As a youngster, he always crossed the finish line first during the impromptu neighborhood street races. And by the time Jeff Demps was 11 years old and playing Pop Warner football, he could outrun everybody. "That was when I really sort of knew I was kind of fast," Demps said. But it wasn't until one day last June that Demps realized just how fast he was compared with the rest of the nation's best sprinters. During the U.S. Olympic Trials quarterfinals in Eugene, Ore., he set the national junior record in the 100 meters with a time of 10.01 seconds. For the kid who considers football his first love and was headed to Florida as a freshman running back, the question immediately arose: Is Demps a football player who happens to run track or a budding professional track star who happens to play football?
"I'm actually a football player that runs track," Demps, 19, said emphatically. "I started off playing football, and I kind of got into that track thing in high school. Usually a football player that runs track is just kind of trying to stay fit or get a little faster for the football field.
"For me, it's different. I kind of got into the track mentality. Then I learned a lot of technique, and I've actually had some professional training to actually get me on the competitive track level."
At some point, Demps might have to choose between the two sports. For now, he has found a way to make the most out of both his talents. He played in 14 games as a freshman on the Gators' BCS national championship team, rushing 78 times for 605 yards and seven touchdowns.
And today, when Florida begins competition in the SEC track championships in Gainesville, Demps will be a vital member of the Gators' men's track team, competing in individual and relay races.
According to track coach Mike Holloway, Demps has made the transition in unusually smooth fashion.
"The biggest reason is because he's … fit into what we're trying to do here. It hasn't been about Jeff Demps," said Holloway, whose men's team is No. 1 in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll. "He doesn't want to be in the spotlight. He doesn't want to be the guy that all the attention falls on. He just wants to be another one of the guys.
"He doesn't want special treatment. … He has come in here from Day 1 and said, 'What do I need to do to get better?' "
To participate in both sports has taken a lot of dedication. Although Demps didn't participate in spring football, he spent two days per week working on drills and lifting weights before heading back to the track.
"It's a big transition from the football field to the track," said Demps, who will compete in the 100 and 4x100. "Coming in last summer to the team, I had to work on (running) change of directions because I had just finished running track and I was used to just running in a straight line.
"I had it, but I wasn't on the level that I needed to be on with it. It's something I worked on, and we still work on it now. It was kind of hard to be working on it (during spring drills) and then coming out to the track and trying to remember everything for track. It's something I've really worked on, and it's been working out pretty good."
That dedication has earned him the respect of his teammates.
"I see him as a track guy, but he can do both," said junior Calvin Smith, a Tampa native who has been an integral part of the Gators' success this season. "He gives the same effort on the track as he does in football."
Demps suffered a hamstring injury at the Penn Relays on April 23 and has spent the past few weeks trying to get himself ready for the SEC meet. After a lifetime of winning races, he has had to learn to adjust to not being the top dog.
"In high school, I used to win all the races," said Demps, who starred at South Lake High in Groveland, a small central Florida town about 70 miles north of Tampa. "Then I opened up at Auburn and I got like fifth or something like that.
"I was like, dang. I wasn't used to it. … I was reminded you're not always going to win the race, but champions are made by how you handle it when you lose."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.