Before he got beat up on a routine basis, before he played linebacker for Tulsa, before he pissed off thousands of Japanese and waaaaay before he emerged as America's brightest hope to end a 46-year medal drought in Olympic bobsledding, Todd Hays was a little kid in Del Rio, Texas, mesmerized by the images on his television set. They were red, white and blue, and thrilling: U.S. athletes performing heroically at the Winter Olympics, then wearing medals at the playing of the national anthem. His national anthem.
"I was sucked in," says Hays, 32, who saw snow only twice as a child. "The greatest achievement in sports is winning that medal. You represent your country, and you're the best in the world."
More than most other athletes, Hays, the driver on America's top two-man and four-man bobsleds, knows how winding—and strange—the path to the Olympics can be. As a boy in Del Rio, a tough town on the Mexican border, Hays spent many an afternoon receiving fist-to-head treatment from his peers. As a result his father, Jack, signed him up for martial-arts training. Later Todd emerged as one of the area's top football players; he received a scholarship to Tulsa, which, in 1991, he helped lead to victory over San Diego State in the Freedom Bowl. By then Hays excelled at two sports. He had won many mid-level kick-boxing tournaments, and he earned a tryout with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
After Toronto cut him, a dejected Hays returned to Del Rio and continued to kickbox, winning a national title in 1993. Then, in '94, his brother Lee learned from a TV ad that the U.S. bobsled federation was holding tryouts in nearby San Antonio. "They need big, fast guys," Lee said. "You're going."
Todd, who's 6'3" and weighs 235, knew little of the sport, but he dominated the six-step speed-strength test. He became the pusher on America's No. 3 four-man sled. "Pretty quickly I realized I wasn't athletic enough to go far as a pusher," says Hays. "Those guys are athletic freaks. If I wanted an Olympic future, I had to drive."
One problem: To become a serious driver, he needed to practice on a serious sled, and those cost about $10,000 apiece. Enter luck. In April 1995 a kickboxing promoter called and asked if Hays would be interested in flying to Tokyo to take on Koichiro Kimura, the undefeated Japanese ultimate-fighting champion. Although Hays's experience in the sport was minimal, the appearance fee was...$10,000. Hays didn't only appear. He also beat Kimura in front of 60,000 bloodthirsty fans.
Ever since then, Hays has soared. He made the 1998 Winter Games as an alternate and is now the face of U.S. bobsledding. Last season he ranked fifth in the combined (two-man and four-man) World Cup standings, and his teams recently won four straight World Cup races. For the first time in memory, the U.S. has beaten Germany, Austria and Italy, the kings of the sport.
"The best thing that happened to me was being cut by Toronto and then finding bob-sledding," Hays says. "If I can chase down my Olympic dream, I'll be able to live the rest of my life content."