Stories You Should Know: Bob Hayes

“He changed the game because of his speed. He wasn’t just the world’s fastest human, he was a great athlete and football player. Put that together, and he made you change everything on your defense when you played the Cowboys,” said Hall of Fame coach Don Shula.

A 2-sport star at Matthew Gilbert High School in Jacksonville, Florida, Bob Hayes led his high school football team to a 12-0 record and the Florida High School Athletics Association Black School Championship (It was not an uplifting time for the fair treatment of black athletes) in 1958. 

After high school he accepted a football scholarship to the all-black Florida A & M University in Tallahassee. He excelled as a wing back, but due to his exceptional speed was also on the Track and Field team. He was never beaten in either the 100 yard dash or the 100 meters, but was excluded from competing in most of the sanctioned meets. The one time he was allowed to compete he broke the world record in the 100 yard dash at a meet at the University of Miami. Still he was primarily a football player, and he spent little time working on his running. 

Despite his lack of training, he again set the world record in the 100 yard dash in 1963 (9.1), a record that would stand for 11 years. He was then selected to represent the United States in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His problem was finding the time to train for the Olympics. He was at Florida A & M on a football scholarship, and his coach, Jake Gaither, wanted him to concentrate on his gridiron prowess. Many people tried to change Gaither’s mind, but he wouldn’t relent. Finally, the President of the United States called and made the request. Gaither wouldn’t say “no”  to Lyndon Johnson, and Hayes was allowed to train. After winning the 200 meters at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in 1964 he missed the rest of his senior year to train for the Olympics.

Hayes’ greatest achievement may be the greatest individual performance in USA Olympic history. It was not his dominating Gold Medal performance in the 100 Meter Olympic Final, but what he accomplished seven days later in the 4 X 100 Meters Relay Final. Before the final the Americans had lost their second fastest sprinter when Mel Pender was sidelined with an injury. This forced the American’s to go with their fifth fastest runner, Richard Stebbins, in his place. Things seemed so dire that the French anchor sprinter, Jocelyn Delecour, said to Team USA’s lead-off man in the race, Paul Drayton, “You can’t win, all you have is Bob Hayes.” To which the American confidently replied. “That’s all we need, pal.”

His faith in Hayes was somewhat justified.  It was just seven days earlier that Hayes had equaled the world record in his easy victory in the 100 meter final, but without Pender they had no other member of the relay team that had qualified for that race. If only Drayton, Gerry Ashworth and Richard Stebbins could keep them close, Hayes would be in position to close it out. 

They didn’t. On the first leg Drayton ran about even with the French and the Jamaicans, while the Poles held the lead. Ashworth second leg was solid, but he didn’t gain any ground on the Poles. Next up for the Americans should have been Penders, but instead it was their fifth best sprinter, Stebbins. It was a disaster. Not only did he not gain ground on the Poles, but the Soviets, Jamaicans and the French went sprinting by him. In fact the French were leading on the final exchange and the confident Delecour had the baton with his eyes on the gold. After the exchange between Stebbins and Hayes, Bob was three meters behind Delecour and in fifth place!

That’s when Bob Hayes showed how fast a human being could run. Never had anybody seen anything like it. He blew by everybody to win in a world record time of 39.0. Poland finished second at 39.3, France third, also at 39.3 (both times were under the previous World Record) with Jamaica and the USSR at 39.4. Hayes’ anchor leg of the relay was the fastest ever run (8.60), a record that still stands nearly 56 years later. 

Following the Olympics he was selected in the 8th round of the 1964 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys. The reason he was chosen so late is because, due to the rules at the time, he was not eligible to play for the Cowboys until 1965. His impact on the National Football League was immediate. None of the defensive backs in the league had the speed to cover him. In his rookie year he led the league in touchdowns with 12.  He led the league again in 1966 with 13. He averaged over 20 yards a reception during those two seasons and made the Pro Bowl both years and was first-team All-Pro in 1966. 

1966 was the year the expansion Cowboys burst into contention, going 10-3-1 and winning the Eastern Division. They would lose a heartbreaking 34-27 contest with the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game, depriving them from participating in the first Super Bowl. Hayes was held to one catch for one yard in that game. 

The Cowboys made the NFL Championship Game again the next year. This was the famous “Ice Bowl” in Green Bay, where the Packers prevailed on a last second touchdown by Bart Starr. Hayes, after catching five passes for 144 yards and a touchdown the previous week against Cleveland, was held to three catches and 16 yards in the -13 degrees temperatures, and was widely criticized for tipping off the Cowboys plays to the Packers by putting his hands in his pants on running plays to keep them warm. 

1968 would be Bob’s last All-Pro season, but he would lead the league in yards per catch in both 1970 and 1971. He would continue to be the NFLs/NFCs chief deep threat through 1971 (Lance Alworth was in the AFL/AFC until his trade to the Cowboys in 1971). He would end his football career in 1975, having participated in all six of the Cowboys NFL/NFC Championship Games and both Super Bowls up until that time. The Cowboys won the Big Game in 1971, when Hayes shared time at wide receiver with Alworth and caught two passes for 23 yards and had one run for 16 more in the Cowboys 24-3 win over the Miami Dolphins. 

After an injury plagued season in 1974, where he had only seven receptions,  he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. He only lasted four games before being released, thus ending his football career. 

As a football player his legacy is excellent. While never on the list as the greatest wide receiver of all time, he was a major star on “America’s Team” who changed the game. Due to the fact no defensive back could contain him one-on-one, defenses went primarily to zone, specifically to keep Hayes in front of them. This curtailed Hayes’ effectiveness, but opened up the Cowboy running game for Don Perkins, Walt Garrison, Calvin Hill, and Duane Thomas. 

Hayes’ post-football career was tainted by drug use and other legal problems. Many felt that those issues prevented his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bob passed away in 2002 at age 59 due to liver failure while battling prostate cancer. He was finally selected into Canton in 2008, and inducted in 2009. Bob Hayes, Jr. unveiled his father’s  bust at the induction ceremony, accompanied by Roger Staubach.  

Knowing all this, how come Bob Hayes is not in the discussion as the greatest athlete of all-time. You have a man who held the title “World’s Fastest Human”, who was also a Hall of Fame football player. Some of his running records lasted over a decade, in fact one is still his (fastest anchor league in a relay). 

ESPN did a story on the 100 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century at the turn of the century. They rated Michael Jordan #1, Bo Jackson #72 and Dion Sanders #74. Bob Hayes was not even listed.

Hayes was a better football player than Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson or Dion Sanders were baseball players, which were all three’s second sport. Hayes was a Hall of Famer in his second sport! In his first sport he was the “World’s Fastest Human”.  Let’s compare him to Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, who are #6 and #12 on ESPN’s list. Owens’ best time in the 100 Meters was 10.3, and Lewis’ was 9.86. Bob Hayes’ best was a 9.9. Now Lewis was also a multiple Gold Medal winner in the Long Jump, an event that Owens also captured Gold in, but they did not excel in any other sports. The placement of these two athletes is well deserved, but if they were 6th and 12th, how could Hayes not even be listed? 

His legacy is that of the only man to ever win both an Olympic Gold Medal and a Super Bowl Ring. He’s also in both the United States Olympic Hall of Fame (as a runner) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The only athlete who tops him in athletic achievements in multiple sports is the “Big Indian”, Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was the best track athlete in the world and the best football player in the world over 100 years ago. Just for good measure he was a Major League Baseball player for six years. ESPN’s 20th Century list placed Thorpe at #7 (that placement is more of an indictment of their list than an accurate rating of the great Thorpe. He obviously should have been #1). 

We’ll leave the final message on the unappreciation of the modern sports media towards “Bullet” Bob Hayes to the folks at NFL Films. They named the 10 fastest players in NFL history, and Bob Hayes, “The World’s Fastest Human” was rated 2nd behind Darrell Green. Really?

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