"I can only believe that I survived because so many people prayed for me, and God got me through," he says. "Now I'm in His path, but there were so many times when I was on another path. I can't practice perfection, but I can practice progress, and that's what I'm doing. Tomorrow is not promised to you, but I'm fortunate, I'm blessed. I'm a miracle. I can see. I can hear. I can walk. I can still run. Not fast, but I can. I can still run."
When Hayes was young, he may have been the Very Fastest Human Ever. Five-feet-eleven, 190 pounds, no sprinter had been stronger. He wasn't a bullet at all, more like a mortar. Pigeon-toed, his arms pumping, his spikes tearing holes in the track, Hayes ran, as one coach said, "like he was pounding grapes into wine." He won 53 straight sprints and took the '64 gold in 10 flat despite running on an inside lane that had been chewed up by the recently concluded 10,000-meter race. He finished seven feet ahead of the runner-up, which, for 100 meters, translates into Secretariat at the Belmont.
A couple of days later, when Hayes took the baton and anchored the 4 x 100 relay, he flew past a Frenchman who started almost seven yards ahead of him. With the jogging relay start, Hayes ran 8.4, going about 30 mph. Nobody runs the 100 yards anymore—the 100 yards is the Stalin of statistics, having been expunged from record books as if nobody had ever run it—but shhh: In 1963, at the AAU championships, Hayes ran 100 yards in a record 9.1.
Most remarkable, he accomplished all this as a sideline. When Lyndon Johnson called up Jake Gaither, Hayes's football coach at Florida A&M, and asked him to keep Hayes healthy for the Olympics, Gaither replied, "But Mr. President, Bob is a football player. He just happens to be the World's Fastest Human."
Consider: In the 37 years since Tokyo the record has been reduced by 0.21, barely a fifth of a second. "I played football almost half the year," Hayes says. "I ran cross-country to get in shape. I trained on a clay track. I ate the same food that you do. Maurice seems to be built perfectly. He's so strong. It's all so different now."
Hayes was only 21—years younger than what we now know a sprinter's prime to be—when he left track to make money at football. We can only speculate what he might have achieved if he hadn't gone to the Dallas Cowboys and been such a good receiver. Cowboys coach Tom Landry was amazed at his abilities. Dallas running back Calvin Hill asked Hayes why he was the only player whom Landry allowed to call him Tom.
Hayes smiled and said, "Nine-one."
He still wears his Super Bowl ring and NFC Championship ring. On the wall of his mother's living room is a huge picture of him in his Cowboys stars—number 22. Elsewhere upon the walls are magazine covers featuring teammates Roger Staubach and Bob Lilly, and what constitutes almost a shrine to Landry. There is little evidence that Hayes ran track. The sport has forgotten Hayes, and that is particularly sad because he never wanted to leave it. "Believe me," he says, "you would've never seen me in a Cowboys uniform if I could've made a living running." He cocks his head and grins. "Why should I get beat up?"
It was also in football—not track—that Hayes encountered drugs. Although he is clean and sober now, and has served his time for trafficking in small amounts of cocaine and methaqualone, he remains tarnished goods. None of the sponsors who trade off Olympic glory, inviting former gold medalists to the Games to mingle with clients, invite Hayes. He was there only once, running.
"My mother was sitting with Jesse Owens and Mrs. Owens," says Hayes, "and when I won I saw tears running down my mother's face. And Jesse Owens—he was a real nice guy, a father figure to me—seeing him up there with my mother made me so proud. Then the Japanese emperor put the medal around my neck. It's the greatest feeling. That flag is flying. They're playing your national anthem. You realize you represent everyone in your country. Yes, some of them are bigots, and you might not want to represent them, but you do. You see, if you think any different, then you're going to be like them, aren't you?"