ESPN Network: | | | | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY   

Hayes remembered as class act, fighter

Former Olympian, Cowboys WR Hayes dies at 59

Wednesday, September 25, 2002
Hayes was golden receiver for Cowboys
By Ron Flatter
Special to

He won two Olympic gold medals, was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls and, because of his prowess as a speedy receiver, NFL coaches were forced to design a new-fangled weapon called the zone defense.

But Bob Hayes may never find his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ten months in a Texas state prison have a way of counteracting those sorts of things.

Robert Hayes
Oct 21, 1964: Bob Hayes, center, breaks the tape to win the 4x100-meter relay for the U.S. team in a world record time of 39 seconds at the Tokyo Olympics.
The debate lingers as to whether he was set up on drug charges in 1977. As for his athletic accomplishments, they are hard to ignore. He went from national collegiate champion to Olympic champion to Super Bowl champion in less than a decade.

After being anointed "The World's Fastest Human" at the 1964 Olympics, Hayes parlayed his track success into a splashy debut in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl his first three years with the Cowboys. In 10 years at Dallas and a final season with the San Francisco 49ers, Hayes caught 371 passes for 7,414 yards, an average of 20 yards per catch, and scored 76 touchdowns, with 71 coming on receptions.

No one could keep up with Hayes -- at least not one on one. Finally, zone defenses, age and Tom Landry's doghouse caught up with Hayes in the 1970s. It could also be argued Hayes' active role in the NFL Players Association's fight for free agency hastened the end of his career, but not before he took speed to a new dimension in football weaponry.

Larry Wilson, the St. Louis Cardinals' Pro Football Hall of Fame safety, said the difference between Hayes and other Olympic sprinters who tried playing in the NFL was his ability to use his speed in a football sense, rather than attempting to run as fast as he could. "He had several speeds, all of them fast," Wilson said, "but defensive backs had to figure out which one he was using and which one he was going to use."

Hayes was born on Dec. 20, 1942, in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was raised in the "Hell's Hole" slums. At Florida A&M, he starred as a running back. He also emerged as a track star, even though at 5-feet-11 and 185 pounds, he did not look like a classic sprinter. One of his coaches described him as "a runaway tank."

Pretty or not, by the time he left school, Hayes had won one NCAA sprint title and three AAU championships. As a junior, he set a world record of 9.1 in the 100-yard dash, a mark that was tied five times but not broken until 1974.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hayes put on a dazzling performance, winning the 100 meters by two meters as he tied the world record of 10.0 seconds. An English journalist wrote, "To see 13 stone 8 pounds of rich ebony flesh thundering down the track with a dervish-like pigeon-toed action is, in the words of the greatest champion of them all, Jesse Owens, 'sweet music.' The only music I could compare it with is the 1812 Overture with all stops out."

But it was Hayes' performance as the U.S. anchorman in the 400 relay that left everyone buzzing. By the time he got the baton, the U.S. team was no better than fifth, at least two meters off the lead. Hayes not only made up all the ground, he finished three yards ahead of his nearest rival to complete a then-world record run of 39.0 seconds for the Americans. Several watches had him clocked at faster than nine seconds for his leg.

All the while, the Cowboys were keeping a watchful eye on Hayes. They had spent their seventh-round draft choice on him in 1964, knowing his Olympic commitment would keep him away from the team for a year.

When he arrived in training camp in 1965, Hayes was all speed and no hands. Landry's plan to have Hayes replace All-Pro wide receiver Frank Clarke was looking worse with every dropped pass. Eventually, Hayes learned how to catch the ball, especially if he was allowed to use his speed to run under quarterback Don Meredith's long passes.

Hayes' 25 touchdown catches over his first two years led the NFL. He led the league in average yards per catch (21.8) during his rookie year, when he caught 46 passes for 1,003 yards with 12 touchdowns. He had his best season in 1966 when he had career-highs of 64 receptions, 1,232 yards and 13 touchdowns. Hayes also caught on as a punt returner, ranking at the top of the NFL in 1968 when he averaged 20.8 yards on 15 returns, including two for touchdowns.

Nicknames were coming as fast as he was running. The press dubbed him "Bullet Bob." Teammates called him "Speedo," the name of an enduring 1950s song by the Cadillacs.

Hayes was the constant source of attention from opponents who were wary of his every move. In the 1967 Ice Bowl championship game in Green Bay, the Packers watched Hayes closely enough to know he would not be the intended receiver whenever he put his hands into makeshift pockets sewn on to combat the sub-zero cold.

Teams tried getting physical with Hayes, inventing what would become the bump-and-run coverage to work against him. Some opponents, Hayes said, "were animals. They didn't just take their uniforms off after a game; they ripped them off, and they'd lick themselves clean."

By 1970, fate started turning against Hayes, and it was not just the zone defenses and the double-teaming. Landry benched him that year for reporting to camp out of shape. That was also Hayes' option year, a season filled with complaints about his salary. After five games in Landry's doghouse, Hayes was back in the starting lineup. He finished the year with perhaps the best game of his career, teaming with Craig Morton to catch four touchdown passes against the Houston Oilers.

Hayes' football renaissance seemed to be buttressed in 1971 when he led the NFL with a 24 yards-per-catch average for a Dallas team that would win Super Bowl VI. But alcoholism had begun to take its toll on Hayes. In 1972, he caught just 15 passes, none for a touchdown.

The next year, Hayes could see he was on the way out and demanded -- but did not receive -- a trade. Hayes further tainted his image with Cowboys management in 1974 when he took an active role in the players' strike for free agency. In 1975, he was a star witness on the players' behalf in a lawsuit against the owners. When the season began, Hayes was a 49er. Six catches and 119 yards later, he was waived, and retirement was at hand.

A year after being named to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Hayes returned to Dallas in 1977 and went to work as a telemarketing executive. It was in that setting Hayes was befriended by an undercover police officer from Addison, Texas, who busted him in 1978 for selling cocaine and Quaaludes.

Although he claimed he was the victim of a racially motivated setup, Hayes pleaded guilty to three charges of selling drugs. He served 10 months in state prison. Later, the two cocaine-trafficking charges were overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

He continued to fight drug and alcohol problems and went to rehab programs three times after his retirement.

Hayes since went back to Florida A&M and completed work on his bachelor's degree in elementary education in 1994. He spent much of his time speaking out against drug abuse and urging athletes to work towards their college degree.

Having moved back to Jacksonville in the mid-1990s, he lived with his parents in relative obscurity. Every spring since 1965, a prestigious track meet in Jacksonville has attracted some of the Southeast's top high school athletes. All along, it has been known as the Bob Hayes Invitational.

In September 2001, after years of being shunned by the Cowboys, Dallas owner Jerry Jones made him the 11th member of the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

For several years Hayes battled liver ailments and had prostate cancer. On Sept. 18, 2002 in Jacksonville, he died of kidney failure. Bob Hayes was 59.

Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories