When the Packers Signed a Track Star
Ever since Bob Hayes brought his gold medals to the Dallas Cowboys, NFL teams have tried to find future superstars in the world of track and field.
The idea makes a bit of sense. Much of what it takes to succeed in football comes down to pure athletic ability, and track and field athletes are among the best pure athletes on the planet.
Unfortunately, nobody has so far duplicated the success Dallas had with Hayes. Former Olympian Justin Gatlin tried to catch on with the Philadelphia Eagles, but couldn’t make the cut, and the NFL’s flirtation with Usain Bolt never led to anything more.
And though it may sound odd coming from a typically stoic and unadventurous front office, the Green Bay Packers once tried to convert a track star of their own.
From football to track and back
When Leo Bookman committed to the University of Kansas, he planned to participate in both football and track.
A 6-1 safety, Bookman’s already prodigious speed figured to be a great asset to the Jayhawks. But three years into his time with the program, he’d been little more than an interesting footnote. He averaged 13.6 yards on ten kick returns and carried the ball once and lost 15 yards.
After the conclusion of his junior season, Bookman announced he was quitting football to focus on track.
The reasoning for the move was pretty simple: Bookman was both incredibly fast and incredibly successful running track, and he had his sights set on the Olympics. Early on, it seemed like a great call. He won national titles in the 200 meter dash in the 2003 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor meets, and he would go on to defend his indoor title in 2004.
That success was short lived. Bookman failed to qualify for the finals in the 200 meter dash at the 2004 Olympic trials, and a positive drug test in the fall of 2005 put Bookman’s track dreams on hold. The World Anti-Doping Agency retroactively disqualified him from the 2005 Jamaica International Invitational and stripped him of his second place finish.
But then, the Packers came calling.
Fast, but not fast enough
Bookman joined the Packers in April of 2006, and early on it appeared he’d finally found a football home.
Randy Corvitz of the Kansas City Star reported that Bookman looked comfortable on the football field, and his speed even turned Ted Thompson’s head:
Bookman hasn't played football since 2002 at Kansas. In March, Bookman, who is 6 feet 2 and 213 pounds, broke the unofficial 40-yard dash record inside the Packers' Hutson Center. His first set of 40s was timed in 4.22, 4.24 and 4.25, and his second was 4.19, 4.21 and 4.22. A few days later, Bookman said he ran 4.26 on grass for the Chiefs.
"He's still learning the game, but he's a nice-sized kid, looks like he catches the ball pretty good and can run like the wind," Packers' general manager Ted Thompson said.
Unfortunately, Packers fans never got to see Bookman’s speed in a game. He was held out of the first preseason matchup with an ankle injury, and although he returned to practice the following Monday, he was released on August 17.
Bookman caught on with the Oakland Raiders and spent the 2006 season on Oakland’s practice squad. But even given the late Al Davis’ love for pure speed, Bookman didn’t make it in Oakland either. He was released the following April and never signed with another NFL team.