Former Gators running back Jeff Demps doesn’t know what his role will be with his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or if it will even be possible for him to run track and play in the NFL.
But he wants to try if the team will let him. It’s just that right now, he’s a little preoccupied.
Instead of joining his teammates for the start of OTAs this week, he was on his way back from Puerto Rico, where competed in the Ponce Grand Prix and won the men’s 100 meter sprint.
He’s participated in several track meets already this year and is approaching midseason form, with the goal of competing at the IAFF World Championships in Moscow, August 10-18.
It would force him to miss not only training camp, but at minimum, the preseason opener against the Ravens and the second preseason game against the Patriots.
So far, the team appears willing to work with him to accommodate his unique predicament — he competes at the highest level in two sports.
“As far as right now, everything is just about me and track”
It was at another track meet, the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, when Demps learned through Daniel Rose that he was traded to the Buccaneers. He had run his leg of a relay event earlier that day and was resting at the team hotel. “Congratulations,” Rose told him.
Demps later spoke to general manager Mark Dominik. Both Rose and Demps recall it being a brief conversation, mostly to gauge Demps’ interest.
“It was about me focusing on track,” Demps says. “It wasn’t much about me playing or what position. It was just about what my focus was. As far as right now, everything is just about me and track.”
He’s currently in Clermont training five hours a day under renown track and field coach Dennis Mitchell, who won gold with the U.S. men’s 4×100 meter relay team at the Barcelona Olympics and took bronze in the individual event.
He knows what it takes for Demps to get where he wants to be.
As the season progresses, Demps’ times will continue to get faster, and his frame will become more chiseled so that he can be lighter on his feet.
The scale will settle at around 175 or 178 pounds, which Demps describes as his ideal weight for speed. “I’m still trying to get there now.”
When he’s at his peak, he feels like he’s “floating” through his race.
“When you’re on and you have your rhythm down, and you’re in shape, and your technique’s sound, the race just feels easy to you.”
“You get through the race, and it might not feel like you’re running fast but once you cross the finish line, your time is amazing.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing”
Up until a year ago, his seasonal transition from football to track and back to football, which he had done for about eight years, was practically seamless.
He won s BCS National Championship with the Gators in 2009, the 2010 NCAA Outdoor 100 meter title, and the NCAA 60 meter title in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
He became the first and only Gator athlete to win a national title in two different sports.
But when an invitation arrived to come to play in the Senior Bowl, Demps had to start making some tough decisions.
A strong showing there and at the NFL Scouting Combine would ensure he’d be selected in April’s draft. He could sign an NFL contract and be set. But it was an Olympic year. He had come close to making it before.
“I think [competing in] the Olympics was always the first thing when I discussed it with him,” says Rose. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That’s every four years. He was committed to it.”
After a disappointing showing at Trials, Demps failed to qualify. It wasn’t until fellow American Mike Rodgers suffered a stress fracture in his foot that he got an opportunity in the 4×100 meter relay.
He raced the first leg of the preliminary heat. He didn’t get to compete in the final, but earned a silver medal.
“It was a great experience for me,” says Demps on competing at the Olympics. “The group of guys I was with…they just made the experience for me a lot more fun.”
“Especially coming from college, and just being on the professional stage, not like the typical track and field straight out of college — it was amazing. I got to experience a lot of different things, meet a lot of different people from different countries. I was just exposed to a lot more.”
And he wants to continue — to travel more, to compete in individual events, and perhaps a shot at becoming the fastest man in the world.
“He was breaking all the records and had the gold shoes”
Demps never set out to become a world-class sprinter. Growing up in the citrus town of Winter Garden, about 15 miles west of Orlando, his life was all football.
He had dreams of becoming Emmitt Smith, the legendary Gator and Cowboys’ running back, not Michael Johnson. Johnson did catch Demps’ eye though. “He was breaking all the records and had the gold shoes.”
There was also Johnson’s competitiveness. Demps himself had always been a competitor, and football fueled it. His football coaches noticed it and challenged him frequently.
“Every time we’d get a new guy that our coaching staff thought was fast, they would have me race him. And I’d a ways win. So that’s kind of when I figured out that I was fast.”
From the West Orange Wildcats and South Lake Eagles in his Pop Warner days to his South Lake High School team – no one could beat him.
It was at South Lake High that Demps began entering track meets after football season. He lost one race his junior year in the 100 meters, and went undefeated in every 200 meter event he entered.
The 100 became his best event, and his favorite. He swept every 100 meter high school event he entered as s senior in 2008, including a win at the FSHAA 3A State Championship. He followed with an impressive 10.17 at the Pepsi Florida Relays, which qualified him for the Olympic Trials.
At the Trials in the men’s quarter-finals in the 100 meters, Demps lined up next to World Champion, Tyson Gay. Demps ran an astounding 10.01, finishing second to Gay. His mark broke an American junior record, the national high school record, and tied a junior world record.
In the semi-finals, he couldn’t duplicate the magic of the previous race and finished eighth. The very next day, he reported to Gainesville for the start of football training camp at UF.
“You’ve got to attack them and run through them”
When Demps concludes track season this August, he’ll need to put on weight fast, which means eating more and heavier lifting. He’ll aim for 190-195. That’s a significant, but necessary jump.
“You want to have some weight on you…you don’t want to get thrown around like a rag doll.”
The differences between his two sports aren’t just physical. There are mental adjustments to be made too.
With track, Demps tries to balance his adrenaline and not psych himself out. He knows he has one shot.
“I have this big adrenaline rush and all I can think about…is my race and how I’m going to execute it once the gun goes off.”
He has to stay calm and focus on technique.
In football, he’s in full-fledged ‘attack-mode.’
“It’s very different,” says Demps on exploding out of the backfield versus the starting blocks.
“You’ve got to have the mindset that you’re the aggressor and you’ve got to attack the defender, but at the same time, you’ve got to have patience because you’ve got to let the holes develop.”
“It’s not all about you on the play. You’ve got to wait for your line to block or you know, the tight end, or how the play is designed. You’ve got to have that patience and that ‘dog’ mentality that whoever comes in the way, you’ve got to attack them and run through them.”
“I’ve always had that football edge in me”
Rose says they have not set a time-table for when Demps will join the team, but that Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano are willing to work with him. “They’re being supportive about it.”
“We’ll probably sit down and talk about it some more. With him being only an hour away [in Clermont], he can always come visit the facilities and sit and meet with them, which is nice.”
Rose is hopeful Demps’ situation with the Bucs works out better than it did with the Patriots, when he jumped off a plane with no sleep to practice for a week, took a few fourth-quarter handoffs in a preseason game, and was placed on IR shortly after.
Rose never got a clear explanation why.”They made a decision to put him on IR and you have to respect it.”
“The league looked into it and said it was fine. And that’s all I really know.”
Rose was proud of him for honoring his commitment to race at the Olympics and to the Patriots, who expressed interest in him prior to London.
“I think once he’s focused on something, he finishes what he starts.”
Although disappointing, IR proved to be a blessing in disguise, giving Demps’ body a break.
Not that he enjoys being away from football, which has been a fixture in his life since he was a young boy.
Track has simply opened up a world of new opportunities.
“I’ve always had that football edge in me. Just growing up and playing it for so long and, like I always had a chip on my shoulder when I was playing, and everybody was behind me, trying to make my family proud.”
“But, you know track and field just kind of grew on me. Once I started competing and knew that I was good at it, I just kind of fell in love with it. I just have so much passion for it.”