Set it up in August. Hand-timed, laser-timed, it doesn’t matter. Kolby Listenbee can run a 4.1 in the 40-yard dash.
Go ahead and laugh at such a wild suggestion. TCU track and field coach Darryl Anderson doesn’t laugh back.
“There’s no reason why he can’t run 4.1,” Anderson said. “You may think I’m crazy but that’s the type of speed he’s got.”
So Anderson was ticked at Listenbee's 4.39 at the NFL scouting combine, a time that still ranked second-best among receivers. Granted, he was running through a double sports hernia and had added 20-plus pounds of muscle. Anderson — more than anyone — knows what this man can do.
“A guy who can run 10-flat in the 100,” he said, “should be able to run a 4.1 in the 40.
"He has exceptional, freaky speed.”
Which is why moments after the Buffalo Bills selected him in the sixth round, Listenbee didn’t hesitate. He declared himself the fastest player in the NFL with Broadway Joe-cool. “Because I can go to the Olympics if I wanted to,” he added. Fair enough. In track, Listenbee has been clocked at 10.03 in the 100. On the field, he caught 71 passes for 1,350 yards with nine touchdowns his final two seasons.
Hall-of-Famer Andre Reed himself is brimming with optimism on Twitter.
The speed. The swagger. It's not rooted in bluster. Two days after the draft, Listenbee starts a conversation by repeating he's not arrogant. Rather, he was being honest. A lot of work was put in, a lot of work lies ahead and it all feeds an inner-belief that he can roast any defensive back any play any day.
“I play better when I’m confident,” he said. “It’s all about confidence.”
This confidence has been years in the making.
Son is fast so, of course, Dad was fast. Joe Listenbee once ran a 4.35… when he was 30 years old. He went to a Division II school, played semi-pro ball but never latched on in the NFL, pulling that 4.35 at a regional combine.
When Kolby was 3 years old, Joe noticed special gifts.
He was the only kid his age who could make lay-ups and dribble with both hands and Dad remembers kids challenging his son to race as early as elementary school.
“He’d always come out first,” he said.
So Listenbee competed against kids who were two, three, four years older. Hanging with his older brothers' friends meant he was always running, evading, sprinting with nature and nurture both at play.
“He’s a kid who’s determined to be the best he can be,” Joe Listenbee said. “He’s always been one of the kids who said ‘I want to be the best.’ He showed those traits when he was still young and, of course, he’s still that way.”
And yet, what Kolby Listenbee wanted most was to be was a basketball player. As a freshman, he was only 5 foot 6 while his peers towered over him at 5-11, 6-0. A broken collarbone suffered as a sophomore sidelined Listenbee all basketball season and he decided to quit basketball and baseball to zero in on football.
Then, without warning, he sprouted up six inches. Suddenly, he could dunk.
"So that kind of sucked," he said. “When I decided to be done with basketball is right when I started to develop!”
That decision proved to be a blessing in disguise. As a junior, Listenbee was originally the No. 3 quarterback. One QB moved to Mexico, Listenbee bumped up to No. 2 and, by Game 4, he was darting through defenses as the starter. The kid who left teammates 20 meters in his dust during gassers after practice loved the ball being in his hands every play. He threw for 1,202 yards, rushed for 746 and scored 18 touchdowns his final year.
Oh, Listenbee also ran track for one spring, qualifying for the state meet, but this was more of an acquired taste.
“I used to hate track,” Listenbee said. “Whenever I ran when I was really young, running felt like punishment. In the summertime, it’s hot! I used to hate it really because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
By college, hate turned to love.
He blended the two sports in beautiful unison.
Finding his swagger
Talented, yes. Fast, no doubt. But early on at TCU, Listenbee lacked confidence.
“I wasn’t playing well,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t believe in myself.”
So he joined the TCU track team.
The Horned Frogs’ football coach, Gary Patterson, actually called Anderson and asked if Listenbee could run. Patterson figured the track exposure could only help and he was right. The genes. His silky-smooth stride. Anderson's coaching. TCU's talent level. It was all a perfect storm. Every day, Listenbee raced alongside the nation’s 60-meter champ, Ronnie Baker, while learning how to stay balanced, pump his arms and accelerate to top speed even faster.
“He covers a lot of ground," Anderson said. "He’s not one of those short, choppy runners. I always used to say, man, give him a bubble screen or something, it’s a wrap. He’s got that kind of speed. He ran a 10.03 for us in the 100 and, I’m telling you, he had not touched what he’s capable of as a sprinter.
"It’s just a matter of genetic make-up, shaping it and his work ethic. He started to understand how to sprint."
Winning races refueled Listenbee's lost confidence.
“It just brings you back to being a kid," Listenbee said. "It’s like you’re on the street racing to the mailbox. It really fired up my competitiveness. You don’t want to lose.”
To Anderson, this was unprecedented. He never sees sprinters shave this much time, this fast. Listenbee’s 100 dropped from 10.31 to 10-flat. A four-time All-American, he also anchored TCU's 4x100, which ranked second nationally. In practice, trash-talking and gun-start races were the norm. Granted, Baker always beat Listenbee but using a virtual Corvette as the bar, the expectation paid off.
First, take TCU’s 2015 regional qualifier. Baker false-started in the 100, abruptly ending his season, and Listenbee stepped in to advance to the national championships.
“He could see Ronnie was really distraught,” Anderson said, “and when Ronnie was walking off the track, he told him ‘I got this. I’m going to step up and take care of this.’"
And when Listenbee switched from track to football, it felt something like a 70 MPH highway blurring into a 45 MPH village.
Listenbee operated on a different speed than everyone else.
Listenbee loves being jammed. One quick move off the line his junior year and, poof, he was gone.
“I was killing that part,” he said.
The next year, defenses floated a safety over the top more often and Listenbee suffered a double hernia in the third game. He could "barely walk" at times and didn’t get through a full practice all season. Cortisone shots got him through games.
Even then, Listenbee averaged 19.9 yards per reception.
Track provided a mentality that he is faster than everyone else on the field, as go routes became his 100-meter dashes. The key in track is the same as football: running with “control.” So many receivers start wobbling their head at full speed, he said, and can’t locate the ball. Not him. So to complete it all, he'd spend hours after practice catching balls over his shoulder.
“You’ve got to master your craft,” he said. “If my bread and butter is to catch go balls, I have to make sure I catch all of them. ... That’s what fans love. That’s what sells tickets — touchdowns. If I go out there and make plays over the top, I can have a long career in the NFL.”
Listenbee eventually had surgery on March 10 and expects to be ready for training camp. Maybe that 40 time was slower than he hoped, but Listenbee repped 225 pounds 18 times. His one-rep max? A whopping 370 pounds. Bills receivers coach Sanjay Lal certainly has tools to work with. Expect route running to be a major emphasis from rookie camp through Listenbee's entire rookie year.
He's green, indeed.
At TCU, Listenbee only ran routes on one side of the field and his route tree consisted of three thin branches — the go route, the post, the out. That's it. He'll need to block much more, too. On his official Bills visit, Listenbee did provide coaches a jolt of hope by acing a memory test of Greg Roman's offense.
And the wide receiver he envisions becoming? It's the one he watched closely at Clemson, the one he was so star struck by at the Buffalo-Niagara Airport on his visit that he couldn't even bring himself over to say "Hi." He jokes he didn't want to look like a "groupie." This fall, Listenbee could be the one victimizing teams who choose to double No. 1 wide receiver, Sammy Watkins.
“It was crazy to watch him play,” Listenbee said. "Now your role model, somebody you looked up to is your teammate. So I definitely want to be like him and learn everything I can from him and use that to become like him or better. That’s my plan, to be like him.”
Asked to quantify his speed — Exactly how fast is Kolby Listenbee? — he pauses, reassures he doesn't want to sound cocky and explained how he covers ground with a powerful stride.
“The 40-yard dash measures 40," he said. "But after I get to the 40, that’s when I start taking off.”
Translation: He's thinking touchdowns, not first downs. Highlights. Dad assures his son’s goal is to be the NFL’s fastest player.
“He wants people saying, ‘Wow, who’s that?’” Joe Listenbee said. “He’s not arrogant. But it’s like ‘You’re either going to double-team me or it’s going for a touchdown.’”
Added a downright giddy Rex Ryan, "Who’s got the guts and courage to press him? Because if you miss, you’re not catching 10 flat, 100. "
So, no, Kolby won't run away from his draft-day boast. He still expects to be the fastest player... at some point. He simply knows he must do it on Sundays first. Until then, he'll temper the bold proclamations.
Then, he drops words that nobody's heard around here for a long, long time.
“From what I see on the team,” he said, “I think greatness is coming for the Bills. If it’s more touchdowns that we need, I can try to help out with that. Hopefully we get an AFC Championship and a NFL Championship as well.”