Harry Adams has spent the last two years remaking himself back into a track athlete, shedding weight gained from football, changing his training routine, and remaking his mechanics to tap into the world-class speed he’s always possessed.

And as the payoff started emerging at this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, the Auburn junior was “jumping for joy.”

DI MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP
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Hendrickson: Adams return to track paying off
Turner: Levins conquering another domain
Johnson: UTSA track star helps save child
Turner: Virginia Tech sprinter makes return
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Running into a stiff headwind Friday at Drake Stadium, Adams finished in a virtual tie for first in the 100-meter finals, finishing in 10.274 seconds – two thousandths  away from his first national championship. The wind must’ve felt like a parachute was tied to his back, because just two days earlier Adams scorched the track with a time rarely seen in Auburn’s history: His 9.96 led the preliminary field, broke the Auburn school record, and was only the second wind-legal, sub-10 second performance in the school’s history.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been running like this, so I’m happy to be competing at a national level,” said Adams, who after the race kept revisiting with awe how close he came to a championship. “I just missed out by a little bit.”

But the journey to this point has been so much longer.

Track was Adams’ original love at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and by his sophomore year he was already displaying world-class potential. He won the state championship that year in the 100 meters (in 10.31 seconds) and 200 meters (21.03 seconds). Even at that age Adams was posting times that would place in the back of the preliminary heats of this week’s NCAA championship races. Adams went on to finish second in the 100 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals that year, and earned a place on USA Today’s All-USA high school track and field team.

But in football rich Florida, that speed draws many suitors. And midway through high school Adams’ friends started encouraging him to join their football powerhouse as a receiver. When he turned out for the first time as a junior, that speed made an instant impact.

“He’s a guy where one guy misses, it’s lights out,” said Auburn head track and field coach Ralph Spry. “You got a guy with his frame, with that speed, any head coach in the country, their eyes are going to light up.”

The scholarship offers came from a who’s who of college football: LSU, Auburn, Miami, Florida, Rutgers, North Carolina and Arkansas. The reports on scouting websites only fueled the hype, branding Adams the “sunshine speedster” and declaring him to have “serious speed.” Scout.com called Adams “one of the fastest people on the planet for his age group.”

But Adams said he had been playing football “just for the fun of it.” He said he chose Auburn because then-coach Tommy Tuberville, who recruited Adams to Auburn, pledged to allow him to run track in addition to football.

That arrangement didn’t work out, though, and Adams’s football career never got its footing. He spent two years on special teams and as a cornerback, making seven tackles and returning two kicks for 53 yards. In October 2010, new Tigers coach Gene Chizik dismissed him from the football team for undisclosed reasons. The news hardly made a blip after all the hype that was made on his way in.

So Adams visited Spry, who was aware of his reputation from high school. They discussed the possibility of him returning to track.

But it wasn’t as simple as stepping back on the track and returning to his high school form. For two years Adams and Spry retrained Adams’ body and converted the football player back to a track specialist. Adams shed close to 10 pounds gained from the explosive strength exercises common to football, and worked on developing the flexibility and range of motion track demanded.

The setbacks often came with nagging injuries, including a hamstring strain that lingered for more than a month this season and forced Adams to pull out of the SEC championships. But the results when he was healthy were spectacular.

It’s been a while since I’ve been running like this, so I’m happy to be competing at a national level.
-- Auburn's Harry Adams

The 20.10-second time he posted in the 200 meters at the Miami Hurricane Alumni Invitational was the best in the NCAA this spring and the fourth-fastest in the world. Adams also helped Auburn’s 4x100 relay team break a 35-year-old school record at the Texas Relays with a time of 38.30 seconds – the top American time set this year, and third-fastest in the world.

Then came Wednesday’s blistering time in the NCAA Championships’ 100-meter preliminaries, in which Adams posted the only sub 10-second time in the field and won by six-hundredths of a second. What made it more impressive: Because of the injuries, it was only his fifth 100-meter race of the year.

It makes Spry certain that Adams’ potential is only starting to be revealed.

“I really believe what you see in Harry Adams is still the tip of the iceberg,” Spry said. “You’re not talking about a guy running 10.35s, 10.40. You’re talking about a guy running 9.9 now, 10.0. That’s a different level of sprinting.”

And he’ll get two more chances to put that speed on display on Saturday. Adams was also the top qualifier in the 200-meters in 20.49 seconds, and his 4x100 relay team is the top seed in the final. That’s two more chances to win the national championship that slipped away by a fly’s twitch on Friday.

But with one year left in his rediscovered track career, Adams’ coach and teammates believe those races are only a start.

“He’s 22 years old and he’s already run 9.96,” said teammate Marcus Rowland. “That in itself tells you he’s got a lot in the tank.”