No one faster than speeding Bullet
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

As fast as he once was, I'm surprised Death caught Bob Hayes. Now I've got a high opinion of Death's capabilities. But He must have tricked the Bullet Man, somehow. Only way to catch him.

Bob Hayes
Bob Hayes simply blew away the field in the 100 meters at the 1964 Summer Games.
Death must've put lead weight in his pockets. Tied his shoelaces together. Told him to wait up, look at that pretty girl, check out this deal. Bullet must've gotten tired, tricked or flat stopped running.

Only way.

In a way, it's fitting that Bullet Bob Hayes, the bullet train of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, shinkansen of NFL wideouts, died within a week of Johnny Unitas. Each was an NFL prototype.

And Bob was even more ...

Oh, sure, there was speed in football before Bob Hayes. There just wasn't that much of it. Not track speed, warp speed, world-class speed, we-better-think-of-something-now jets.

That's the kind of speed Bob Hayes had. First, let's put his speed into today's context. In the Age of Steve Spurrier, and the People Who Want To Beat Him, word got out last offseason that the ol' Ball Coach traveled to Knoxville. Not for his health. Went to time Donte Stallworth. Stallworth has 4.2 speed in the 40. That speed alone would open up the field for Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun.

(As an aside, New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett, a pin-cushion for some of Spurrier's barbs, made sure the Saints took Stallworth in the draft, before Spurrier could get him. Results in soon.)

I've know other fast football players. We all have. Clifford Branch. Deion. Bo. Rocket. All of them around 4.2; if they catch a flyer at the start, even faster. Rock once ran a 4.18 40. So did Deion. So did Bo. It's barely human to run that fast -- that's right on the edge of human consciousness. That's a blur. That's the Right Stuff.

Bob Hayes
Hayes was once clocked at 5.28 in the 60-yard dash.
We don't have any record of 40 times for Bob Hayes. But it's said he once ran a 60-yard dash, on a cinder track, in 5.28 seconds. You heard. Sure, it was hand-timed. Sure, there's no record. But this much is certain. Bob Hayes won the 1964 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters in Tokyo in 1964 in 10.05; and he won by four full meters. Nobody wins an Olympic 100-meter final by that margin unless they are Jesse Owens in Berlin, 1936. Bullet Bob wasn't even pressed. He downshifted in the last 10 meters of that race. Pulled up. Eased off. Saved a little. If pressed, he could've gone faster. Bullet Bob was as fast as he had to be.

The Bullet Man was behind five relay teams when he got the baton on the anchor leg of the 4 x 100-meter relay final in Tokyo. He made up nine meters on the field. Nine meters! He ran his leg in 8.6. That's not running. That's teleportation. That's Star Trek.

When he passed the finish line, he was two meters clear of the next finisher. He tossed the relay baton in the air. That was symbolic. He'd done what he had to do. Now he'd run with something else.

Yet, he was no converted trackman. Jimmy Hines, who won the 1968 Olympic gold medal at Mexico City, tried to be a wideout -- for about 10 minutes. Skeets Nehemiah actually got a Super Bowl ring with the Niners. Due to the Moscow boycott in '80, he never won Olympic gold. Bullet Bob? Ran track like a football player. That's because he was a football player. Amazingly, he was a football player first. You could tell when he ran. He wasn't extended, muscles taut but elongated loose -- he didn't have the beautiful form of a Carl Lewis, 20 years later. But over 100 meters he was just as fast as Carl Lewis. No doubt. But Hayes roiled when he ran, like an angry sea -- pigeon-toed, with massive thighs and a well-built upper body, he pulled himself through still air. Wind gauges didn't bother him at all. He was ahead of his time physically, too.

And don't ever think he wasn't a football player.

To say Bob Hayes wasn't a football player by the time the Dallas Cowboys picked him in the seventh round in 1964 is to ignore the football capabilities of the young men of the state of Florida, which these days one does at one's own peril. These days? It was always so.

Eight years after Bullet retired from the NFL, the University of Miami began its 20-year run of five national titles in 1984. And that doesn't even count what Florida State under Bobby Bowden and Florida under Spurrier have done. And in all that time, Miami U., Florida State and Florida, for all their national titles, Heisman winners, first-round draft choices, ungodly talents and national recruiting base, still might not have had a single backfield equal to the one Hayes starred in at Florida A&M in the early '60s -- yes that same Florida A&M that Miami put up 63 against in the season opener this year. Bullet Bob didn't make that game. Too ill. That told us right there. Bob never missed a FAMU game. It was all he had left.

Florida A&M in 1961, during the years of segregation, was a very different place. I doubt Miami would have tried them on for size then. Actually, it was a good thing for Miami that there was segregation back then. Saved them the some real embarrassment.

Bob Hayes was a wingback in that backfield, in coach Jake Gaither's system. The halfback was Willie Galimore, who became a Chicago Bear. The quarterback was Charlie Ward, who became the father of his Heisman Trophy-winning namesake. The blocking fullback-tight end was one Hewritt Dixon, later an Oakland Raider.

A few years ago, in his living room in a modest brick house near the FAMU campus, I asked old, rheumy-eyed Jake Gaither who was the best football player he had ever coached. Actually, I asked him who was his all-time FAMU immortal. "Galimore would have been, but another Galimore might come along one day," he said. "That Sayers? Galimore, all over again. But Hayes ... Hayes ..." Gaither's eyes looked out over uncharted vistas. He was near death himself. "Nobody ran that fast. Not possible. Not then. Not now. Made teams defense different. Know where I first saw a zone? Tennessee State University used it. Had to. Against us. Us? Against Hayes. With Hayes and Galimore, I'd have had a chance against the greatest coach there was in my time, Bear Bryant. But then, if Bryant had had Hayes ... heh-heh ... oh ... my ... God."

***** ***** *****

Bullet Bob Hayes came to Dallas as a 1964 seventh-round pick after Texas tackle Scott Appleton (bust), Oregon DB Mel Renfro (All-Pro), Ole Miss DB Perry Lee Dunn (reportedly he lined up to cover Hayes just once; Hayes burst by and for the rest of training camp, Lee Dunn could be seen talking to himself), Georgia Tech quarterback Billy Lothridge (not only could he not overthrow the Bullet -- he couldn't even keep him running; by the time Billy's ducks landed, Bullet was there waiting, or had to come back to him, chuckling to himself, shaking his head -- Billy Lothridge couldn't even give the Bullet a practice, a decent look; Billy didn't last long, and a gun-armed Craig Morton from Cal was taken in the very next draft by the Cowboys), a wide from Cincinnati named Jim Curry, another from Texas Western named Jimmy Evans. In the 10th round, the 'Boys took a quarterback who had to give the Navy four years first. Roger Staubach. They took a 6-foot, 185-pound QB named Jerry Rhome in the 13th round.

Nice draft.

Bob Hayes
Hayes ranks third on the Cowboys' touchdowns list, behind only Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.
Bullet Bob Hayes dominated training camp. Scared everybody. Tripped them out. Surreal. "It was like he was melting, he was so fast," said Frank Clarke, who was the best receiver the Cowboys had, up until Bullet Bob Hayes. "The most dangerous weapon in football, and everybody knew it," said Pete Gent, who was the most literate wide receiver the Cowboys had. "Scary," said Gil Brandt, the Cowboys director of player personnel back then. "The speed he had was ... well, frankly, it was beyond belief."

Tom Landry, more pragmatic than the others, offered no reviews, only a tight-lipped smile. Then he went back to the drawing board.

Seven seasons later, Jan. 16, 1972, Landry, Renfro, Staubach and Hayes won their first Super Bowl. By then, Bullet Bob owned, co-owned or leased must of the Dallas Cowboys record book. He scored four touchdowns in a game against the Houston Oilers in 1970; led the Cowboys in TDs four different seasons, including his rookie year, when he shocked the league, put them all in the Zone, by scoring 13 touchdowns on only 46 catches, for 1,003 yards in 14 games. Talk about a home-run hitter. If Bullet Bob caught four balls, one of them was going all the way. That's a better home-run percentage than Babe Ruth.

Bullet Bob is still the third-leading touchdown-maker in Cowboy history with 76, behind Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, running backs both. Five times the Bullet Man led the Cowboys in receiving yards. In one game, he caught passes for 246 yards, including a 95-yarder from Don Meredith, against the Washington Redskins in 1966. Both of those are still Cowboys records. For his career, he averaged a neat 20.0 yards per touch, including punt returns, including seasons of playing with leg injuries. One year, 1970, he averaged 26.1 yards per catch. The next year, he averaged 24.0 per catch. That's a quarter of the length of the field, every time he touched it.

That, my friends, is the full-blown Wrath of God, in cleats.

Why, numbers can't begin to describe the fear he put in the NFL .

Like pitchers fear Barry Bonds today, defenses feared Bob Hayes then. Then knew they couldn't handle him one-on-one, not unless they were on a motorcycle, or in a jet pack. Even today, a former Cowboys receiver like Gent, who watched him in the passing line, in practice, and in games, says nobody was like Bob Hayes.

The Cowboys record book agrees.

What the record book doesn't say was how hard it was for the Bullet, socially. Here's a guy coming out of rigid segregation, who goes to Dallas, not exactly the Mecca of social understanding at the time. Let's just say that locker room was interesting. Bob was seen as a foreign species to whom human rules did not apply. Watching him run, you could kind of understand the whispers, snickers, the snide comments and practical jokes at his expense. Only not really.

Bob Hayes
Hayes holds up some his fan mail during the Cowboys' Super Bowl season of 1971.
The Bullet Man was also fated to live in interesting times. His second year in the league, Malcolm X was killed. His fourth year in the league, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots broke out all over the map. Hayes once said he didn't even want to come to practice that fall, the year after King was shot, the year the Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn't bow their heads to accept sprinting gold around their necks, but instead stood with black-gloved fists aloft, because they were tired of being seen as, joked about and treated as something much less than men. The Bullet didn't want to go to practice that year because he wasn't the most glib guy, and he didn't want to be asked anymore, "What do you people want?" Bob didn't have an answer. He kept running.

In this environment, he was mostly suspected of things, in spite of his obvious accomplishments and contributions to the growing lore of the Cowboys. Because of his unique physiology, Bullet Bob was seen as a physical freak, an idiot savant, a sort of Venus Hottentot of speed, so pull out the calipers and get out the fast-twitch slow-twitch theories, Irene, 'cause something ain't right here, and we've got to find a way to explain to ourselves how and why this is.

But that was it, in the end. The Bullet Man existed, with all the inherent possibilities of being himself. As it happened, he just ran, that was all, that was enough; he just ran away from it all, and when he ran, none of it mattered; nothing bad could catch him.

He was thigh-heavy. Thigh-heavy? His thighs were like Rolls Royce jet engines, nearly that thick, nearly that powerful. That's where the explosive power came from. So in the area of muscle pulls, particularly hamstrings, he was the Rickey Henderson of football. Most guys didn't even have hamstrings, not when they were compared to Bullet Bob and Rick the Quick, so how could a coaching or "medical" staff even relate to him? Bob was told to take the hypos directly in the thigh. Bob didn't like needles, and he didn't like anybody messing with his legs. His legs were his living, his legend, his life. Bob was no nuclear physicist. Luckily, the NFL wasn't in the business of making weapons of mass destruction, so non-physicists like Bullet, Johnny U., hell, the whole league, were cool, even though they couldn't make head nor tail of a Wonderlic test. Hell, man, Bob Hayes was a weapon of mass destruction.

The Bullet Man won that Super Bowl ring in 1972, when the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl (Super Bowl VI, to be exact) to give him what nobody else on earth has, until this day -- an Olympic Gold Medal and a Super Bowl ring. Not just any Olympic gold medal, but the Olympic gold medal, for the champion of the 100-meter dash. Then a garnish -- the most explosive 100-meter anchor leg ever run, anytime, anywhere. Could Tim Montgomery, current record holder at 9.78, have outrun Bullet Bob? One thing's for sure. Not on that day in 1964.

Bob Hayes was the next in the line of Jesse Owens; he was the most dominant American track and field sprinter since Owens, and maybe the most dominant, the most clear of field, since. In track, you speak of Hayes with Owens and Lewis. Even Owens had a rival, the brilliant but unknown sprinter Eulace Peacock, who was injured in 1936, or else Owens might not have won all four gold medals he did win. Or, if he had, he would've been pushed to faster times. Bob Hayes had no rival. His speed was, at the time, unparalleled. As Jake Gaither said, "He was ahead of all time."

Bob Hayes
Hayes finally earned his overdue spot in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor last September.
Once he left football, he had a fall; suckered for the set-up, in a way like Johnny U., but different. Bullet Bob was convicted for being a mule, taking dope from one informant to another. Law? There ought to be a law against a move like that. Somebody must have wanted Bob Hayes bad. But why? Maybe they were Colts' fans. Maybe they wanted to be the ones who caught him somehow. Anyway, Bob suckered for the bait. The gavel swung down on the Bullet Man, and it was a jailhouse that finally stopped him. Law? Yeah, there ought to be a law, all right, against a system and a people who seem to take particular delight in making sure somebody pays for riots and assassinations and black gloves held aloft, ignoring all the joy and pride that same somebody provided them.

Bob Hayes didn't know what to make of the '60s and '70s, that's for sure, so he spent some of the '80s in the cooler. He got out and the only thing waiting for him was the bottle, and for a long time, the only place that honored him and made him take his head up out of it was the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and FAMU. The NFL shunned him, and so did the Cowboys, up until near the end, when Jerry Jones did something right and had Bullet put in the Cowboy Ring of Honor. Finally, almost before the Bullet knew it, he'd run past six decades; he went back home to north Florida, to Jacksonville, to the Florida A&M games, with his shot liver and bad prostate, his rejection from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and, worst of all, I'm sure, regret. If only ... if only ... if only ... If he was lucky, in his mind he was back on the track, when he died.

Flying. Like a bullet.

Just thinking about how he lit up the track at the '64 Tokyo Olympics, how the NFL had to catch up with him, not the other way around, how he changed ball, was enough to make him tired.

And happy, let's hope. Even if it was only for 8.6 seconds.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



Ralph Wiley Archive

Wiley: Johnny U. the definitive field general

Wiley: Ninety-nine thought balloons

Wiley: Polished NFL outshines NBA

Wiley: NFL season-opening uncensored thought balloons

Wiley: Venus can do whatever she wants

Wiley: My 'Perilous Travels with Charlie'

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index