Every year a team or two takes a shot on a track star in training camp, and most of the time it turns out they’re pretty lousy football players when the hitting starts, but the reason teams roll that dice every year is because of Bob Hayes.
Hayes is a Hall of Fame wide receiver who played for the Dallas Cowboys and is still the only man to have ever won both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.
He may well have been the fastest man on the planet when he turned his attention to pro football, and his speed was such a devastating weapon that he changed the way teams played defense. He was essentially Usain Bolt 50 years earlier. A sprinting prodigy, but one that decided to take up football once he had achieved everything he wanted to as a sprinter, and despite the devastating effect he had on the NFL, his name tends to be forgotten when discussing past greats.
Hayes excelled both in track and football in college at Florida A&M. In 1961, when he was just 18 years old, he equalled the world record for the 100 yard dash and would go on to dominate the sprinting landscape until he switched to football four years later.
He was so dominant that he never lost a 100 yard race, and was beaten just twice over 100 meters – once in a disputed photo finish that many claim he actually won, and once after missing three weeks of training recovering from a virus. Over this span he also set new world records for the 60 yards indoors (one which was never broken), the 100 yard dash, the 100m and the 200m. He also posted several other records that were deemed invalid and never officially ratified for a series of bizarre reasons, including the starting gun being the wrong make, such was the politics of the time.
Hayes became the first human ever to run under ten seconds for the 100m when he ran a wind-assisted 9.9 in 1963. Usain Bolt may have moved that mark into the 9.5s, but Hayes was running on cinder tracks, not designed sprinting surfaces, and doing so in the 1960s without the aid of nutritionists, sports scientists and all of the various support staff modern athletes have in tow.
At the Olympics he took gold in both the individual 100m and the 4x100m relay. Remember when Calvin Johnson ran a 4.35 40 time at the combine after borrowing somebody else’s shoes? Well Bob Hayes won Olympic gold borrowing somebody’s shoes and running from the inside lane which had been so badly chewed up by the distance races that it had to be raked before the start.
His leg of the 4×100 race was termed ‘the most astonishing sprint of all time’ by the Los Angeles Times. The unofficial time for that leg was 8.6 seconds, which enabled him to take around eight meters out of some of the best sprinters in the world, overtaking five of them during the leg, to take gold with a comfortable lead. His time in the semi-final of the 100m (9.91) was the fastest ever Olympic time until three people ran faster in the Atlanta games, some 32 years later.
Despite retiring from athletics at just 22, Hayes is still one of the greatest sprinters of all time, competing the entire time as a college athlete, often around his college football career.
He dominated the sport doing it in his spare time, around his school work, and when football didn’t get in the way.
In today’s era of mind-boggling passing stats, his career numbers aren’t too remarkable at first glance, but his 71 receiving touchdowns are still the best mark by any Dallas Cowboy (even after HoFer Michael Irvin’s career), and his 7,414 yards came from just 371 receptions.
Hayed brought a different level of speed to the NFL. Every now and then you see a guy that is just operating at a different speed to everybody else, they can make it through gaps other people can’t, and make the angles defenders take look foolish. That’s impressive in an era where everybody is fast, but Hayes brought Olympic caliber speed to an NFL where not everybody was fast. The league simply was neither prepared, nor able to defend it. As a rookie he led the league with 12 receiving touchdowns on 1,003 yards on 46 catches in 13 games. That’s an average of 21.8 yards per reception and was the first time any Cowboy had ever topped 1000 yards in a season.
His speed quickly earned him the nickname “Bullet”, and the Cowboys quickly made use of that speed on punt returns as well.
Before Hayes arrived teams were playing man-coverage almost exclusively. When they had to cover Bullet Bob they quickly discovered they simply didn’t have anybody that could run with him (not surprisingly), so they had to turn to zone schemes. The first player would run with him in a trail position (usually by default as much as design) and be forced to pass him off to a deeper player who had a head start on the running. Bob Hayes effectively forced teams to adopt zone coverage because of his unique speed. There aren’t many players in league history that have changed the way teams had to defend just to stop him – Hayes is one of them.
He was a 3x Pro Bowler, was named All-Pro 4 times, helped Dallas win 5 Eastern Conference titles, 2 NFC titles and a Super Bowl. He reached the summit of two sports, retiring as one of the greatest ever in each. Decades before Michael Jordan and Deion Sanders were seen as super athletes for simply trying to compete in a second sport, Hayes won titles in two sports, and dominated both.
Even today he holds 10 regular-season Cowboys records and 22 overall franchise marks. He is still the 3rd leading touchdown scorer in franchis history (after Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, each in the Hall of Fame). He retired with a career average of 20 yards per reception. Randy Moss might be the most dominant deep threat of the past few decades but has a career average of just 15.6 yards per reception by comparison.
Despite a clearly worthy career it took until after his death for him to finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. He was ignored by the Hall for far too long, but that wrong was finally righted.
So in the end you might wonder why your team is wasting a roster spot on a track star with not much football experience, but they’re doing it because the long-shot jackpot is finding the next Bob Hayes – the guy with the kind of speed to unravel a defense, and that’s worth rolling the dice on.