Will Marquise Goodwin's Leap for Olympic Gold Cost Him His Job with the Bills?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJuly 1, 2016

TORONTO, ON - JULY 22:  Marquise Goodwin of the United States holds the American flag after winning the silver medal in the men's long jump during Day 12 of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games on July 22, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Marquise Goodwin stood behind a podium. In August, he'll likely be a gold-medal contender at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But in this moment, he wasn't that Marquise Goodwin.

No, in this moment, he was a Buffalo Bills wide receiver talking about how much he's risking in one sport—the one that pays the bills—to reach the highest peak of another.

But listen to him speak: There's no hint of concern in his voice. Only confidence comes through from a man who is defined by more than just football as an athlete, and as a person.

“I'm in another sport right now,” he says. “But I'm still active. It's not like I'm at home sitting on the couch and eating potato chips."

Goodwin, entering the last year of his rookie contract in the NFL, isn't just dabbling in track and field. He might be the best long-jumper in the world, having posted the two longest jumps of the year: He set a personal best with a jump of 8.45 meters in Guadeloupe and launched himself 8.42 meters at a track meet in England.

Both jumps flew past the 8.31-meter mark that Greg Rutherford used to win gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.

So while he still has to earn his way to Rio de Janeiro by finishing in the top three at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, on Saturday and Sunday, he's a gold-medal favorite.

Just as he was in 2012, when he won the U.S. trials and went to London but came home empty-handed.

The two-time NCAA champion left track and field after that and concentrated on football during his senior season at Texas. Buffalo took him in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft after he ran a 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds at the combine.

He was a solid contributor as a wide receiver and kick returner his rookie year before a series of injuries—a rib issue in 2015 chief among them—limited him to three catches for 66 yards in 12 games over the last two seasons.

But the hunger for Olympic gold that Goodwin first felt at the age of nine never went away. He's chasing it again, and it could cost him in the NFL. How he performs on Sundays this fall could mean the difference between a big free-agent payday and hoping for camp invites.

And to perform on Sundays, you have to make a team. 

Goodwin is scheduled to make $675,000 with the Bills in 2016. That’s a lot of money, though in NFL terms, it's a non-guaranteed pittance. Even if he were present, Goodwin would be on Buffalo's roster bubble.

Head coach Rex Ryan has excused Goodwin from OTAs and training camp while he goes medal hunting, and Ryan's response to questions about Goodwin usually begins with encouraging words. But he has also acknowledged a harsh reality.

Over three NFL seasons Goodwin has 20 receptions for 349 yards. In 2015, he appeared in just two games.
Over three NFL seasons Goodwin has 20 receptions for 349 yards. In 2015, he appeared in just two games.Gary Wiepert/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We are proud of the fact that he is representing our country, he is representing our football team, our community," he said, via WKBW’s Joe Buscaglia. "But yeah, is it hurting him? I would think so a little bit."

Beyond the obvious marquee names and high earners, there are no promises in the NFL. In front-office language, Goodwin is entering a “prove it” season.

Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods are holding down two wide receiver spots in Buffalo. Eleven other receivers on the Bills' offseason depth chart are clawing for probably four remaining slots.

Goodwin's productive rookie season—17 catches for 283 yards and three touchdowns—is a distant memory. That's a major strike against him, though he has some advantages.

He can return kicks, having finished 2013 with 351 return yards (21.9 yards per return), and it's a plus that the coaching staff knows him well.

“When I was playing football, I used to train every offseason with Olympic-caliber track athletes,” Bills wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal tells Bleacher Report. “So I appreciate the sport. If there was ever a coach to be behind him, it would be me."

Still, all the competition for those few spots means that even with Lal's enthusiasm for track, he has to acknowledge that bounding toward a long-jump board instead of a spiraling football is less than ideal.

“The concern for me is that I really want him to be on our team,” Lal says. “But the fact that he’s not going to be around as much while training for and competing in another sport leads to fear that lack of availability will factor into the equation. That’s really where my concern lies.”

If Goodwin makes it to the Olympics and then the long-jump final on August 13, he'll only have five training-camp practices and three preseason games to make up for lost time before the first roster cut-down date.

Beyond that, he'll have just under three weeks with the team prior to the final 53-man roster being announced. He'll be competing against teammates who have logged an entire offseason of football-specific work.  

If someone else emerges, Goodwin could find himself further behind in what may already be an uphill battle. During the draft in April, fans were eager to remind him of who that someone else could be after the Bills used their sixth-round pick to select Kolby Listenbee, a receiver from TCU who has a similar skill set.

Marquise Goodwin @flashg88dwin

My mentions today have been more about ppl saying goodbye to me rather than congratulating draftees. Don't take away from their day...

It's a chance Goodwin seems comfortable taking.

"I'm not new to this," he says. "It's not my first time transitioning from track to football or football to track. After the 2012 Olympics, I came right off the plane and went to practice at the University of Texas and hopped right in without any hesitations or problems."

Goodwin says he stayed away from track for the next few years because he didn't want to be "the track guy" with the Bills and didn't think Ryan's predecessor, Doug Marrone, would embrace the idea.

Now, though, he says, "I want to fulfill my dreams, and live my life a little bit how I want to, without letting what other people think dictate my decisions. But it’s good to know I have a great support system in the Bills organization, and they’re willing to let me pursue my dreams, and something I’ve had on my mind since I was a nine-year-old kid running in the street against my cousins."

Goodwin is hardly the first Olympian to miss out on a medal and come back four years later, looking for redemption. The difference, though, is that unlike amateur athletes, Goodwin is risking a full-time gig and a six-figure salary.

If the Bills cut Goodwin, he likely wouldn’t need long to land on another roster. Speed is a highly valued commodity, after all. But for a player looking to establish himself through consistent production, falling behind during the Olympics and then having to learn a new playbook while working with new coaches and a new quarterback would put him in a serious hole.

Meanwhile, the gold medal Goodwin is pursuing would pay him $25,000, via the U.S. Olympic Committee’s medal pay scale. According to Adam Taylor of Business Insider, silver medalists receive $15,000, and a bronze medal pays $10,000.

At his press conference, Goodwin said there’s plenty of money available in track, but he explained it’s “sort of a minority versus majority deal.”

“A lot of track athletes really don't make that much, but there are a few who can make a lot of money in the sport,” he said.

"You get paid meet to meet. Let's say I win, well then I get maybe a $10,000 stipend, and then I get bonuses on top of that. Then also what the people who endorse me are willing to provide for each win."

Goodwin won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games, just days before reporting to Bills training camp.
Goodwin won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games, just days before reporting to Bills training camp.Al Bello/Getty Images

Those endorsements are the true bank-breakers. For any Olympian, endorsements are what elevate them to that upper-earning tier. Having an endorsement or three in your pocket still doesn’t always equal NFL riches, but it allows you to keep training and competing full time.

The household-name Olympians who wind up on Wheaties boxes have overflowing pockets. For example, immediately after the 2012 Games, it was estimated gymnast Gabby Douglas would earn up to $3 million in endorsement money, according to executive director of Baker Street Advertising Bob Dorfman, who spoke to Yahoo Sports.

You might think that if Goodwin comes back from Rio with a gold medal, his two-sport status and the mighty branding arm of the NFL would give his earning power a swift kick in the rear.

Good luck with that, says David Carter, the executive director at the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute.

“The value of endorsements linked to Olympic success varies widely,” Carter tells Bleacher Report. It's one thing to win gold in figure skating or the 100-meter dash, he says, but most sports don't have that kind of profile.

"Goodwin's two-sport status will certainly differentiate him from most athletes," Carter continues. "But will not necessarily move the endorsement needle. More so, it provides him with a long-term opportunity to build a compelling, well-rounded brand."

Since long jump is one of those "most sports" that lack endorsement sex appeal, the speed that's integral to long-jump success pays better elsewhere, so the best athletes tend to get siphoned off.

That explains why the last two Olympic-winning distances have been the shortest since 1976, and why Goodwin is a Buffalo Bill in the first place.

So why risk that financial security now?

Aside from the money the NFL has already put in his bank account, Goodwin talks about his gold-medal mission like it’s an itch that needs to be scratched. That's a product of dreaming about Olympic gold since fourth grade and then missing out on his dream by maybe a centimeter. 

His trip to London started out smoothly, as Goodwin was one of only two jumpers to hit the automatic qualifying mark of 8.11 meters, moving him into the finals.

“His first jump in the finals would have been potentially the winner,” says Jeremy Fischer, the program manager at the U.S. Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California. “But the problem is he scratched it by maybe a centimeter. It was far, and he looked really good.”

Goodwin’s toe crept past the fault line, nullifying what could have been his crowning moment. Instead, he had to adjust on his second of three jumps to move forward into the top eight and earn three more jumps—and do so while mentally wrestling with the game of inches he had just lost.

He overcompensated on his next attempt and launched too early. The resulting 7.80 meter jump was mediocre by his standards. His third jump was 7.76 meters. That put him in 10th place, ending his Olympics.

“That was my opportunity, and I thought I could have won it on that first jump,” he says. “But would have, could have and should have. Looking forward to now, I’m working on a lot of things that will help set me up to where I’ll be ready for any situation.”

"Yeah, I scratched by a centimeter," he adds, "but I wasn’t able to bounce back. Then, 21-year-old Marquise wasn’t able to fix the situation.”

Team Goodwin has known more success this century than the Buffalo Bills have. Marquise's wife, Morgan, is a 100-meter hurdler who's also qualified for the Olympic trials. The two met at the University of Texas, where they were a track power couple, and now they train together.

"We definitely push each other,” she says. “If I see him slacking, I’m always saying, ‘Baby, get up, you need to walk it off.’"

She also helps by loaning him her personal coach, who often pulls double duty while Morgan works out by throwing balls to Marquise.

T-Association @txtassociation

Adorable Texas power couple @flashg88dwin and @MorgannnGoodwin both competed today in #TXRelays16 #Longhorns4Life https://t.co/nSWSlOHRL0

And then there is Dwight Phillips, who won the long jump at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and has gone from idol to mentor to coach for Goodwin.

“He’s always told me that he had pictures of me jumping on his walls as a kid,” Phillips says. The two met on the field at the 2009 U.S. Outdoor Championships, where Goodwin broke Dion Bentley’s 20-year-old national high school record with a jump of 8.18 meters.

Now Phillips has seen Goodwin through a transition from the hanging technique to the two-and-a-half-hitch kick. You don’t need to dive down a long-jump internet hole to understand what that means. Just know it's ridiculously hard to switch from one to the other.

“In high school, I used the hanging technique," Phillips says. “It took me nearly three years to be able to perfect the two-and-a-half-hitch technique before I began to jump far. He did it in three months, which is completely unheard of.”

And he didn't just do it. He made himself a favorite during his event at the track and field trials this weekend, and barring a shocking stumble, he'll carry the same status to Rio.

That status will come with financial and career risk, but some dreams are worth such a sacrifice. Because as it turns out, you can take the track guy away from the track, but you can’t take the gold-medal hunger away from the track guy.

“In 2012, I had planned on it being my last year competing ever in long jump,” Goodwin says. “Had I won the Olympic gold it probably would have been my last track meet. Obviously it didn’t work out how I had planned it. That’s why I’m giving it another shot. So I can complete a task.”


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