately $200,000 a year with the 49ers.

Runners World magazine reported that Carl Lewis earned $783,000 in 1984. Other reported incomes were $617,000 for Edwin Moses, $520,000 for Bill Rodgers and $420,000 for Joan Benoit.

"When I left track and field, everyone knew athletes were making money, but nothing like today," Nehemiah said. "There was nothing left for me to do athletically and commercially when I was running. The trust funds were just coming about, and there wasn't a clear understanding about it. Financial rewards were limited. But, as soon as I signed my 49er contract, the floodgates were opened."

He doesn't regret his decision, saying that money wasn't his ultimate objective when he switched sports.

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