ALAMEDA - I noticed it the first time in 1994, standing on the sidelines in the late fourth quarter of a Saints-49ers game at Candlestick Park.
Deion Sanders intercepted a pass and glided past as if he were a super sonic train on silent rails, not stopping until he was mobbed in the end zone for a touchdown.
Even Jerry Rice, never a big fan of ``Prime Time,'' couldn't help himself, leaping into the pile of humanity celebrating not only a win but the an appreciation of football's most prized physical gift.
Flash forward to Napa, 2005, and here comes Randy Moss, streaking past defenders on the practice field for one of his daily miracles.
It was in the brief window where Moss actually enjoyed being an Oakland Raider, and his ability to accelerate and leave even those with sub. 4.5 40-yard dash times in his vapor trail rivaled what was witnessed with Sanders a decade before.
Hands down, the two fastest players I'd ever seen on a football field.
Now comes Darren McFadden, who eases into the blocks Monday night when the Raiders host the Denver Broncos at McAfee Coliseum. Watching McFadden during training camp immediately brought to mind seeing Sanders and Moss, and the awe they inspired simply by witnessing their speed up close.
``Oh, I don't know if I compare to those guys,'' McFadden said as we talked one day during training camp. ``I trained with Michael Johnson getting ready for the combine. Now that is fast. But my mindset is that if
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall overheard our conversation, pointed to McFadden and said, ``Now there's the fourth-fastest guy on our team.''
Later, Hall tells me what he won't say to the rookie's face.
``Look, he's fast, and you can tell he doesn't have track speed _ he has game speed,'' Hall said. ``There are guys with great track times, and you put them on the field and they're as slow as dirt. He does both.''
The No. 4 overall pick from Arkansas, McFadden gives the Raiders the quick-strike capability they haven't had from a running back since Napoleon Kaufman from 1996 to 2000, and Bo Jackson in the late 1980s.
McFadden hits a crease and disappears. Teammates during training camp thought they had him and wound up grasping air.
``You saw him in college and knew he was fast,'' linebacker Kirk Morrison said. ``But to see him in person, he has a higher gear. If he gets by you, he's going to the house.''
Said linebacker Jon Alston: ``Most guys build their speed up. With Darren, there is no transition. It's like he says, `I am instantly faster.' It catches you off guard, how fast he is.''
Last season, the longest run from scrimmage from the Raiders was 48 yards by Justin Fargas. As recently as 2005, no Raider ran more than 27 yards, and that came on a reverse by wide receiver Alvis Whitted.
It has been 61 games since Tyrone Wheatley went 60 yards, and 120 since Wheatley went 80 against the Seattle Seahawks in 2000.
Those distances will be within reach every time McFadden touches the ball, a huge upgrade for a plodding offense which lives from first down to first down.
From 1996 through 1999, Kaufman had runs of 77, 83, 80 and 75 yards before retiring to the ministry following the 2000 season. A Raiders scout told me if McFadden were to race the late 1990s' Kaufman in the 40-yard dash, it would be ``within 1/100th of a second either way'' and couldn't pick a winner.
Kaufman was a 180-plus pound running back with below average hands. McFadden is 25 pounds heavier and catches the ball well enough to be split wide as a receiver. The Raiders kept McFadden under wraps during the preseason, running him between the tackles.
He had runs of 23 and 24 yards off basic plays in the preseason finale against Seattle, and Kiffin sounded almost wistful afterward about not getting the chance to see McFadden break free and dial long distance.
``You wish one of those would pop just to see him in the open field with a real chance to run away,'' Kiffin said. ``He's had three now (this preseason) where he's been an inch away from breaking it and seeing that breakaway speed we know he has. We'll have to wait and see it in the regular season.''
The Raiders went through the preseason without making a concerted effort to get McFadden to the corner or isolated on one defender.
``There are certainly some things we've kept in our pocket,'' backup quarterback Andrew Walter said.
The playbook opens up Monday night, and Alston, for one, thinks McFadden has yet another speed he hasn't reached.
``It's going to be interesting to see what he does when the lights are on, because I think it's going to be better than what we see out here,'' Alston said.
``I can't explain it, it's like there's something inside you that kicks in that extra gear and makes you faster,'' McFadden said.
Staff writer Jerry McDonald can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org