By Brett Raynor
In 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics it was clear who the fastest man on earth was. It was Jacksonville’s own Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes.
Hayes was an extremely gifted athlete; he was fast, strong and had the perfect attitude to thrive in the heart of competition. He dominated his opponents throughout his outstanding athletic career.
Hayes was a symbol of athletic excellence, a role model for Jacksonville’s black community and he personified the impact of the black community on the city of Jacksonville.
Hayes attended Matthew Gilbert High School, an all-black school during the times of segregation, which is now a middle school. It was at Gilbert where Coach James Day, now director of The Bob Hayes Invitational Track Meet, first saw Hayes run.
“He was a ninth-grader and he was beating everyone at 100 yards,” Day remembered. “What he was doing at his age was absolutely incredible. I had never seen anything like it.”
Hayes took his incredible speed and athleticism and attended Florida A&M in Tallahassee from 1961 to 1964. At Florida A&M he became the first black athlete to play in the Senior Bowl game in Mobile, where he scored on a long pass from Joe Namath and was named the South’s MVP.
In 1964 he became a member of the United States Track and Field Olympic Team, where he was selected to run the 100-meter dash and to anchor the 4×100-meter relay team.
“Watching him run in those Olympics was something special, it was something that I knew was bound to happen, but the way he dominated his races was spectacular,” Day said. “The ninth-grader that I saw dominating upperclassmen in 1957 dominated the same way against the fastest runners in the world, just seven years later.”
Recognized as the “Fastest Man in 1963 after winning races in both the U.S. and Europe, at the 1964 Olympic games, Hayes ran the 100-meters in just 10 seconds flat, winning his first of two medals for the United States. He also had set a new Olympic record.
His other gold medal was in the men’s 4×100-meter relay. Hayes was the anchor on the relay, but when he was handed the baton his team was in fifth place.
In what a New York Times article calls, “perhaps the most memorable 100 meters in track and field history,” Hayes made up the time and catapulted the United States into first place, securing the gold medal. His unofficial time was 8.6 seconds and the United States total time was 39 seconds, another world record.
After Hayes’ Olympic performance he went on to the NFL, where his speed revolutionized the game. He was so fast that defenses could no longer play man-to-man when defending him. His speed alone can be credited for the popularity of the zone defense, which is a staple in the NFL today.
Hayes played for the Dallas Cowboys for his entire career, with the exception of his final year playing for the San Francisco 49ers. While he was a Cowboy he led the team in receiving yards three times. In 1966 he had arguably his best season when he caught 64 passes for 1,232 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Hayes won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys on Jan. 16, 1972, where the team beat the Miami Dolphins by a score of 24-3. Winning the Super Bowl made him the only person in the world to have won an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl Ring.
“I remember watching that Super Bowl just hoping that he would be able to win,” Day said. “I was so proud for him when that game was over and he got to hold that trophy, and I think it was big for the young African-American population of Jacksonville for one of their own to be on top of the world. All the kids around Jacksonville would say that they would, ‘Do the Hayes on you,’ which just meant that they were gonna beat you in a race. The kids really just wanted to be Bob Hayes.”
Hayes’s remarkable athletic accomplishments and career made him a superstar. With stardom came the limelight, a limelight that inevitably helped land him in trouble.
In the heat of the constant media attention, Hayes turned to drugs and alcohol. In April 1979, Hayes served 10 months in prison after a guilty plea to delivering narcotics to an undercover police officer.
That “destroyed my life,” Hayes later wrote in his autobiography, “Run, Bullet, Run: The Rise, Fall, and Recovery of Bob Hayes.”
This kept Hayes out of the NFL Hall of Fame during his lifetime, which devastated him and his fans.
“It was a tough time for all of us who loved Hayes so much,” Day said. “I can’t imagine how he felt at the time, the whole situation was one of the saddest things that I’ve seen happen to such a great man, but throughout everything he never let it bring him down and he would always be there for the kids in the area.”
Hayes moved back to Jacksonville in the mid-1990s to live with his parents. He continued to battle drug and alcohol problems and went to rehab on three separate occasions.
According to an Arizona Daily Sun article in 2002, Hayes kept close ties with his alma mater at Florida A&M.
A longtime friend of Hayes, Eddie Jackson, told the Sun that despite being sick he went to every football game that he could, and no matter how bad Hayes looked, if Florida A&M was playing, he would be there.
To commemorate Hayes’ startling career, Jacksonville’s Nat Washington, who had coached Hayes in high school, created The Bob Hayes Invitational Track Meet in 1964. The meet started with just a few local schools and has grown over the last 54 years.
In 2001 Hayes defied his doctors’ orders and went to the Invitational just to shake the athletes’ hands.
“That’s the kind of person he was. He would give you anything he had, or didn’t have,” Day remembered. “He loved seeing all of these kids out on the track running around and trying to become great and giving back to the community. I remember a few times at the banquet we hold for the Invitational where he would start shedding tears of joy at the podium.
“He really loved it.”
Hayes died at Shands Hospital in his hometown of Jacksonville on Sept. 18, 2002, due to complications from prostate cancer and heart and kidney ailments. He was just 59 years old.
Hayes’ life is celebrated every year during the Bob Hayes Invitational, but perhaps the best celebration of his life came on Aug. 9, 2009, the day Bob Hayes was finally brought into the NFL Hall of Fame. His son, Bob Hayes Jr., accepted the honor on his father’s behalf.
Here is a transcript from part of his speech.
“In his last days he used to talk about the Hall of Fame. It hurts because he should have been here to witness this special occasion. But, unfortunately, he didn’t make it to see it. I know wherever he is, he’s smiling down. He’s happy. He knows what’s going on. And he’ll be with us in our spirits, in our hearts and our minds.
“On behalf of the Hayes family, I’m very honored to accept the induction of my father, Bob Hayes, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”