Activity is to be avoided at all costs during the hot, humid dog days around Jacksonville in northern Florida. But on the Florida A&M campus, at precisely the time the air hangs heaviest, the cry of "On the hop!" sends a squadron of football players in full equipment sprinting up a nearly vertical incline known as Horror Hill. The dash is famous. It is an all-out, dust-raising, hold-on-to-your-hat charge negotiated with the kind of speed found nowhere this side of the Olympic 100-meter dash. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the past three years the first man to crest Horror Hill always has been Left Halfback Robert Lee Hayes, the same Bob Hayes who won two gold medals in Tokyo and is this year's version of the world's fastest human.
Last week, his Olympic medals and records behind him, Hayes was back doing what he likes best: playing football. The fact that Hayes can run faster than anyone else has made him the object of professional football interest. Hayes was drafted last year by Dallas of the NFL and Denver of the AFL, and Saturday representatives from these teams set speed records of their own rushing from the press box to the dressing room at the end of the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami's Orange Bowl. The fact that Florida A&M defeated Grambling 42-15 was of only mild interest. Hayes's catch of a 30-yard pass and 20-yard run for a touchdown, plus two slashing runs for two-point conversions, were more to the point.
But, for all his accomplishments, the question persists: Is Robert Hayes, track star, going to make good as a pro player? He will not be the first Olympic medalist to give professional football a try. Except for Quarter-miler Ollie Matson, the form charts have been dismal. Most of Hayes's predecessors found that on the gridiron the shortest distance between two points invariably was blocked by a 260-pound tackle. And, invariably, that finished them.
" Bob Hayes is not one of these," insists his coach, Jake Gaither, a graying man whose cry of "On the hop!" has sent such players as Willie Galimore and Clarence Childs up Horror Hill and into pro ball. Whenever he endorses a player there is a ring of authority to what he says. " Hayes is a football player first," he says, "and a track star second." Physically, Hayes confirms the judgment. Observers have always had the impression that the 194-pound sprinter with the deep, powerful chest, thick thighs and rolling gait was absurdly out of place in track briefs. It was not until the players took up wind sprints that Line Coach Robert Griffin, who happens also to be the track coach, began to suspect that A&M had something more than a good young halfback.
Gaither, of course, was convinced he had a football player. " Hayes has more going for him than Galimore had," he said last week, and that is high praise indeed. Before he was killed in an auto accident last summer, the Chicago Bear back was considered one of the best runners in the NFL. But Gaither insists Hayes is a better open-field runner, a better pass catcher, and he obviously is faster. "He can't cut like Willie could," says Gaither, "but, then, neither could anyone else."
At this point Gaither is just getting warmed up. " Hayes can punt 60 yards," he says, "and can kick off over the goal line. I haven't let him because I didn't want someone to hit him with his leg in the air." Gaither was criticized for letting Hayes play football at all, but says, "Shucks, if he had to choose one or the other he'd have chucked his track shoes out the window." As it was, the entire Florida A&M coaching staff had to be on guard lest Hayes sneak into a game when the situation called for brawn rather than speed. The brutal sting of direct contact is his idea of a really good time. One gets the impression that Hayes is more than a little disappointed that he was not drafted as a tackle.
For those who remain the least bit skeptical, Gaither has another trump card—his collection of game films, such as the one against Texas Southern two weeks ago. In the first half it showed Hayes being jostled by defensive backs and still catching passes. One was worth 19 yards and a touchdown, and the other went for 43 yards and another touchdown. "You ain't seen anything yet," said Gaither, rubbing his hands together. Next scene opened with Hayes lined up close behind the line in a halfback position instead of wide in his usual flanker-back spot. The quarterback pitched out to him, and Hayes turned the end, following his blockers in a way rarely learned by converted sprinters. An instant later two defenders had Hayes cornered against the sideline. He slowed, skipped left, then right and, when one of the defenders fell down, turned on what Gaither calls his "scat gear." He raced straight out of the picture. The camera next caught him prancing in the end zone, 58 yards away.
"We think he's a great football prospect," says Dallas Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm. "He's different from other track men who have attempted to play football, in that he has the natural moves and instincts of a football player. He has very, very good hands—he catches the ball surely and with ease. He has soft hands. And he is very good at catching punts and kickoffs.
"He could be a flanker, a running back or even, potentially, a defensive back. His only weakness that we know of is his inexperience, and with his tremendous natural abilities that shouldn't be a handicap for very long."
Hayes agrees with this. "Oh, I know I've got an awful lot to learn," he says, "but I love this game. I don't have to learn what it feels like to get hit. I know the importance of following my blockers. Maybe I don't know the fakes now, but I sure know you gotta have them, and that's more than most pure sprinters know. I've studied all the good flankers, and I think I can catch a ball with any of them, and I'm faster." This is not conceit. It is Hayes's matter-of-fact way of reciting the obvious.