Athletics: Chambers' hopes of sanctuary with NFL may present toughest test yet

British athlete who failed drugs test seeks lucrative escape
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dwain Chambers is hoping he has found a possibly gold-paved escape route from sporting oblivion if, as he fears, the axe falls on his track career at the inquiry into his postive drugs test in the middle of next month. Chambers has cleared the first hurdle in a series of trials that will prove whether he has enough natural aptitude to back up his world-class speed and become a wide receiver in America's National Football League.

The official announcement by the world's richest sports league on the build-up to Sunday's Super Bowl here made it clear that the move of the European 100 metres champion and bronze medallist at the last World Championships could prove more than a desperate lunge by a troubled 25-year-old.

Chambers says: "I've always been interested in the NFL and I'm determined to give this my full commitment. I'm still hoping that I will not be banned from the sport into which I put all my ambition, but that is a possibility that has to be dealt with. I'm fighting the charges as hard as I can but I don't want to be just staring into oblivion if the worst happens."

Whatever happens, Chambers, who tested positive for the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, cannot expect to lay his hands on a pot of instant American gold. However, in a recent secret trial at Crystal Palace, Chambers impressed a team of NFL coaches with his potential. An NFL official said here: "If Dwain hadn't showed an ability to catch the ball while running fast, we just wouldn't have reached the starting line. Now there are several options for him over the next year."

The most promising would be for him to be taken on in the practice squad of a leading NFL team, and if this happens he would be in line to land a league contract, which pays a minimum $250,000 (£138,000) a year.

Tony Allen, the director of game development for the NFL, will make a more detailed assessment at a special four-day international spring training camp in Tampa, Florida, where Chambers will be joined by other hopefuls from Europe, Mexico and Japan.

"Dwain is smart enough to realise that he has a very long way to go if he is going to develop enough to compete for a place with an NFL team," Allen said. "But if he has the dedication then there are many opportunities that we can give him to work on his physical skills and his knowledge of the tactical and mental aspects of the game."

Chambers, who was rated the world's No 1 sprinter at one point last year, says, "I know that it is a hard road ahead and there is an awful lot for me to learn. But I'm pleased with the progress I've made so far and I'm ready to do whatever it takes to give myself a real shot in the NFL."

The NFL are making it clear that Chambers will start with a clean sheet as a gridiron player - but they also insist, with some scepticism, that the sport has a stringent approach to drug abuse among players. All players are drug-tested when they report to training camp, and those players who have caused any suspicion among coaches and officials face up to 10 random tests per season.

Chambers' greatest challenge will be to survive an NFL training camp, a gruelling exercise designed to test both the body and the mind of the contenders. One old coach once said, "I served in the US marines and had a hard time at boot camp, but it was just as tough making it into the NFL."

The English sprinter's greatest encouragement is that other refugees from the running track have made it to the rich pickings of an NFl contract - most spectacularly the Olympic gold medallists Bob "Bullet" Hayes and Willie Gault, and the world 110m hurdling champion Ronaldo Nehemiah. They all won Super Bowl rings with, respectively, the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers.

Achieving such glory may take Chambers a little while. He might find himself assigned to a season in the European League, where players perform not so much for the money - the season's earnings are capped at the subsistence level of $13,500 - but the chance to obtain the experience that might just carry him into the big league in America. Jake Delhomme, the quarterback of the Super Bowl team Carolina Panthers, took the European route after failing to draw a contract at home. He failed to make it with the Amsterdam Admirals, but finally made it when leading Frankfurt Galaxy to the European title.

That is one encouragement for Chambers. But then it is true that Delhomme, who is now expecting a dramatic improvement on his basic $2m-a-year contract, played gridiron through high school and college. Speed, though, can carry Chambers a long way. If he can take the hits and keep moving.