SAN DIEGO -- Their allure is speed. They give a quarterback the opportunity to say the words he loves best, "Go deep." They give a coach the weapon he covets most, the quick score. Olympic sprinters will always find a warm welcome and a hot meal at a football training camp. And should they actually be able to catch a pass, there's no end to the dreams they'll inspire.

Most of them don't work out. The Eagles couldn't make a receiver out of Frank Budd, nor could the Giants make a receiver out of Henry Carr. The Jets couldn't keep Lam Jones healthy enough to learn what he had to. Bill Walsh never realized what he envisioned in Renaldo Nehemiah. But as long as converted sprinters like Bob Hayes, Willie Gault and Ron Brown pop up, football coaches will keep gasping at what their stopwatches tell them and keep experimenting with the thrilling possibilities of speed.

Denver's Sam Graddy is such an experiment. He isn't one of the Three Amigos, but if they all raced, he'd be the one yelling, "Adios." He was the silver medalist in the 100-meter dash in the 1984 Olympics, and ran leadoff on the gold medal, world record 4x100-meter relay team. Graddy to Ron Brown, to Calvin Smith, to Carl Lewis, and we'll see the rest of you folks later. With an arm like John Elway's, legs like Graddy's could be priceless -- if he has the hands to catch the football.

So far we don't know that he can. He didn't catch a pass all season, and he's unlikely to be activated for the Super Bowl unless Vance Johnson can't play. But with sprinters we're dealing in dreams anyway, so there's no rush; if not today, perchance tomorrow. And should you wonder why coaches drool over guys with speed, consider this: The Broncos threw only one pass in Graddy's direction this season. A streak. Elway underthrew him. Repeat: underthrew him. That's not fast, that's flying.

Timing, everything to a sprinter, dictated Graddy's signing with the Broncos last year. He was hurt and couldn't compete in the winter indoor season. "I had my meets set up and my money set up. I got hurt and didn't get any money," Graddy said, explaining, "I'd always taken my money for granted. I was married with a kid, and Denver came along with a signing bonus. If I'd been competing, I'd never have gone."

Had he stayed in track, Graddy estimated that through appearance and bonus money he'd have earned at least $100,000 in 1987. He's making that now, but only because of the playoff shares. And though he vowed never to look back once he committed himself to football, he blushingly admits he already has. "I did it in camp. I looked around at the receivers -- Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson, Ricky Nattiel and Steve Watson -- and I thought, 'Oh my God, what have I done?' I made a phone call to line up some meets in Europe in case I got cut."

He didn't get cut. But his impact in football so far wouldn't scratch the paint job. In track, he was a star. "I've run against Ben Johnson a lot; he never beat me outdoors. I'd like to think if I'd stayed in track I'd be at 9.9, I'd be there with Ben. I'll admit it's hard watching track meets now. The other night I was watching a meet, but when the 55 meters came on I told my wife I was going upstairs." Something like a sigh was heard. "It's very, very hard to watch when you know you can be in the field and beat the field."

Still, Graddy says he'll watch the 100 meters in Seoul. And root for Carl Lewis to beat Johnson. "Even though on the football field," Graddy says with a devilish grin, "I'd try to break Carl's knees."

That refers back to the Olympics' 100, and it's said in fun . . . I think.

Perhaps Graddy should explain.

"At 60 meters I was ahead of the field. I had visions of glory; I was actually going to win this thing. I thought I had a date with destiny. But at 70 meters I began to hear footsteps. I heard Carl coming, I could hear him breathing. My feet are going like this {Graddy tapped rapidly and lightly on a table top}, and I could hear Carl's like this {Graddy tapped slowly, but with inexorable determination}. I tried to dig in, hoping I could get to the finish line. I was giving the absolute most I had. But he came right by me, he broke me down. It was a terrible feeling for me to see it happen.

"It's funny, but even though the race only takes 10 seconds, you have time to think clearly, and I remember thinking I had to at least hold off Ben for the silver. The gold was gone. I'm the kind of sprinter who's got nothing but a start. At 60 or 70 meters I can beat anybody, but those last 40 yards were the longest of my life.

"Carl wound up winning by the largest margin ever in an Olympic 100. Up on the victory stand I said, 'Carl, man, why'd you do me like that?' And he just looked at me and laughed."

Maybe that's why the normally pleasant Graddy says, smile and all, "I wish Carl was playing football like me. I'd hit him so hard, I'd tear his head off." Just sprinter talk, I guess.

With Seoul seemingly beyond reach, Graddy may have to content himself with the NFL's Fastest Man race. The competition is formidable: Darrell Green; Graddy's Olympic teammate, Ron Brown; Graddy's college teammate at Tennessee, Willie Gault. (At Tennessee, Graddy freely admitted, "Gault, Calvin Smith and Emmitt King used to blow my doors off.") Graddy is looking forward to an invitation to the NFL race. "I'll train for that like it's the Olympics," he promised, for in Graddy's new world, in a sense, it is.