When Harvin most needed football this fall and spring, the coronavirus pandemic took it away. After losing a crucial recruiting year, Harvin’s attention is now on track because improving his sprint times may be the best way to boost his football profile and accomplish the objective he and his father shared.
“I have all this motivation and I have all this built-up eagerness in me, and I’m just a competitive person as well,” said Harvin, who plays running back and linebacker. “I’ve been trying to find an outlet to use all my talent and positive motivation toward something. Since track is the only spring sport that I play, I’m as competitive as I get.”
Many high school football players have turned to track and field after football seasons across the D.C. area were wiped out or condensed. The sports have been intertwined for decades, with plenty of NFL and college players over the years also excelling in track.
In 1952, the Chicago Cardinals selected running back Ollie Matson in the first round of the NFL draft; a few months later, before signing his contract, Matson earned silver and bronze medals in the 4x400-meter relay and the 400-meter dash at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. In 1964, Bob Hayes, who became a Hall of Fame wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys, claimed gold medals in the 100-meter dash and 4x100-meter relay at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Football has become more specialized since then, with skill players participating in seven-on-seven leagues in the offseason. Still, other Hall of Famers who had potent track times in college or high school include defensive backs Darrell Green, Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson and running back Eric Dickerson. Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl wide receiver DK Metcalf recently tried to qualify for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics in the 100 meters, but he fell short.
There is a track record, even locally, for athletes blazing their way to football scholarships. Wide receiver Malcolm Johnson Jr., who graduated from St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes High last year, was known for his quickness as he developed into a four-star recruit. He was the 2020 All-Met indoor track athlete of the year and now plays football at Auburn.
Leon Paul, who coached football and track at Duncanville High (Tex.) from 2016 to this April, said a handful of his football players’ recruitments exploded after they ran track, including then-juniors Ja’Quinden Jackson and Chris Thompson Jr., who took on the sport in 2019. They competed on the school’s state-championship-winning 4x100-meter relay and refined their running mechanics. When they returned to football in the fall, they broke off long touchdown runs that Paul said they wouldn’t have completed previously. Jackson, a quarterback, began his college career at Texas but is now at Utah, and Thompson, a safety, recently shifted from Auburn to Southern Cal.
“Track is the base to every athletic sport,” said Paul, who’s now the football coach at Texas’s Lancaster High. “In every sport, you have to learn to run effectively, and I believe track provides that platform . . . especially for football.”
College coaches said track results provide proof of a player’s speed, meaning schools don’t have to rely on coaches and combines for unofficial times in the 40-yard dash. When meeting last year with Ed Orgeron, Paul said the LSU football coach told him he prioritized football recruits who ran track.
Still, for most coaches, the proof needs to be on the football field.
“You can’t just have track times and not have good film,” said Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, a D.C. native and associate head coach for Boston College’s football team. “Let’s say a kid doesn’t have a junior film, like a lot of D.C. and [Prince George’s] County kids; you probably would use their sophomore film to predict, to evaluate.”
While starting nine of 12 games at wide receiver/defensive back for Archbishop Carroll in 2019, Bryce Dudley compiled solid film from his sophomore season, but he felt dissatisfied. He said he didn’t make many attention-grabbing plays. Then Dudley’s junior football season lasted one game. Now he’s throwing his energy into track, running the 400-meter dash and the 300-meter hurdles, to show college coaches he has progressed.
“This is definitely more important than any track season I’ve had in my entire life,” Dudley said. “I need better times so I can try to get recruited for track. And if my track times are good, football teams will probably want me, too. If my play on the field is good and I’m fast, then I don’t see why they wouldn’t want me.”
One of Dudley’s teammates, sophomore Nyckoles Harbor, received interest from college football programs after his freshman junior varsity season in 2019 because of his size and speed. Many coaches wanted to see him play varsity before extending him a scholarship offer, though. But the week after Harbor won the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes in an interstate meet last month, he received offers from Tennessee, Oregon and Notre Dame.
“Coaches were mind-boggled by how fast I was at the size that I am,” said the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder, who plays wide receiver and defensive end.
Harvin, the Dunbar standout, grew up watching the Washington Football Team and, when he saw peers playing football at a park as a 6-year-old, he joined them. His agility separated him from his opponents, and he began running track in middle school.
During his sophomore year of 2019, Harvin was a key member of Dunbar football’s D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship squad, rushing for 869 yards, contributing 328 receiving yards and adding 41 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions.
When the 2020 season was canceled, Harvin said he was angry and unsure how to release his frustration following his father’s killing. With spring sports being held, the 17-year-old hopes to take advantage. He aspires to land a high-Division I football scholarship, and his track feats should only improve his stock.
In the first meet this season, Harvin won the 100-meter dash and placed second in the 200. Harvin has proved himself as the DCIAA’s fastest sprinter, winning the 100-meter dash at the 2019 outdoor championships and the 55-meter dash at the 2020 indoor championships.
Since his father’s death, Harvin picked up extra shifts at Panera Bread and added responsibilities at home, but he also strives to become one of the country’s top sprinters.
When he’s training and competing, Harvin thinks about his dad, which motivates him to become one of the first members of his family to attend college — and, ideally, play football there.
“I have no choice to slow down,” Harvin said. “I have to keep his legacy going and stay strong for my family.”