How Football’s Fastest Man Won Olympic Gold

Bob Hayes (left) during the final heat of the 100-meter dash at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Source Getty

Why you should care

Because he was Randy Moss, before Moss. 

With his knees high and toes exploding off the turf in what must have been painful for Mother Earth, No. 22 for the Dallas Cowboys looked nothing like a mid-20th-century wide receiver. Once the lofted pigskin dropped into his arms, though, the fabled game breaker made clear he wasn’t a myth. High-stepping away from a final defender, Bullet Bob Hayes stretched across the goal line like a sprinter at the finish line. Fitting, because before becoming a Super Bowl champion who forced NFL coordinators to reconsider the way football was played, Hayes starred in another pair of spikes.

When Hayes arrived in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games, the collegiate sprinter did so with one missing running shoe and a ticket to the NFL. In his 1990 autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, Hayes writes that he left one of his track spikes under his bed before the trip, noticing its absence only upon reaching Japan. And the ticket to the NFL? Dallas had already drafted him that past December — all Hayes had to do was decide which route to pursue: track or field. But no missing shoe or future mattered when the fastest man on earth stepped on the track. The accomplished Florida A&M sprinter’s most memorable performance came in Tokyo. He won a gold medal with a world-record 10.06-second 100-meter dash, then capped a come-from-behind gold medal victory for America in the 4×100 relay. Hayes was also ahead of his time on the gridiron. His world-class speed birthed long-lasting changes in how the sport is played, and Hayes became the only Olympic gold medalist to win a Super Bowl. It’s not that there was no speed in the NFL before 1965, it’s just that Bob Hayes–level blastoff had yet to be initiated.

“Defensive backs were scared to death of him,” says NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “He was the first true burner that could blow past an entire defense.” 

He was Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders — a bona fide two-sport star. 

Hayes excelled as a halfback and sprinter at Matthew Gilbert High School, but, due to segregation laws, his team largely went unnoticed. On scholarship at Tallahassee’s Florida A&M, Hayes became an immediate hit. Though he never lost a 100-meter race, the historically black FAMU was not invited to mainstream-sanctioned college events. In 1962, when the University of Miami finally invited Hayes to a meet, he set a world record with a 100-meter dash of 9.2 seconds. The next year, he won the American Athletic Union national championship with a 9.1 — a record that stood until 1974.

The gridiron was equally as fruitful for Hayes. From 1961 to 1964, he played for legendary football coach Jake Gaither, whom President Lyndon B. Johnson famously asked to give Hayes more time to train for the Olympics. Gaither had a good reason for wanting Hayes to focus on football. Alongside future Oakland Raider Hewritt Dixon and quarterback Charlie Ward (Ward’s son, Charlie Ward Jr., won the Heisman Trophy in 1993), Hayes led one of the most dangerous backfields in the nation. Still, segregation forced the all-Black team out of the mainstream, and Hayes was largely unknown before 1964. Then Tokyo happened.

Many of today’s sprinters are as muscular as gridiron stars, but that was unusual in the 1960s. Hayes’ self-taught, fierce running style and his massive chest and thighs seemed counterproductive to sprinting. Then, he’d turn on the jets. When he took the baton during the 4×100 comeback victory in Tokyo, the U.S. team was in fifth place and Hayes was the final leg. He turned a 2-meter deficit into a 3-meter win, and his 8.6-second relay leg remains the fastest ever.

After the race, French runner Jocelyn Delecour remarked that the United States “haven’t got anything except Hayes.’’ Hayes’ teammate Paul Drayton retorted: “That’s all we need, pal.”

 

Hayes was not just some speedy track convert who tried his hand at football. Plenty of sprinters have tried and failed. Not Hayes. He was Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders — a bona fide two-sport star. Dallas drafted Hayes in the seventh round in 1964, three rounds before picking another future Hall of Famer, Navy’s Roger Staubach. Hayes torched the NFL from the start, leading the league in receiving touchdowns in his first two seasons.

Evidence of Hayes’ legacy is perhaps most apparent in game planning. “The zone defense was installed because the defensive backs had to play so far off him,” says NFL Live host Trey Wingo, noting that defenders could not stop Hayes man-to-man. “Since the corners played off him, the Cowboys began using the quick screen [pass],” Wingo says. Both strategies remain heavily relied-upon tactics in football today.

When Staubach took over as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback in 1969, Hayes’ yards per catch skyrocketed. Finally, a quarterback with arm strength to match Hayes’ speed. With an astonishing 26.1 yards per reception (seventh all-time), Hayes led the league in 1970. He left Dallas as their career leader in touchdowns (71), yards receiving (7,295), average yards per catch (20.0) and average yards per punt return (11.1). “He had another speed,” said Staubach at Hayes’ 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. “At first I thought I was overthrowing him and ended up underthrowing him. You had to get the ball out quicker.”

Hayes competed in track once more, in 1973, winning 14 of 15 races with the short-lived International Track Association, and made the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1976. But hard times followed. In 1978, he was arrested for selling cocaine and quaaludes to an undercover agent. He pleaded guilty — later, he insisted that he’d only done so on the advice of his lawyers — and was paroled after 10 months in prison. Unfortunately, the incident cost Hayes an induction to the Football Hall of Fame while he was alive.

Hayes worked for Staubach’s real estate company, had five children and eight grandchildren, and faded from the limelight. In 2002, at age 59, he died of kidney failure after battling prostate cancer. When he was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, his son accepted the award.

“Many great track names have sought football fame,” said Bob Hayes Jr. “But Bob Hayes was a football player who just happened to be the world’s fastest human.”

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