The greatest hurdler who ever lived turns 57 today.
Renaldo Nehemiah was born in Newark, New Jersey, on this date in 1959. His mother died when he was 14, forcing Renaldo—nicknamed “Skeets” as a baby because he crawled so fast—to help his father, an electrician, raise his younger brother and sister. Nehemiah attended Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, alma mater of Joe Scarpati, holder for Tom Dempsey’s record 63-yard field goal in 1970, trying out for the track team in ninth grade. Skeets tried hurdles, in part because no one else would. “Everyone was afraid of ‘em. I was enamored with the ability to run and jump at the same time. It made me feel special.” After suffering a severe tear of his upper hamstring and glute muscles as a sophomore, Nehemiah sat out most of his junior year. As a senior, he was a standout quarterback and received several college offers, but his real love was track. Skeets was so much better than his competitors that his coach had him jump over 42 inch [collegiate height] hurdles while they ran 39 inch [regulation high school] heights. Despite being only 5’9” [short for a hurdler] and weighing 150, Nehemiah was able to bench-press 260 pounds. He trained over 45 inch hurdles, which are not used in competition at any level, and his workouts were intense. In 1977, Nehemiah became National Junior Champion in the 110 and 300 yard hurdle events and was named “High School Athlete of the Year” by Track & Field News.
The University of Tennessee had the best hurdles program in the country, yet did not offer the nation’s best hurdler a scholarship, believing Nehemiah—who had grown to six feet tall—had “reached his prime and peaked” in high school. The University of Maryland—winners of over 20 consecutive ACC track championships—did not, and offered Skeets a full scholarship. Nehemiah became the top-ranked hurdler on the planet as a freshman, but his breakout year came as a sophomore, when he broke the world record in the 110 meter hurdles twice in two weeks. Skeets won the 1979 World Cup and Pan Am Games titles along with the second of four U.S. national titles. At the 1979 Penn Relays, he was named meet MVP running anchor to win three events. Nehemiah was the prohibitive favorite to win a gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics but did not get a chance to compete due to the U.S. boycott. In 1981, he became the first to break 13 seconds in the 110 meter hurdles, setting a new world record of 12.93 in Zurich, where England’s Sebastian Coe set a world mark of 3:48:53 in the mile at the same meet.
Renaldo Nehemiah signed as a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers in 1982. Despite not playing football in college, Skeets played three seasons, catching 43 passes and scoring four touchdowns in 40 games. After winning a Super Bowl championship in 1984, Nehemiah was released to make room for Jerry Rice [Daily Dose, October 13], who San Francisco drafted with their first selection the following year.
From 1978 to 1981, Renaldo Nehemiah was the finest hurdler in the world. He won three NCAA championships and set eight world records over five separate distances. His duals with Greg Foster—1984 Olympic silver medalist and one of the top hurdlers of all time—rivaled those of Ali-Frasier or Evert-Navratilova. Steve McGill wrote, “Watching Nehemiah hurdle was like watching Van Gogh paint, like watching Miles Davis and John Coltrane perform on stage. It wasn’t mere sport; it was art, in its highest form.” Billie Patricia Daniels, who coached Nehemiah as well as gold medalist Evelyn Ashford, said, “If he had concentrated on athletics [track & field] he would have won gold in the 100 meter sprint and 110 meter hurdles. He clearly could have gone under 9.9 in the 100.” Mr. Nehemiah is the only four-time winner of Superstars, a made-for-television decathlon-style competition broadcast by ABC Sports [Daily Dose, January 4]. After returning to track following football, he achieved world rankings four more times and earned a spot on the 1991 World Championships team before injuries forced his retirement. Mr. Nehemiah was inducted to the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame 1997.