Football Players Are Pushing a Different Kind of Sled

The following is an excerpt from an article originally published at

Caleb Campbell received curious glances and furrowed eyebrows — just like other athletes before him. He is the latest in the lineage of football players turned bobsledders.

The Detroit Lions selected Campbell, a safety from Army, in the seventh round of last year’s college draft. As the N.F.L. season drew near, the Lions received a letter from the Army stating that its professional athlete policy had been revised. It wanted Campbell to serve a two-year commitment.

As he drove from Detroit back to West Point, Campbell received a call from the assistant United States bobsled coach Bill Tavares, asking him to try out for the team. Campbell’s only familiarity with the sport came from watching “Cool Runnings,” a Disney movie loosely based on a Jamaican bobsled team.

“I did it last year and saw some of my friends, and they would look at me and say: ‘I heard a funny joke the other day. Somebody told me you were bobsledding,’ ” Campbell said. “Nobody really knows the correlation between football and bobsledding and how much of a relationship there is until they understand the sport of bobsled.”

Although the two sports share little in common — there are no violent collisions between bobsledders — there is a kinship that had never been as evident as now when the United States team gathered here last week to participate in trials for the 2010 Olympic Games. Seven athletes vying for slots played college football. Nearly all played high school football.

Football/bobsled synergy dates back almost 25 years. Brian Shimer, the United States men’s bobsled coach, played football at Morehead State and piloted a sled with the former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Willie Gault, a wide receiver who played in the N.F.L. for 11 seasons, was on the team at the Olympic Games four years earlier.

Nearly all converted football players are bobsled pushers, who thrust the sled down the hill as fast as they can at the start of the race before hopping in. Their frames are nearly uniform — around 6 feet 2, 220 pounds.

“We can’t get the real big guys,” Tavares said. “They just won’t fit in the sled.”

“We’re heavier guys, explosive and strong,” said Jesse Beckom III, a former Iowa State linebacker. “Moving a 400-pound sled across the ice, you need some powerful, fast guys. You can hit the sled. You miss hitting people, but it’s definitely still an adrenaline rush.”

The surge is present in both sports. In football it is sustained over a few hours. In bobsled, it is a spiked rush that many athletes said reached higher proportions and is an overload of senses and blurs.

“It’s like you’re on a roller coaster and you’re going downhill real fast, it just kind of sucks at you and wants to pull you out of the sled,” Campbell said.

Both sports are highly technical. Athletes search for optimal angles. The training is similar, with each reliant on weight lifting and sprinting.

A large difference is that the movement in bobsled is vertical instead of in all directions. And, of course, bobsledders travel at speeds that can hit 5 g-forces.

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