ST. LOUIS — When he was a child, Tavon Austin was so much faster than the other players that he would run backwards with the ball on purpose during games.
"I wish I had some tape, but when I was 7 years old, I used to run backwards in a game, then run forward,'' said Austin, who was taken by the St. Louis Rams in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft on Thursday night. "In a normal play, I would run backwards, then run forwards. I got a tape in high school where I ran backwards, and then ran forwards.
"Just trying to make a play. Eventually, you get to the college level and you have to be smarter. You can't do that in college.''
Austin was a 5-foot-8, 172-pound package of dynamite during his four years playing wide receiver at West Virgina.
Some scouts timed him as fast as 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and he was widely considered as the best offensive playmaker available in the draft.
"Clearly there's a lot you can do with him,'' said Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who traded up from 16th to eighth in the first round to snatch Austin. "He'll start off as that slot receiver, but it doesn't end there. There's a lot of different things you can do with him. He can stretch the field.
"The 4.28 is real. That itself creates some problems. He's got excellent hands. He's quick out of the break. He understands and likes football. He's going to be really fun to watch."
Rams General Manager Les Snead said even the team's defensive coaches were in favor of drafting Austin.
"I can go on record and say that was one player the defensive staff wanted to pick, so they didn't have to defend him,'' Snead said.
Snead said Austin's speed was evident right away during a private workout with Rams backup quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Austin Davis throwing to him.
"I think it was after two throws, Jeff said, 'Hey, will you please tell the quarterbacks to quit smiling so much,' because there were some people watching the workout,'' Snead said. "They did make the comment that it was like trying to throw to a lightning bug. In these private workouts when you have your quarterback there, they know at certain steps where normal players are in their routes. They can affirm that that guy is getting there pretty quickly."
Despite his lack of size, Austin has managed to be both productive and durable playing a violent game.
Austin caught 215 passes for 2,475 yards and 20 touchdowns over his final two seasons at West Virginia.
"God has blessed me with great vision,'' said Austin, who never missed a game because of injury during high school or college. "I see a lot of things that a lot of runners out there don't see. I hope I can bring it to this level. They are a lot faster and stronger people here.''
Austin's mom, Cathy Green, said she was concerned when her son started playing football.
"I was, but kids can get hurt just by riding their bicycles,'' Green said. "It was something I know he had a love for, and I just had to let him play.''
Green said she thought playing football would be a passing fade for her son, but he quickly developed a passion for the sport.
"Even when he played Pop Warner, I never had to make him go to practice, I never had to make him go to games. The only thing I had to do was, 'If the grades aren't right, you're not going.' So he made sure they were right.''
Football provided Autin with the incentive to stay out of trouble growing up in Baltimore, Md.
"Tough neighborhood,'' Austin said. "I have some friends who have been in some trouble and a lot of things. I have been around it. I'm not saying I have been an angel my whole life, but I was the one who stayed out of trouble because I knew my goal in life and I knew what I wanted out of life.''
Austin said he planned on buying Green and his grandmother a new home in a safer neighborhood.
"That's my No. 1 goal, getting them out of the 'hood,'' Austin said. "I don't know if they want to leave Baltimore or not, but I am definitely going to move them to a nice place maybe in the county that has a gated community. Something where I know they are comfortable while I am here working.''
Green was a track sprinter up until the ninth grade when she became pregnant with Austin.
She said her son was faster than her by the time he reached the fourth grade.
"I had a hard time chasing him around the house,'' Green said. "I would then try to make a plan because I knew he was going to run. He would run and slide under the bed, so I would get there first.''
Fisher said the addition of Austin and tight end Jared Cook in free agency will add some explosiveness to a Rams offense that ranked 23rd in the NFL last season.
"It creates opportunities for everybody else,'' Fisher said. "It creates opportunities for Brian (Quick) and for Chris (Givens), Lance (Kendricks) and the running backs just because they are threats. They are going to create mismatches that are going to have to be dealt with defensively, which is going to open some other things up for us.''
Fisher said Austin's size shouldn't be a problem for 6-foot-4 quarterback Sam Bradford.
"Sam's got excellent vision, he's got a quick trigger and he's very accurate,'' Fisher said. "That creates opportunities for a receiver with that kind of quickness and stature. A shorter quarterback's going to have a little more difficult time getting the ball to him on time."
Bradford greeted his newest target in the passing game soon after Austin arrived at Rams Park on Friday afternoon.
Later, Austin and Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was taken by the Rams with the 30th overall pick in the first round, were introduced to the media during a press conference.
For the diminutive Austin, it was confirmation that his dream of becoming an NFL player had come true.
"It definitely feels good that something you always believed in when a lot of people told you, 'You can't do it,' or 'Look up another profession,' really comes true,'' Austin said. "It's one of the greatest feelings in the world right now.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.