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Hayes' blazing speed is champion's legacy

Only athlete to win an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring, "world's fastest man'' is dead at age 59 of kidney failure.

©Associated Press
September 20, 2002

Bob Hayes, the gold-medal sprinter and Dallas Cowboys receiver who was impossible to catch and tough to cover, died at age 59.

Mr. Hayes died of kidney failure at Shands Hospital in Jacksonville late Wednesday, daughter Westine Lodge said. He was hospitalized this month and also had battled liver ailments and prostate cancer.

"Bullet" Bob Hayes earned the title "World's Fastest Human" and had such blazing speed as a receiver that he redefined the way pass defense is played in the NFL. But he later fell victim to drugs and alcohol and went to prison -- one reason he never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called Mr. Hayes an "American sports hero."

"He handled the triumphs and the setbacks with the same grace and humility," Jones said. "He carried the pride of a champion in his heart at all times, and he always had a smile for everyone."

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he won the gold medal in the 100 meters, tying the world record of 10.05 seconds, and he anchored the U.S. 400-meter relay team to victory in a world-record 39.06.

Mr. Hayes' relay split was an unofficial 8.6. Nearly 20 years later, the Los Angeles Times called it "the most astonishing sprint of all time."

Robert Lee Hayes was born in Jacksonville on Dec. 20, 1942, and went on to become a track star at Florida A&M.

"I have been at football games and track meets when he did the absolutely unbelievable," Florida A&M president Fred Gainous said. "To watch him catch a pass that is unimaginably catchable, to watch him do that and trot the rest of the way because the rest of the field is left so far behind."

In 1964, the Cowboys drafted him in the seventh round, taking a chance on an incredibly fast sprinter with unrefined football skills.

In his rookie season, Mr. Hayes had 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns while leading the NFL with 21.8 yards a catch.

"He probably did as much for our game as any one receiver in history because he changed the defensive concepts of the pro football passing game," former Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm said. "The type of game you see now is a game that Bob Hayes is more responsible for than any one person."

When Dallas won the 1972 Super Bowl, Mr. Hayes became the only athlete to win an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

His success came long before the era when athletes like Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan got credit for simply trying to succeed at two sports. Mr. Hayes won championships in both track and football.

"Without Bob Hayes in the 1960s, I think the Cowboys would've been just another pretty good team," said Pettis Norman, a Dallas tight end during that era who remained close friends with Mr. Hayes and was instrumental in getting him into the team's Ring of Honor last year. "We became America's Team because we offered something for people to come watch and want to come see again. They wanted to see the world's fastest human line up and run past folks. They wanted to see the fear in people's eyes when he lined up against them."

He finished an 11-year NFL career with 71 touchdown catches, 20.3 yards per catch and three Pro Bowl trips. His statistics were comparable or better than many of the great receivers of his day, and his career appeared worthy of the Hall of Fame.

But he hasn't made it, in part because of a drug and alcohol problem in an era when the public wasn't nearly as accustomed to seeing its sports stars struggle with their personal lives.

Mr. Hayes served 10 months in prison after an April 1979 guilty plea to delivering narcotics to an undercover police officer. That "destroyed my life," Hayes wrote in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run: The Rise, Fall, and Recovery of Bob Hayes.

The prison term ended about the same time he became eligible for the Hall, apparently dooming his chances for enshrinement. He was, however, inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1976.

Mr. Hayes retired in 1976 and lived in Dallas before moving back to Jacksonville in the mid 1990s, where he lived with his parents in relative obscurity. He continued to fight drug and alcohol problems and went to rehab programs three times after his retirement.

"I won gold medals representing this country, but I've gotten more recognition around the world than I have in my own back yard," he said.

Mr. Hayes kept close ties with his old college, going to as many Florida A&M games as he could.

"Even after he got very sick, he still made it to the football games up here," said Eddie Jackson, a retired university vice president for public affairs and a longtime friend. "We'd see he was not looking well, or feeling well, but if Florida A&M was playing, Bob Hayes would be there."

"He loved people and people loved Bob Hayes," Jackson said.

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