Penn Relays still special to Renaldo Nehemiah

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Legendary athlete Renaldo Nehemiah.

Standing to the side Monday as the news conference to publicize this week's Penn Relays concluded at the Shops at Liberty Place, Renaldo Nehemiah looked almost as fit and trim as he did 38 years ago when he put together one of the greatest performances in the history of the annual carnival.

After leading Maryland's shuttle hurdle and 4x200-meter relays to victory in 1979, Nehemiah made up a 25-meter deficit on the last lap and carried the Terrapins to the 4x400 relay win, clocking 44.3 seconds for his anchor leg. The comeback in the day's final event had the fans buzzing as they left Franklin Field, and a lot of them haven't forgotten.

"Ironically, to this day, I have been defined by that day in '79," said Nehemiah, 58, now a sports agent and an ambassador for USA Track and Field.

"I didn't realize it at the time, but 30-plus years later people would still be talking about the single greatest day they saw at the Penn Relays. I don't know about it because I was running, but I'm happy to be in that conversation."

Nehemiah went on to hold the world record in the 110-meter hurdles for much of the 1980s, a decade that saw him branch off to the NFL, where he spent three seasons as a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers. He was the first hurdler to break the 13-second mark for the event.

Nehemiah first ran at the Penn Relays for Scotch Plains-Fanwood (N.J.) High School, calling it "one of the highlights every year because it always was the defining momenty of your year." He has been back fairly regularly in recent years.

"It is truly indeed a carnival both inside and outside the stadium, and you want to be a part of it," said Nehemiah, who retired from competition in 1992. "I always remember that crescendo around the third and fourth turn and that's what I lived for. If I could be the difference-maker and hear that noise, then I thought I was doing something."

As someone still involved in track, Nehemiah tells his athletes to give back to the sport and that keeping an event like the Penn Relays viable is a plus.

"It's not always about money," he said. "It's about the next generation and the foundational principles. I grew up in an era where we ran for the love of the sport. We were amateurs. So I still have a lot inside of me. I always tell everybody, it's beholden to you to give back in any way or shape you can, and if it means just supporting it, then you should show up and support it."

Nehemiah said he gets a kick out of watching high school runners compete and appreciates the continuing USA vs. The World series, an event that he said should be held at "the granddaddy of all relays.'

"Thankfully, we've represented ourselves fairly well here," he said. "We have this running - no pun intended - rivalry with Jamaica.

"Over the years, as you start strategically trying to position yourself for world championships and Olympic Games, some of the bigger names are more cautious. But it's still a very viable product. It is still something that every American athlete wants to be one of those relay teams, a showcase that gets aired on national TV. So that in and of itself makes it well-warranted."

Maybe a runner will have a memorable moment along the lines of what Nehemiah did in 1979, and hear a roar like what was unleashed back then.

"I never ran another anchor leg like that since, either," he said. "We won, but it was painful."

USA vs. the World

Former Eastern High School star English Gardner of Voorhees, winner of a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, is among the early entrants named for the USA vs. the World relays on Saturday. She will be joined by fellow gold medalists Tianna Bartoletta, Natasha Hastings, and Morolake Akinosun. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Elaine Thompson of Jamaica also is expected to compete.

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq