TAMPA – The first time the ball came bouncing toward him, he raced toward it, instinctively leaning over to try to pick it up and keep running.
But like the cheeky chicken in the film 'Rocky,' the ball wouldn't cooperate. It squirmed around in a desperate attempt not to be caught, like the brazen bird that initially eludes Sylvester Stallone's iconic character.
His second attempt to field a bouncing ball (simulating a short kickoff) yielded the same result.
Next, it was a simple warm-up exercise of jogging and catching a floating pass. The outcome was similar. The ball bounced off Jeff Demps' outstretched hands and fell to the earth.
It looked like he hadn't touched a football in months.
Because, in fact, he hadn't.
The last time Demps did was on January 2, when his University of Florida team beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. Immediately thereafter, the running back/kick return specialist put his gridiron goals on hold – perhaps even permanently – for he had his eyes on another prize: medaling in the Olympics.
A sprinter with world-class speed, Demps trained for and eventually made the U.S. Olympic team and competed in the preliminary heats of the men's 4x100 meter relay earlier this month in London. In the finals, another member of the team took Demps' place. The foursome came up just short against the Jamaican team, but Demps and his American teammates took home silver medals for their hard work and effort.
With that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity behind him, the 22-year-old decided to give football a second chance. Because he did not make himself eligible for the NFL Draft, Demps was free to sign with any club upon his return from London. He had no shortage of suitors, including his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Demps hails from central Florida), but eventually settled on New England.
Following his first practice with his new team – a joint session, coincidentally, against the Bucs – Demps explained his decision.
"Once I talked to the Patriots I kind of got the feeling that that's where I wanted to be. Everything was family-based. It was like I was already part of the team. So, that made me decide to go to the Patriots."
Having five other former Florida Gators on the Patriots roster also was a factor, he admitted.
"It played a role, knowing some of the faces. They took me in, like they did when I first came to Florida."
Where exactly Demps fits in with the Patriots remains to be seen. Standing no taller than 5-8, Demps is undersized for a running back, but his elite speed makes him a logical choice as a kick returner. Having lost weight to compete as an Olympic sprinter, Demps says he's now hovering around 185, only five pounds lighter than his playing weight at Florida.
Running backs coach Ivan Fears says he's excited to see what Demps can do, particularly since the Patriots didn't invest much time scouting the player before this year's draft, knowing he wouldn't be available at that time. At the same time, Fears is managing expectations.
"I'm not going to go overboard. What he's done has been truly amazing and a great story, but out here, I ain't giving him nothing," stressed Fears, known for his tough-love approach to coaching.
"He's going to earn everything he gets from us. No matter how I feel about him, unless he does it on the field, he's not getting everything else. I don't know him that well as a player. A guy with his kind of speed, maybe he has other assets to take advantage of what he's got, and maybe being too heavy might be a problem for him. He's not a weak guy… I threw him in the one-on-ones and blitz pickup and all that stuff. He's courageous. Let's see what he does."
Slow starts, like the one Demps admittedly had today, are not something the speedster is accustomed to, but, like any good runner, he's taking it in stride.
"That's probably going to be the toughest part, just getting back into that football shape and learning the plays," he conceded. "Went pretty good, for my first day... We still have a long way to go, but I'm going to come out each and every day and work harder. It's tough, but I've got the mindset to do whatever it takes."
Fears pointed out that Demps' transition may be helped by the fact that he has some familiarity with New England's offense already, having worked with Charlie Weis for one season at Florida. Weis, the former Patriots offensive coordinator from 2000-04, held the same position last season in Gainesville.
After just one practice, Demps acknowledged he did in fact recognize many similarities between the two schemes. More than anything, though, Demps knows he must immediately focus on recalling his muscle memory for football.
"I always had that football background. You know, I'm a football player first, and I'm used to it, jumping right into it, coming off track season. It was basically the same transition [today], only the guys are bigger [in the NFL].
"It's just a blessing to come from the Olympics and come to a football field. Not many people do that."
What, if anything, did Demps learn during the Olympics that could translate on the gridiron?
"Just to be a technician in everything you do," he answered. "You're a professional now, so, you just have to make sure everything's perfect. Can't slack off."
There might be one other valuable lesson that will apply here in New England.
Demps did not get a chance to race against Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, and the gold-medal-winning Jamaican foursome, but he's not regretting his Olympic experience.
"Just being there was an honor. I told the relay coach I was going to do whatever it takes to help the team, if it was running or supporting those guys. As long as I had a chance to run in the prelims, that was fine for me. It would have been nice to run in the finals, but I wasn't disappointed."
It's that same attitude the Patriots are hoping Demps continues to carry with him as he attempts to make the 53-man roster, in whatever role is asked of him.