UF’s Demps picks Olympic dream over NFL

You don’t throw away a winning lottery ticket. You don’t push away the great American sports dream when it’s right there for you. You don’t grow up as a star running back and then politely say “no, thank you’’ when it’s time to start making NFL money.

That’s what Jeff Demps did, pushing aside society’s dreams for his own.

Demps, the University of Florida football player, is training full time to be an Olympic runner in the 100 meters. He has a legitimate shot at making it to the London Games this summer.

“Just, during the football season, I enjoyed football, but I just felt I had to be on the track,’’ he said. “I had to follow my heart, and my heart said to be with track. It’s a career decision.’’

Football is out for good, most likely. But Demps is wrong. This wasn’t a career decision. The career decision would have been to make big money as an NFL player. That’s what everyone wants to be or wants their sons to be.

Demps isn’t focusing on what he wants to be as much as what he wants to do. Where he wants to do it. It’s about enjoying the process as much as the riches.

It is not a typical American sports thought. It is so much more healthy. What a message it would send if Demps were to make it. He’s exactly the example we need. So far, our models are parents who pigeon-hole their kids, determine the paths of their 4-year-olds as “the dream.’’

That dream usually fails, leads to injury, resentment. Just by being here, Demps already is succeeding.

You know where he’ll be this weekend during the NFL draft? At the Drake Relays in Des Moines, living out his own dream.

Will you have any misgivings during the draft?

“Probably not,’’ he said. “I might tune it in a little just to see if my teammates are picked.’’

What if you don’t make the Olympics this year and don’t ever make them? Will you have regrets?

“No,’’ he said. “Not at all.’’

He is following his heart. What’s to regret?

Of course, you have to be realistic about things, too. Demps is a legit track star, already an NCAA champion a few times over. At the 2008 Olympic Trials, he kept close to star Tyson Gay in a heat of the 100 meters. Demps, just 18 at the time, set a junior world record, finishing in 10.01 seconds.

But he is not your typical track star who decided to go out for football. Demps said that football was always No. 1 to him and track No. 2. He has not been afraid to take hits, the way track athletes who are also football players can be at times.

It wasn’t until after a few years at Florida that Demps, like any college student with an open mind, found a different path, determined his own direction.

By the end of this football season, he decided to bypass the NFL combine and the draft for a career in track. He can always come back to football later if it seems like the right thing to him.

“The big surprise came because everybody else thought he was going to go chasing dollars,’’ said Florida’s highly successful track coach, Mike Holloway. “Money isn’t anything. I would have supported him no matter what he chose. But he’s more happy on the track.’’

Holloway, also a coach on the Olympic team, said Demps is still “an infant to the sport,’’ having never focused on it full time until now.

He said Demps could improve quickly.

But why can’t he do both sports at the same time? It has been done before. And that might be exactly the lesson to learn from.

Renaldo Nehemiah was the world’s best hurdler, but missed out on the 1980 Moscow Olympics when the U.S. boycotted the Games. Two years later, with track still an amateur sport, Nehemiah went to the NFL to play for the San Francisco 49ers.

Then, track became a pro sport. After a mediocre run in the NFL Nehemiah tried to come back to track, but failed to reach the Olympics. He never competed in the Games, and that was partly from lack of focus.

“I don’t know how you can ever play in the NFL and do anything else, to be honest with you,’’ Holloway said. “It’s such a brutal sport. Renaldo was an unbelievable athlete.

“Really, he just made a mistake on a route and got hit pretty hard. And he still came back and became a decent hurdler again. But if he had just stayed in track and field, it would have been unbelievable (what he would have done).’’

With the Olympic Trials in June, Demps has been re-shaping his body from a football player to a sprinter, working with a nutritionist, altering his weight-training and trying to fine tune the technical details of sprinting. He is 5-foot-8 and said he has lost nine pounds, down to 179, since the end of the football season.

He will contend for the Games this year and might even be among the favorites, depending on how much he improves. But it’s hard to see him contending with Jamaican Usain Bolt, whose world record is 9.58 seconds.

Of course, Demps is just 22 and might be at his best for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Even the 2020 Olympics are reasonable for him. The NFL, though, was a sure thing this year. He was not projected as a star football player, but as a fourth-round draft pick who would help a team.

Demps and Holloway said that sprinters can make good money today — unlike in Nehemiah’s day — even if they don’t get to the Olympics. But it wouldn’t be NFL money.

That’s OK. Someone advised Demps, even after he had committed to track, to go to the NFL combine anyway. Just keep options open, run the 40, amaze NFL teams and go home.

He said no. That’s not where his head is. It’s not where, or who, he wants to be.