Hayes deserves better place in history

3/28/2008 - NFL
Once considered the world's fastest man, Bob Hayes was a handful for opposing defenses. Despite averaging 20 yards per catch and being largely responsible for the advent of zone defenses, Hayes is often overlooked when the topic turns to WR greats. TSN/Icon SMI

It is now official, beyond quarrel or question. Bob Hayes is captain of the all-time All-Snub team.

The monopoly of indifference toward the former Dallas Cowboys receiver's NFL career has received another jolt of nonsupport. This time it was from an ESPN.com panel that help select the top 10 receivers in NFL history. Hayes wasn't on the list even though Terrell Owens made it and Raymond Berry didn't.

The top 10 list included:

(1) Jerry Rice; (2) Randy Moss; (3) Don Hutson; (4) Michael Irvin; (5) Paul Warfield; (6) Charley Taylor; (7) Steve Largent; (8) Cris Carter; (9) Owens; (10) Marvin Harrison.

Thus the post-career fate of the fastest man ever to play pro football, or anything else, continued to languish as an historical footnote. Hayes should rate an everlasting headline as the player whose speed reconfigured how the game was played during the 1960s and influenced how the game is played today, almost a half-century later.

As rejections go, this was the third for Hayes in recent years. The Pro Football Hall of Fame was the first major entity to bar its door to him for reasons never made clear to me as a selection committee member from 1976-2000. He became the Veterans Committee candidate years later but again failed to gain approval.

In addition to Berry, who belongs with any top-10 class of receivers, others who compiled the list were Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Holmgren, Boyd Dowler and Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson.

There are distant voices who disagree with the exclusion of Hayes.

"I doubt that there has ever been anyone who revolutionized the offensive game the way Bobby did," said Don Meredith, the first quarterback to team with Hayes. "His amazing speed forced the defense to do a complete re-evaluation of what it had to do to stop him.''

I can't testify that there wasn't some form of zone coverage before Hayes entered the NFL in 1965. But there were a lot more zones thereafter. Man coverage against Hayes was a fool's pursuit. No one could run with the world record holder in the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes; the sprinter who won the 100 meters during the 1964 Olympic Games wearing a borrowed shoe and who, with a running start, was timed in an astonishing 8.6 on the anchor leg of the winning 400-meter relay.

The most sincere display of NFL speed Hayes produced occurred in the Cotton Bowl against the New York Giants in 1966. It amounted to a 50-yard duel after Hayes caught a short pass and turned toward the end zone with cornerback Clarence Childs, a world-class sprinter, two strides behind. Off they flew in open field, until Hayes scored without Childs gaining an inch on him.

I asked Bobby after the game if he worried that Childs might catch him. Hayes dismissed the idea as absurd.

"Naw, he's just an ol' 9.3 man,''' he scoffed.

A new dimension had joined the NFL and left it dizzy searching for a response. Hayes caught 45 touchdown passes during his first four seasons, a figure then topped by only Hutson's 47. He made every Cowboys rival nervous.

"Any team that prepares for the Cowboys has got to make adjustments for Hayes,'' said former Detroit Lions coach Joe Schmidt. "He may not catch a lot of balls, but he can catch one and beat you.''

Hayes did not have flashy stats compared with the modern receivers. He caught 371 passes, a modest number by present standards, worth 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns. But a telltale figure lies within: Hayes averaged 20.0 yards per catch over the length of his career.

"If he never catches a pass, he's worth a couple of touchdowns,'' said then-Cowboys teammate Dan Reeves, referring to how coverage of Hayes benefited others.

His brilliance is defined by a seven-year span ('65-'71) in which he caught 67 touchdown passes and averaged 20.6 yards on 321 receptions. Among his touchdown catches were cross-country adventures measuring 82, 95, 89 and 85 yards.

The only defense that made sense was to borrow strategy from Wile. E. Coyote, even if his quest to trap the beep-beep roadrunner always failed. Teams retreated in the secondary and lay in wait for Hayes to come to them. Hence he forced the advent of deep zones and their spin-off variations.

''There's no one who can make a defense commit itself as much as Hayes can,'' Spider Lockhart, a New York Giants defensive back from 1965-75, once said of Hayes.

Few are aware that Hayes returned 104 punts for an 11.1-yard average and three touchdowns. He lacks credit there and for a sprinkling (23) of kickoff runbacks averaging 25.3 yards. Nor did Hayes play a season longer than 14 games, thereby reducing his career numbers against those working the 16-game schedule adopted in 1978.

Resistance to anointing Hayes as unique and worthy of special attention is embedded like the fossilized footprint of dinosaurs. Yet note that there's a short roll call of those who were active in the NFL during the '60s. Most who evaluate Hayes never saw him play or felt the electricity of all-the-way suspense he brought to crowds at every site.

Hayes left fodder for his critics. He was not a physical player. That can't be denied, and probably cost him points with judges. I'll always believe that a 10-second film clip from the Ice Bowl forever soured his shot at Hall of Fame induction. It's of Hayes flanked wide, both hands stuffed in his pants on nonpassing plays. The scene is damning enough for an anti-Hayes lean to discount anything he did before or thereafter.

Then there's the post-career, five-year sentence for distributing cocaine to an undercover cop posing as a friend. All who knew Hayes' nonthreatening persona found him guilty only of naive blunder. His last years were also unkind, marked by alcoholism and illness.

Hayes, who died in 2002 at age 59, has been eliminated from special tribute across the board. It takes someone who witnessed his NFL journey to champion a lost cause. When guys like me are gone, who'll be left to remember?

Frank Luksa is a freelance writer based in Plano, Texas. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Dallas Times-Herald and Dallas Morning News.