The African American athlete Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes (1942–2002) reached top levels in two different sports: in track and field as a sprinter, and in professional football as a wide receiver. Considered the fastest man in the world after his spectacular victories on the track in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Hayes remains the only athlete to have won both an Olympic gold medal (he won two) and a Super Bowl ring.
Bob Hayes was born December 20, 1942, in Jacksonville, Florida. Hayes's father, George Sanders, was absent, and Hayes grew up in the care of his mother, Mary Green, and a World War II veteran and shoeshine stand operator named Joseph Hayes. Although he loved football and, at 5-feet-11 and 190 pounds, seemed built for that game, he showed unusual speed as a runner from the beginning. “Everybody used to run, and the guys would bet a nickel to see who could run the fastest,” he was quoted as saying by New York Times writer Frank Litsky. “One day, there was the top sprinter on the track team and we raced. I beat him by five yards.” Hayes attended Matthew Gilbert High School in Jacksonville, participating in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. He was encouraged to join the track team after a coach saw him win a race while wearing street shoes.
Hayes attracted scholarship offers from what would now be classified as National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I schools, but his family was worried about finances and discrimination. Instead, he chose to attend the historically African American Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Florida A&M, or FAMU). He enrolled there in 1960 with the intention of playing football and making his way into the professional game, writing on his application that he hoped he would be able to better his family's condition. As halfback and sometimes as a fullback, he excelled, leading the team with 11 touchdowns scored in 1963 and returning punts and kickoffs with impressive averages of more than 20 yards per return in each category.
Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys as a “red shirt” (a delayed pick), Hayes was free to concentrate on sprinting as the 1964 Olympics approached. His performance in the games was spectacular. He won the 100-meter dash with a world record-tying time of 10.05 seconds, winning the race by a margin variously reported as 7 to 13 feet—astonishing in any case. That performance was enough to induce legendary sprinter Jesse Owens, who attended the games and sat next to Hayes's mother, to call Hayes the greatest sprinter of all time. “As soon as I won that race, I got down on my hands and knees and thanked God for giving me the ability to run like that,” Hayes was quoted as saying by Rick Cantu in the Austin American-Statesman. “Bringing the gold back to America was the greatest thrill I ever had in athletics.”
Yet to come, though, was a still-more-amazing performance as Hayes took the final leg of the U.S. men's 4x100-meter relay team. As the baton was passed to Hayes, French runner Jocelyn Delecour was several meters ahead of him; the U.S. team was in either fourth or fifth place. Hayes's final sprint, unofficially timed at 8.6 seconds, remains a historic achievement and perhaps a world-record performance (no one has ever run a faster leg); he blew past Delecour and finished some ten feet ahead. The feat was even more remarkable in view of the fact that he had run in a damaged, cinder-covered inside lane and was using a borrowed left shoe because his Olympic Village roommate, boxer Joe Frazier, had accidentally displaced his regular shoe while searching for chewing gum.
Dubbed the world's fastest human (he is thought to have exceeded a speed of 27 miles per hour during his final relay sprint), Hayes attracted heavy attention from professional football scouts. He still had another year of eligibility at Florida A&M, but financial opportunities for sprinters were rare, and his coaches advised him to accept one of the offers coming his way. In 1965 Hayes signed a threeyear contract with the Dallas Cowboys, earning a total salary of $100,000 plus a new Buick as a bonus—a minuscule total by modern standards, but generous at the time.
Nicknamed “Bullet,” Hayes quickly repaid the Cowboys’ investment. Other sprinters failed to make the transition to football, but Hayes was something different: a football player who had taken up sprinting rather than the other way around. As a rookie in the 1965 season, he pulled in 46 catches for a total of 1,003 yards, leading the National Football League (NFL) with 12 touchdown catches and 21.8 yards per catch. The following year those totals all increased: he notched 64 catches for 1,232 total yards and 13 touchdowns. He was also a league leader as a punt returner in 1967 and 1968. Hayes was named to the Pro Bowl all-star team in 1965, 1966, and 1967.
Hayes's effect on football's defensive game was profound. Unable to field defenders who could match his speed, defensive coordinators devised new strategies to contain him, and these techniques became fundamental to the defensive game as high-speed wide receivers proliferated. New defensive methods included the zone defense, where players would cover a specific part of the field, and the so-called bump and run, where defenders would try to block the receiver's path. The disadvantage of the latter strategy was that when Hayes did manage to escape the defender, he usually achieved a large yardage gain.
Hayes remained a consistent performer, averaging near 20 yards per catch over his ten-year career. In 1971 he led the NFL with a 24-yard-per-reception average; at the end of that season (in January of 1972) the Dallas Cowboys played the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI and were victorious, making Hayes the only player ever to possess both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers prior to the 1975 season; he played four games there and then retired with a lifetime total of 371 receptions for 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns.
Like many other players, Hayes experienced difficulties after his football career ended. For several years he worked for a real estate company owned by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, and he was associated with a variety of other business ventures. In 1978 he was arrested in Dallas and charged with selling Quaaludes and cocaine to an undercover police officer. He pleaded guilty in 1979 and was sentenced to five years in prison, but was released after ten months. Although admitting that he had substance abuse problems, Hayes maintained that he was innocent of the drug charges, and his conviction remains controversial.
Hayes returned to college to complete his degree, earning a B.A. in elementary education in 1994. He was married twice, to Altamease Martin in 1965 and later to Janice McDuff; he had five children: Bob Jr., Glenda (Moore), Westine (Lodge), Veronica (Jenkins), and Adrienne (Thomas). In later years, he suffered serious kidney and liver problems that confined him to a wheelchair. In 2001 he was given the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor by owner Jerry Jones but was passed over for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, likely due to his prior drug use. Hayes died in Jacksonville on September 18, 2002, following several hospitalizations resulting from heavy alcohol use. He was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
Hayes, Bob, with Robert Pack, Run, Bullet, Run: The Rise, Fall, and Recovery of Bob Hayes Harper & Row, 1990.
Austin American-Statesman, September 20, 2002, Rick Cantu, “‘Bullet Bob’ Changed the Game of Football,” p. A1.
Florida Times Union (Jacksonville, FL), September 20, 2002, Teneshia L. Wright, “Bob Hayes: City Loses Its ‘Fastest Man.” ’ p. A1.
New York Times, September 20, 2002, Frank Litsky, “Bob Hayes, Stellar Sprinter and Receiver,” p. B9.
Times (London, England), September 21, 2002, p. 44.
CBS News online, http://www.cbsnews.com/ (September 19, 2002). “‘Bullet’ Bob Hayes Dead at 59.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame website, http://www.profootballhof.com/ (September 3, 2016), “Bob Hayes: Dallas Cowboys & San Francisco 49ers.”❑