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Humans racing greyhounds a close battle

LONGWOOD, Fla. -- Chad Johnson once outran a racehorse -- although he did have a bit of a head start.

No word if he ever raced a greyhound.

Seven members of the Lyman High School Greyhounds football team raced greyhounds of the canine variety at Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club Monday night. The dogs beat the humans 4-3 in the event that also raised about $400 for greyhound adoption.

The back entrance of the school and its football field sit across Dog Track Road from the pari-mutuel facility north of Orlando. Lyman got the athletic moniker from its four-legged neighbors. The track's owners donated uniforms when the school began playing football in the early 1950s and the name stuck. It is believed this was the first time such a race with high school athletes has occurred in Central Florida, despite Lyman's proximity to the track.

The biggest long shot of the night may have been offensive lineman Brock Merritt, who won his race by about five feet. None of the races were officially timed. Merritt covered 60 yards in his dash, while his teammates ran about 90 in theirs. The distance from the starting box to the finish line for the dogs was 110 yards, although some of the dogs got a running start from a greater distance.

The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Merritt said being an underdog -- so to speak -- and a healthy dose of fear were his primary motivations. Merritt, who is an Eagle Scout, was prepared to win despite heading to the track immediately after practice and not having time to eat any human Greyhound chow before the race. "Those dogs were scary. They were pure muscle," he said. "Everyone thought I was going to lose, but I knew I was going to win the whole time. When the rabbit came up behind me, I heard it and got scared. I don't think I've ever run so fast in my life."

The players weren't allowed on the track but raced on a grass and asphalt leadout path.

"It was a great way to kick off spring football and show we care about the community," said second-year Lyman coach Jeff Gierke. "Some of the kids had never seen a greyhound run. These dogs are so fast, the kids were blown away."

The football Greyhounds finished 5-5 last season in the Florida Class 8A Seminole Athletic Conference and have two national recruits of note. Linebacker Nico Firios has seven Football Bowl Subdivision offers and is ranked No. 18 on the ESPN 150 list of top linebackers. Fellow linebacker Greg Gooch recently visited Alabama and is expected to be scouted by Alabama again next week. "We're loaded with talent. Our expectations are high," said Gierke, who is returning 18 starters this season.

Expectations weren’t quite as high heading into Monday’s races. "I was expecting to lose the race," said Firios, who lost by a couple of canine lengths. "It was the only time I've ever raced a dog. The competition was tough. But the night was worth it. Hopefully, we helped raise money for a good cause." There was even more competition for Firios after he got home, thanks to his 7-year-old Golden Retriever, Carson. "I don't think he was jealous, but he probably smelled the other dogs on me."

Both Gooch and Firios said they were impressed with Merritt's performance.

"I was really, really shocked. He's fast for a big boy; I was impressed. He was moving," Firios said.

"When I saw Brock win, I thought I needed to win for sure," said Gooch, who was defeated in his heat. "It was pretty intimidating having a dog that fast coming next to you ... way faster, way lighter. It was great time." Gooch checks in at 6-2, 240 pounds. Most racing greyhounds weigh between 50 and 80 pounds.

Greyhounds usually eat only half their normal diet on race days before competing. Merritt said he understands how hunger can be a motivation. "It was pretty fun, a really cool experience racing the dog. The big guys aren't supposed to beat the small guys. Proving everyone wrong -- that was my reward," he said. "But I would chase food, probably some spaghetti or steak."

And as far as one-upping Johnson someday, Merritt did not rule it out.

"We'll have to make our way up to Kentucky and see."

Bill Speros is an ESPN.com contributor. His son is a graduate of Lyman High School and former offensive lineman for the football Greyhounds. For more photos of the event, check out this Orlando Sentinel photo gallery. Bill can be reached on Twitter @billsperos or via email at bsperos1@gmail.com.