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Hayes deserves biggest honors


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001

First time I saw his name, it was in a wire service bulletin from Miami, shouting that Bob Hayes of Florida A&M had broken the world 100-yard dash record.

In the '60s, growing up white in Jacksonville meant you were dissuaded from knowing much about African-American neighbors.

I was a teen journalism flunkie at the Florida Times-Union, making $70 a week while soaking up history, vocabulary and foundation.

My high school had been all-white Andrew Jackson. Hayes was an athletic phenom at all-black Matthew Gilbert. Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the T-U printed a Star Edition, a newspaper section with articles by black writers, done expressly for black subscribers.

My first brush with the Star was as a 13-year-old T-U route thrower, highly cautioned by superiors to never make the mistake of leaving one of those at a house where white folks lived.

Oh, the historic swatches.

Many publications in the South offered similar service, including the St. Petersburg Times. Nobody in our all-white T-U sports department blended with black counterparts, who operated from a basement office. It was two-way non-communication.

Hayes was the fastest, most spectacular sprinter and football player in America, something we never learned on the third floor until his 100-yard masterworks came clacking across an AP printer. I felt strange, eventually sick, that Bullet Bob could've been so dazzling in our town but with fame so segregated, I was oblivious.

Blame us all.

Hayes was a global celebrity at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, winning the 100 meters and running an astonishing 400 relay anchor leg for triumphant Americans, a running-start segment timed by track mavens unofficially at under nine seconds. World's fastest human.

By then, even white Jacksonville was aware. Bobby's football excellence was becoming extensively apparent at FAMU under legendary coach Jake Gaither. Bobby wore white shoes before anybody. You could almost see a vapor trail. Even now, nobody but Hayes has won an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

But the heroism faded. After 10 NFL seasons in Dallas, when the Cowboys were especially splendid with Bullet Bob catching 371 passes for 71 touchdowns and a 19.98-yard average, he got into drugs and alcohol.

Hayes served 10 months in federal 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.

Still, he recovered, carving an honorable lower-profile existence. Bob is back in Jacksonville, his hometown, where most everybody now knows his name. But today it's not a story of cheers. At 58, Hayes is fighting for his life.

It's prostate cancer, plus liver and kidney ailments. He had been working at Magic City, a complex with housing, day care, a grocery store and various services. Bullet was undergoing radiation treatments before having his prostate removed last week.

For years jocks have debated the Baseball Hall of Fame merits of Pete Rose, the most prolific hitter in that sport's history but a stained icon suspected of betting on games, even those in which he managed the Cincinnati Reds.

If the Rose deal is worthy of eternal consideration, surely the chosen who vote on NFL honors should rethink some obvious stonewalling of Bullet Bob.

Hayes went bad but did his time and appears to have worked hard and semianonymously to do good stuff, most recently for a Jacksonville that once semi-ignored him.

He should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame mix, considered for Canton, where O.J. Simpson is properly bronzed. Wasn't the Bullet at the NFL notoriety plateau of Randy White and Mel Renfro, honored for their exploits as Cowboys?

Without question, Hayes merits being emblazed in tall Big D lettering at Texas Stadium, in the Ring of Honor, where extraordinary old Cowboys are remembered. Up there in the glory circle with Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Lilly, Don Meredith, Don Perkins, White, Renfro and Tom Landry.

"It's really no big deal," Hayes told the Dallas Morning News a few months ago. "I've been denied so long, I don't think about it anymore. I qualified for it big time. I'm basically angry about it."

It is a big deal.

Bullet also said, "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 means Dallas but probably also Jacksonville.

America has grown since the early '60s, when the black and white of newspapers was far more than paper and print. Now, if there's a new Robert Hayes, everybody knows. But, sadly, barriers remain considerable.

Bullet was unique in his prime. NFL franchises had often tried to make blistering track fellows into running backs or receivers, with little success. But this bloke Hayes, he was a football player who also could run faster than anybody in the universe.

Wake up, Cowboys.

Reconsider, Canton.

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