TAMPA — Somewhere between Gainesville and Moscow, the fire that once burned in Jeff Demps’ belly for the game of football went out. Winning an Olympic medal will do that to you. It will douse your passion for one sport and kindle a new fire for another.
But even as he was sprinting toward track and field stardom and a silver medal as a member of the United States 4x100 meter relay team at the 2012 London Olympics, Demps’ fervor for football smoldered.
It must have.
How else do you explain his zeal for the game suddenly reigniting amid an environment in the Buccaneers locker room last year that grew more noxious with every passing week.
“I don’t know what it was (that caused me to lose the fire for football), but when I came here for those two weeks to test the waters, I suddenly felt that passion again,’’ Demps said.
“I got to practice with the guys and the atmosphere was like it was in college. It just sparked everything again, and I was like, ‘OK, let’s give this a full shot and see what I can do with it.’ ”
What he’s doing can’t be too pleasing to members of the U.S. Track and Field team. Since winning silver again at the World Championships in Moscow last summer, Demps has left his 4x100 team in the dust.
“It’s all football now,’’ the running back said following a workout at One Buc Place this week. “I still love track. But what’s best for me this year is to just focus on football and get better at that.’’
It has to be that way. Demps tried it the other way, thinking he could satisfy his passion for both track and football all at once, but quickly realized he wouldn’t succeed at either if he kept it up for much longer.
When he reached that conclusion a few years back, it was football he gave up. He’s still not completely sure why. It wasn’t the money. Certainly, there was more to be made in football.
More than anything, he said, it was probably the success he was having in track. It had come so quickly, first as the anchor of the University of Florida’s 2009 4x100 championship relay team and then a year later as the NCAA 100-meter champion.
When he won the 100 meters again at the Texas Relays in March 2012, football was still in his sights, but a series of decisions largely beyond his control smothered it.
The first was the U.S. Olympic team’s decision to add him to its roster for the London Games. The second was the New England Patriots post-Olympic decision to stash him away on injured reserve just two weeks after they signed him to a three-year contract as an undrafted free agent.
The Patriots dumped Demps less than a year later, throwing him into a trade with the Bucs for running back LeGarrett Blount, but Demps’ mind wasn’t really on football at the time.
He was preparing for the World Championships in Moscow, thinking mostly about another run in the Olympics in 2016, but the Bucs wanted him to give football another try and were willing to let him complete his commitment to track before he did it.
That pushed his arrival in Tampa back to late September, but by the time the Bucs activated him two weeks later the fire for football was burning so strong inside him again that not even another trip to injured reserve could put it out.
“The thing is, I’ve always had a football background,’’ Demps said. “I grew up playing football. The reason I got into track was to stay in shape for football. You have to love football to play it well. If you don’t, you’re just going to be wondering all the time, ‘Why am I going out here getting beat up every day?’ ”
Demps said he’s adjusting well to his first training camp experience since he was a Gator. More often than not, he has been the one beating up on the linebackers and cornerbacks, smoking them with his world-class speed.
“They tell me to slow down a lot,’’ Demps said.
Bucs coach Lovie Smith thinks Demps is the fastest player in the NFL. And Demps is willing to prove it.
“Anybody that challenges me, I’ll take myself all day,’’ he said.
The Bucs are challenging him. They’ve got him running the ball, catching passes out of the backfield and lining up wide as a receiver. It was as a receiver that he made his biggest impact yet in camp.
Running a go route down the left sideline during 11-on-11 drills, Demps left a cornerback and a linebacker in his wake and hauled in a perfectly placed Mike Glennon pass for what would have been an 84-yard touchdown pass.
“I kind of kid the guys a little bit, telling them that if they don’t do anything it’s kind of hard to notice them,’’ Smith said. “But Jeff, he seems to get noticed just about every day.
“But it’s early and it’s tough competition out there. And sometimes you’ll get a track athlete and they’d rather (do their work) before you put the pads on. That’s not the case with Jeff. Jeff will let you know, he’s a football player.’’
And does he ever love being one.