In their sophomore and junior years, they never raced each other. Entering their senior years, they were unbeaten in high school competition and recorded outstanding times in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in their bids to be the sprint champion of the Washington metropolitan area.
Despite never facing each other on the track, Robert Thomas of Roosevelt High School in Washington and Eric Metcalf, who attends O'Connell in Arlington, became good friends after meeting at a track competition their sophomore seasons.
They were all-Met football running backs, approximately the same size and with similar personalities and interests. Both hope to play football and run track in college. In fact, at one point, they decided to attend the University of Miami and be roommates.
"We found out we had a lot of things in common," said Metcalf, whose father Terry was an all-pro tailback in the National Football League. "We were planning to run together on relay teams during the summers but couldn't get things together. We talked a lot about going to school together. But I eventually selected Texas."
"He was a nice guy and we got along," said Thomas, who will attend Miami on a football scholarship. "We both made decisions best for us. We're still good friends. We'll see each other in college somewhere."
Sometimes, good friends also must compete against each other. That time finally came recently at the Draper Invitational meet at St. Stephen's, when both easily won their heats in the 100- and 200-meter races to set up their first race against each other in competition. Jim Osuna, the meet director, described it as, "The Shootout at the Draper Corral."
"We wanted to race one another to see who was best," Thomas said. "I thought I might be stronger."
He was. Metcalf got out quickly in both races but Thomas caught up and won each race by a stride. Thomas was timed in 10.7 in the 100, Metcalf 10.8. Each was timed in 21.4 in the 200.
After each race, the runners embraced in a manner befitting champions.
"I told him good race," said Thomas. "He said the same thing." Thomas, who is 5 feet 9 1/2 and 170 pounds, has run the 100 meters in 10.21, the 200 in 21.2 and the 400 in 49.0 ("I've only run that race once") and anchors all of Roosevelt's sprint-relay teams. In three years of varsity football, he rushed for more than 2,500 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. But if Thomas, appropriately nicknamed Speedy, wasn't setting track records or running end sweeps, he might be equally comfortable making speeches or working with computers.
Describing himself as "a bit shy," Thomas is president of the Roosevelt senior class, editor of the yearbook and one of the student tutors in computer classes.
"I participate in a lot of activities at school because I enjoy them. But the work does pile up on you," Thomas said. "I love both sports and I don't think I could do one without the other. One keeps you in condition for the other. But when I run track, I feel free and can excel as an individual."
A perfectionist, Thomas says he hasn't been very impressed with his track exploits.
"I haven't begun to get comfortable with myself yet," he said. "I need to work on my speed, my form, lengthen my stride, everything. I think I've gained some strength from football and it's helped me on the track. I would like to be remembered as a three-time champion here (he won both the 100- and 200-meter Interhigh League titles his sophomore and junior years). That's my biggest goal right now."
Harry Stanton, who took over as coach of the track team last month, says Thomas' biggest asset is his leadership.
"The other guys really look up to Speedy and admire him," Stanton said. "He's a great person and he pushes his teammates much like I do. He might be a coach one day."
Mike Knoll, an assistant football coach at Miami, said he believes Thomas will make immediate contributions to the football and track programs.
"He has that kind of speed that enables him to run away from people. He's a quality person who comes from a good football program and has a good family background," Knoll said. "We hope to use him at both running back and to return kicks. And you couldn't find a better climate to run track than in Miami, Fla."
Knoll said the Hurricanes had hoped to sign both Thomas and Metcalf.
"We were right in it with Metcalf until the end and he decided to attend Texas," Knoll said. "So Robert is the only running back coming in as a freshman in August. We have some excellent running backs returning, but we feel Robert has a good chance (to play) because of his all-around ability." Eric Metcalf has nothing to prove.
A more versatile track performer than Thomas, Metcalf recently won four events in the Metro Conference championships -- the 100 in 10.3, the 200 in 21.49, the 400 in 47.7 and the long jump in 24-8. (He has the nation's best high school long jump this season at 25-5). He is solidly built at 5 feet 9 1/2 and 175 pounds.
"I'd like to break the (national high school) long jump record of 26-8 (held by Carl Lewis) before my high school career is over," Metcalf said. "I'd also like to go about 10.2 in the 100 and 21.0 in the 200. I enjoy track a lot and I hope to do both (track and football) at Texas."
Ron Hershner, O'Connell's track coach, says, "Eric is an awesome talent. He has so much potential, it's unbelievable. He's just a natural track athlete. He'll be a fine college athlete."
Metcalf, who gained nearly 5,000 all-purpose yards and scored 38 touchdowns at O'Connell, is one of the finest kick returners ever to play in the area. He returned a dozen kicks for touchdowns in his three years at O'Connell. His statistics would have been even better but his parents kept him out of two games last fall because of what they describe as a family matter.
Metcalf returned to score 11 touchdowns in his final two high school games -- a monumental feat considering that both teams keyed on him. Metcalf said he picked up many of his open-field moves watching his father on film.
"I worshipped my father when he played in the NFL (St. Louis and Washington)," he said. "I was proud when I saw what he accomplished on the field. When I saw him on the field, I hoped I would be able to do the same things."
So does Texas.
"When I think about what he may do for us, I get excited," said Tommy Reaux, an assistant coach who was sold on Metcalf after watching him return a kick for a touchdown two years ago. "Our track people are real excited. He comes from real good stock and can step right in (both programs) and contribute right away.
"We have two returning running backs and signed three, so Eric will get a good chance to play. He's quick, can change direction in a snap and has that flat-out speed. We won't ask him to do a lot of things at once and I hope he won't try. He's a rare talent and he'll show it."
Much like Thomas, Metcalf is quiet and enjoys his privacy. He says he will major in business management at Texas but would like to play professional football if he has the opportunity.
"Whatever happens, happens," Metcalf said. "Right now, I have to concentrate on college. I do feel a little bad about not going to school with Robert. And I don't think they (Texas and Miami) play one another."