They followed him into the NFL like rats following the Pied Piper. Olympic sprinters and hurdlers were handed a uniform and told to catch the ball and run away from people, just like Bob Hayes did.
Speed is what Hayes brought into the league in 1965, more speed than anyone had ever seen on a football field. And when the rest of the NFL saw how he stretched defenses and forced them to go to all sorts of zones to try to stop him, general managers pored over copies of Track & Field News and sent out their invites.
Olympic sprint champ Jimmy Hines got a shot in Miami. John Carlos and Tommie Smith washed out with the Eagles and the Bengals, respectively, after the Mexico City Games. And Harvey Nairn, an NAIA hurdles champ, spent time with the Jets. (The raw speed that Nairn flashed on one play in an exhibition game—he blew by Lions cornerback Lem Barney...and then dropped a pass—was enough to earn him paychecks for two years as a member of the Jets' taxi squad.) Everyone wanted another Bob Hayes, the only man ever to win an individual Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring, but there has never been another one.
It is October 1964, and the Olympic Games are under way in Tokyo. Hayes, still in the first flush of victory after winning the 100-meter final in world-record-tying time (10.0), has just been ushered into a small room where athletes await the medals ceremony. He did a little hop-step across the room, stopped, put his hands on his temples, looked upward and let out a big surge of emotion: "Ooooh! Ooooh!" He did this for five minutes or so before being called out to get his medal. I can't remember ever seeing such pure joy in a human being.
Six days later Hayes lined up to run the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 relay. The American team was in fifth when he got the baton, a few yards behind the pack, but Hayes pulled even with 30 meters to go, shifted into overdrive and shot ahead of everyone with an explosive burst that made the greatest sprinters in the world seem sluggish. There are no official split times for relay races that short, but writers from Track & Field News timed his leg at 8.6 on one watch, 8.8 on another. Yes, relay times in the 100 are faster because of the running start, but an 8.8 over 100 meters is still the equivalent of roughly 7.9 for 100 yards, and God knows what for a football 40. No one had ever seen such a display of speed. No one is likely to see one again.
Back in Dallas the Cowboys were licking their chops. In 1963 they had drafted him in the seventh round as a future choice, used for players who still had college eligibility. All that speed would soon be theirs.
You never really know what misery might be in store for even the most gifted athlete. Hayes went on to a distinguished 11-year career in the NFL, averaging 20 yards per catch, scoring 71 touchdowns, making three Pro Bowl appearances and helping Dallas win its first Super Bowl in 1972, but drug and alcohol problems kept him out of the Hall of Fame. He died last week of complications from prostate cancer, and heart and kidney ailments, at the age of 59.
Hayes differed from the sprinters who would follow him into and out of the NFL, because he was not merely a sprinter who happened to play football. He was, as he liked to put it, "a football player first, then a runner." There were lots of fast guys on Jake Gaither's Florida A&M squad, and he'd shuffle them in and out, align them in different formations. Hayes was listed as a halfback, but he'd line up all over the place—on the wing, in the slot, wherever he was needed.
People have said that his college career was only so-so, but he was a starter at wide receiver in the 1965 College All-Star Game, and the quarterback who started that game for his team, Roger Staubach, would, in the years that followed, go on to launch many deep strikes to Hayes for the Cowboys.
Hayes began to make his mark on the NFL as soon as he arrived: He led the league with 21.8 yards per catch in his rookie season, and he sustained that career average of 20 yards per reception, a figure few players even approach nowadays for a single season. The zone defense had existed in the NFL before his arrival, but it was crude by today's standards, and Hayes could destroy that kind of coverage the same way he did man-to-man alignments. So coaches came up with a double zone to try to control him. A cornerback would play him tight as he came off the line—in those days defenders could do anything they wanted to a receiver, except grab and hold—and another defensive back would pick him up deep. Or coaches would assign the deepest defensive back, usually the free safety, to make sure he stayed behind Hayes, which opened up vast areas underneath. No other player caused that kind of strategic overhaul of the defensive game.