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February 17, 2017
Before Natasha Hastings, a gold medal-winning Olympic sprinter, started training dozens of college athletes for the NFL draft this past Monday, she had one concern. It was a reasonable one.
“My concern coming in was even though I had the credentials to train the players,” Hastings said, “I was a woman.”
Hastings found a lot of uncertainty in that dynamic.
“I wasn’t sure how football players would react to a woman leading them,” she added. “Would they respect me? Would they care if I was a woman?
“None of them cared. … They’ve been great. The biggest thing I’ve taken away from all of this is that athletes are athletes. An athlete wants to learn how to be the best, and they don’t care who they learn it from. They don’t care if it’s a man or a woman teaching them.”
In the world of the NFL draft, one that includes the scouting combine and pro day preparations, there may not be a more unique, qualified and buoyant coach than Natasha Hastings.
While women prepping men for the draft and combine isn’t unheard of, a number of NFL officials said it’s extremely rare. That world, frankly, is dominated by men.
More than anything, however, what makes Hastings unusual is her background. As far as I can tell, never have draft prospects been trained by a women’s Olympic sprinting champion.
Hastings represents the latest figure to play a role in the continuing story of how women are gaining influence in the testosterone-filled NFL. In 2015, Jen Welter became a coaching intern during Arizona’s training camp. That same year, Sarah Thomas was named the NFL’s first female game official.
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About one year later, the Bills hired the first full-time female assistant coach in Kathryn Smith, who served as a special teams quality control coach. The NFL has made significant strides since Al Davis hired Amy Trask as the first female team CEO in 1997.
At Monday’s training session, Hastings said there were 30 to 40 players at the TEST Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey. This is the same facility that did the combine and pro day work for players such as Patrick Peterson, Joe Flacco, Ryan Clady and Jevon Kearse, among several dozen others.
Kevin Dunn, owner of the academy, said they are currently working with 44 players.
“Having an Olympic gold medalist like Natasha here to help pinpoint the fine details of linear speed mechanics,” Dunn said, “is an incredible opportunity for these guys to master the 40-yard dash.”
The goal for the players who train with Hastings is obvious, but crucial: improving their speed. And though most of the players who trained with Hastings weren’t invited to the combine, they will still use Hastings’ tips when teams have pro day workouts and other forms of NFL testing.
There’s a long list of players who never participated in the combine but still made NFL rosters. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports says 15 percent of the players drafted last year were not invited to the combine.
Still, this is the time of year when physical performance matters most to a prospect. Perform well, and draft stocks can rise fortuitously. Perform poorly, and stocks can plummet. And a player’s time in the 40 can mean draft life or death.
That’s where Hastings’ experience with running, and running fast, comes in.
She’s medaled at the some of the world’s biggest races: the Olympics, the USATF Outdoor Championships and the World Championships, among others. In Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Games, she won gold in the 4×400-meter relay, just as she did in 2008.
It was at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem that Hastings began to shatter records. She set new marks that had previously lasted over a decade in the 300 and 500. Hasting’s mother, Joanne, was also a sprinter.
Hastings continued to train and grow and improve, becoming a five-time medalist at the World Championships. Now she is trying to spread the knowledge of her craft to people who need it: potential NFL players.
Hastings isn’t sure how much she will continue training players, but based on talking to her, she intends to keep doing this in the future.
This isn’t to say she will change the world or become the next NFL commissioner. This is a simple tale about someone trying to help players improve their draft lot. Most of the time, those people are men. This time, it’s a woman.
One day, even in the male-dominated world of football, no one will care.
“I know how to be fast,” she laughed, “and I can teach it just like the men.”
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.