The way Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah has it figured, the last remaining skeptics in America will become true believers on Oct. 4, the first time next season that the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers will appear on Monday Night Football. That evening—barring some totally unforeseen act of God—wide receiver Nehemiah, No. 83 in your program, No. 1 in the world of high hurdling for the past four years, will answer the final question. Not "Can he catch the football?" But "Can he catch it and take a hit?" That has been the one and only doubt—not Nehemiah's, of course—that the savants of the National Football League have been noising about since Feb. 23, the day he decided to set his sights on pro football.
Nehemiah's self-confidence has a disarming effect, for the fact is that he has never, ever, in his 23 years, set out to do something that he has not done superbly. A few cynics might think that what he has set out to do now is to get a fat NFL contract and that he has slickly conned the 49ers, but then a smart man like Bill Walsh, the head coach and general manager, wouldn't be likely to give a pure trackman a four-year deal—first year guaranteed, plus a six-figure signing bonus and an incentive plan that could make the package worth $1.5 million—on a whim. It's important to realize that the 49ers were the winners: Washington, New England and Oakland made Nehemiah offers that were very nearly as good.
"You might call it a risk on our part," said Walsh last week, "but it's not a long shot by any means. There's every reason to believe that Renaldo Nehemiah can play National Football League receiver and be very competitive for a job."
For the moment, Nehemiah is certain he has done the right thing by leaving track, if for no other reason than this: After running a marathon of pro tryouts—the equivalent of traveling around the world in 40 days to be tested by eight different NFL teams—he has received more attention than he did for any of the 13 indoor and outdoor world records he set in four years of gliding over hurdles. And what happened during that trip? Well, suffice it to say that Nehemiah and his lawyer, Ron Stanko, mostly remember it from the movies they watched on their transcontinental hops. On their first three tentative trips from Nehemiah's home in Gaithersburg, Md. to visit teams on the West Coast and in Dallas, they saw Rollover three times. Late in the odyssey, when they needed encouragement, it was Absence of Malice. Finally, with the pot of gold clearly in sight, what should come up on the in-flight screen but Rich and Famous.
It had to be. If one were to search for a male "10" to describe the contemporary incarnation of the American dream of good looks, intelligence, personality and superb athletic qualities, here is a prime candidate. Nehemiah has established himself as one of the greatest performers in the history of track and field, easily the best high hurdler ever, possessed of a body with perfect wide-receiver proportions—6'1", 177 pounds; a 43" chest narrowing to a 29" waist; muscled but supple 22" thighs—perhaps the best all-around athlete in the world.
In the hurdle sprints Nehemiah was virtually unbeatable, except—and usually only when injured, Nehemiah is quick to point out—by his longtime rival, Greg Foster. From the track world he will be taking with him a legacy of doing what was once considered impossible—breaking 13 seconds in the 110-meter highs. Last summer, Nehemiah produced that stunner, a 12.93 in Zurich.
Bob Hersh, the records chairman for The Athletics Congress, says, "I doubt that we'll see anyone else under 13 seconds in the 110 meters for many years. And we may not see a new world record in this century."
But Nehemiah says he has run his last race. For the record, it was the 60-yard hurdles at the Millrose Games in New York last February, one month before his 23rd birthday, in 6.84, .02 off his own world record. A few weeks later he decided finally that the hurdle sprints were simply too easy, not challenging enough. He had talked in the past about training for other events—the 200, the decathlon, the 400 hurdles, over which Edwin Moses has reigned undefeated for nearly five years. But now he was admitting to himself that such talk was a smokescreen. What it meant was that his motivation had dried up. The 13-second barrier was gone. There was no satisfaction in beating Foster anymore.
He also wanted—craved—more exposure. He has movie-star looks, glibness and a positive personality, but his sport wasn't of the kind to give him a high profile in non-Olympic years, and the Olympic limelight of 1980 was denied him because of the U.S. boycott. When the opportunity came for him to participate in the made-for-television competition, The Superstars, in 1981, he won it going away, and this year he won it again, against the likes of James Lofton, Gary Carter and Bob Seagren.
It was at the Superstars competition in Key Biscayne, Fla. last February that the football idea first took root. Nehemiah was wowing everyone, winning the half-mile bicycle race and holding his own in bowling and the half-mile run. In golf, a three-shot, closest-to-the-hole contest at about 150 yards, Nehemiah, who figures he has played the game only a dozen times, barely hit the ball on his first attempt. On the next, he nailed a nine-iron to within 13 feet of the hole, which proved to be the winning shot. In the obstacle course event, which he also won, he became one of the few competitors ever to vault the 12-foot wall without using a rope—he simply leapt, kicked with one foot, and was over. But it was his weightlifting that caused the greatest stir. He placed second, pressing 265 pounds, to Mark Gastineau, the 6'5", 280-pound defensive end for the New York Jets, who lifted 300.