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Gold medal sprinter has new goal

SUWANEE - Training with a group of current NFL players and pro prospects, Justin Gatlin doesn't look out of place at all.

The speed is there, not a huge surprise from an Olympic gold medal sprinter who has been called "the world's fastest man." The hands, his coaches say, are pretty good, too.

The football knowledge - that's a work in progress.

For that reason, the 26-year-old is in Gwinnett County. He's been here for three weeks now, working on his gridiron skills with David Irons Sr. and his coaches with the Georgia Training Alliance, a group that includes former NFL wideout Terence Mathis. He's playing catch-up on football, a sport he hasn't played since high school in Pensacola, Fla.

"It brings out the kid in me because I'm still excited about it," Gatlin said about football. "(The other players) always make fun of me because I'm always carrying a football around with me. They say, 'You probably sleep with a football.' Things they were probably doing when they were in grade school, but here I am doing them again."

Gatlin is pursuing a football career because he is appealing a four-year ban from track and field by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The ban was initially eight years, but was shortened late last year, although he still had to give up his world-record-tying time of 9.77 seconds in the 100 meters, set in 2006.

He maintains his innocence when it comes to taking banned substances, which he is why he's still fighting the case.

"We're appealing it. I have a lawyer and I'm very confident in him," Gatlin said. "I think that everything will work out. Right now I just want to clear my name, to show what happened the best way I can as a victim. I want the world to understand that athletes can be victims. There are some that are dopers, but there are some that are victims. Track rules are so different from NFL rules. You couldn't use Nyquil in track. It's very strict."

So when the Olympics begin this summer, Gatlin won't be there. He won't be able to defend his 100-meter gold medal.

"It hurts as a competitor, but still I have my gold medal," he said. "It wasn't like I went there and I didn't win, and I want another shot at it. I have my gold medal. I have my glory for it. Do I want to defend it? Of course. Any competitor would want to defend it, like a team wants to defend a Super Bowl championship. But right now I'm focused on preparing to get on the football field."

Irons said it's tough to doubt Gatlin's physical attributes. He is noticeably quick around other pros and would-be pros, a group that includes Irons' oldest son David Jr., a cornerback with the Atlanta Falcons. He's at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, up from 183 when he won Olympic gold.

The speedster is training to play wide receiver and kick returner, although in high school he was mainly a free safety.

"If he can take that speed and transition it to a football field, even 90 percent of it, he doesn't have to bring all of it, just 90 percent with some lateral quickness, he's going to be a weapon," said Irons, who trains his NFL sons Kenny and David, as well as college running backs Beau Johnson (Oklahoma State), Ben Tate (Auburn) and others.

Gatlin had a few workouts for NFL teams last season, but they didn't result in much. At that point, he hadn't even worked on his football skills. He was just a track star coming out to run.

"When he came out last year, he didn't do it the right way," Irons said. "If Justin Gatlin's going to come and work out, of course NFL teams are going to be curious. But he still has to know how to play. I told him, don't do that any more. Come in here, let's train you up and do it right. He's a fast learner. And when I first saw him run, I was like, 'This dude's fast. He's going to be a weapon for somebody.'"

To get to that point, Gatlin goes through two sessions of workouts each day. The first is a two-hour gamut of football and agility work in Suwanee, followed by an hour in the afternoon of conditioning in Duluth, whether it be lifting weights or doing a pool workout.

He also spends time in the classroom to learn about routes and defenses, in addition to his on-field learning.

"The fundamentals are the hardest part (after a layoff from football)," Gatlin said. "The raw talent is there. I can out-sprint anybody, out-jump anybody. I've got good hands. Learning the fundamentals, like knowing how to run your routes, when to cut them low, when to cut them higher, reading coverages, that's what I have to get back into."

The goal for Gatlin is to be ready for a March 12 pro day at the University of Tennessee, where he ran track for two years before turning pro. Seven or eight NFL teams have already called Irons about Gatlin, so a large crowd of scouts is expected to see his workout after months of football-based training.

"The one thing you can't learn here is heart and toughness," Irons said. "We can't simulate the contact. We can't bring the guys in front of him and beat him up for real. But we can give him all the tools and self confidence he needs to do it. And I can think he can do it for real. I just can't simulate what happens the first time he gets hit in the mouth.

"That's going to determine whether he can do this. He'll be in (NFL) camp somewhere. Somebody's going to sign him. But when he puts the pads and helmets on and gets hit while catching it will tell us. If he walks back to the huddle and brushes himself off, then he's fine. But if he gets rattled, he won't be able to do it. He'll be on the first cut list."