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Let's speed matters: Induct Hayes

1/31/2009

Let's be clear about this: You cannot write a history of the NFL without including a chapter about Bob Hayes. Therefore, Hayes should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That he died in 2002 just shy of his 60th birthday without that honor is a sin.

Bob Hayes revolutionized the NFL. To be more exact, the guy who recruited him and convinced the Dallas Cowboys to draft Hayes in the seventh round in 1964 -- that guy revolutionized the game of pro football. That guy's name is Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' longtime personnel guru. Before Brandt introduced Hayes to the NFL, track stars were shunned by NFL scouts. Too many of them had flunked the training-camp test: the rigors of the two-a-days in the sweltering summer heat, the repetition of practice, the memorization of plays and then the ability to catch the ball in traffic while somebody was trying to take away your manhood.

As Jim Brown once said, "If you had a little rabbit in you, this game is not for you."

This is why Bob Hayes lasted until the draft's seventh round, even though at the time he was one of three most accomplished athletes in the world.

At the Olympics in Tokyo in the summer of 1964, Hayes not only won the gold medal in the 100 meters in a world-record 10.05 seconds; he anchored the American 400-meter relay team, which also took home the gold. His 100-meter split in that race was an electrifying 8.6 seconds, another world record. So "Bullet Bob" had another nickname: "The World's Fastest Human."

It was Brandt who saw how Hayes' speed could change the NFL game. He convinced then-Cowboys head coach Tom Landry to draft him, but Landry remained unconvinced until Hayes tore it up in Cowboys camp.

"Then when we got to the regular season, he did the same thing," Brandt said.

Rookie season: 12 touchdowns, averaging a league-high 21.8 yards a catch. When Dallas won Super Bowl VI on Jan. 16, 1972, beating the Miami Dolphins 24-3, Hayes became the only athlete to win an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring. He still is.

For defensive coordinators, Hayes was a nightmare. He not only occupied a cornerback, who quickly found being physical with Hayes first meant you had to get on him, which wasn't easy. But Hayes also helped create the concept of umbrella zone defensive schemes -- on every down, not just on third-and-long or Hail Mary passes. Then, on the other side of the ball, what Hayes did forced offensive coordinators to find ways to open up the secondary like he did, forced them to find ways to keep the safeties from creeping down to the line of scrimmage and blowing up the running game. Everybody wanted to stop Hayes, or imitate what he did with his speed. But there was no one like him.

As for cornerback play, Hayes forced the issue again. The concept of "bump-and-run" coverage basically was invented to stop Hayes and his imitators. Without Hayes, the whole idea of a coveted "cover corner" might have not existed -- and then been handsomely compensated once free agency came around decades later. So the next time you cash a big check, Deion Sanders, give thanks to Bob Hayes.

Hayes' numbers are Hall of Fame-worthy: three Pro Bowls, averaging more than 20 yards a catch and 71 TD passes. But more than that, Hayes was a trailblazer. His impact on the game lasted decades. He forced the league to think of speed as an essential element of the pro game, forced teams to look for speed -- on both sides of the ball -- instead of stigmatizing it.

Postscript: Years after football, he developed a drug and alcohol dependence, serving 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to delivering narcotics to an undercover police officer.

Apparently, that incident has helped keep him out of Canton, even if similar circumstances did not prevent Lawrence Taylor and Michael Irvin from getting in.

The selectors meet Saturday morning in Tampa, Fla., site of Super Bowl XLIII, to choose the 2009 class of enshrinees. Put Hayes in the Hall.

This is adapted from "The Paolantonio Report, the Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Teams & Moments in NFL History" by Sal Paolantonio (with Rueben Frank.) Paolantonio's latest book is called "How Football Explains America."