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For Bob Hayes, speed was the name of the game

SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

The fleet-footed Dallas Cowboys receiver, who died in 2002, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

August 08, 2009|SAM FARMER

The fastest man anyone had ever seen on a football field, a receiver so mind-bendingly speedy that NFL defenses were invented to stop him, finally accomplished something in the most unfamiliar of ways.

Slowly.

The late Dallas Cowboys star Bob Hayes will be inducted today into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, seven years after his death and four decades after leaving an indelible imprint on the game he loved.

"This would have meant the world to him," said his friend George Atkinson, a former Oakland Raiders defensive back. "He figured he would never get in, as a result of some unfortunate incidents. He figured that would keep him out. I'm pretty sure he's smiling down from up above, flashing those pearly whites."

Hayes, who struggled with alcohol, drug and legal problems after his career, is the only person to win a Super Bowl ring and an individual Olympic gold medal -- he tied a world record by covering 100 meters in 10.0 seconds at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

He will enter the Hall of Fame today along with guard Randall McDaniel; defensive ends Derrick Thomas and Bruce Smith; defensive back Rod Woodson; and Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

Of those, it was Hayes who struck fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators. He stretched the field with his blistering speed and forced opponents to resort to so-called Cover 2 zones, with deep safeties lining up behind cornerbacks to ensure Hayes needed to beat more than one man for a rendezvous with the end zone.

As it was, Hayes scored 71 touchdowns in his 11-year career -- still a club record for receiving -- and averaged a staggering 20.0 yards per catch.

"He could embarrass you," said Willie Brown, a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Raiders. "I don't know if you could call it fear of him or not, but he'd sure get your attention."

Clearly, Hayes wasn't a shoo-in for Canton, and not only because of his problems off the field. (He pleaded guilty in 1979 to delivering narcotics to an undercover officer, leading to 10 months in a Texas prison.) He led his team in receptions in only three of his 11 seasons, and his 371 career receptions are less than a quarter of Jerry Rice's record 1,549. Also, he didn't have a reputation as a player who came through in big games.

Regardless, his world-class speed separated him from his peers, literally and figuratively. But if Hayes was poetry in motion, he wasn't the fluid, flowing poem you might expect.

"Here was a guy who was the fastest man on earth and yet he lumbered," said NFL Films President Steve Sabol, who began his career as a cameraman. "He wasn't a classic sprinter. His arms would flail out at grotesque angles, he was pigeon-toed."

But, through the NFL Films lens, Hayes moved earth like no one else.

"We'd shoot in super slo-mo and isolate on him, and there was this churn," Sabol said. "When he ran, you'd see these clods of dirt in his wake. He was so powerful and so fast, it was almost like a speedboat."

Hayes left something else in his wake too: a steady stream of imitators. Miami signed Olympic sprinter Jimmy Hines. Philadelphia and Cincinnati tried their luck with John Carlos and Tommie Smith, respectively. The New York Jets inked NCAA hurdles champion Harvey Nairn and, years later, San Francisco tried to convert hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah into a football player. None of the experiments really worked.

Wrote Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman in 2002, after Hayes died of complications from prostate cancer, and heart and kidney ailments: "Hayes differed from the sprinters who would follow him into and out of the NFL, because he was not merely a sprinter who happened to play football. He was, as he liked to put it, 'a football player first, then a runner.' "

As a pro, Hayes got the nickname "Bullet" for his speed. But years earlier, he went by "Crow," because, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he had dark skin and ran so quickly it was almost as if he could fly.

Atkinson, who was a track and football star at Morris Brown College in Atlanta when Hayes was at Florida A&M, remembers Hayes showing up to track meets with a live crow perched on his shoulder.

"Before we'd get into the blocks," Atkinson recalled, "Bobby would say, 'OK, who's going to finish second today, boys?' "

Today in Canton -- if only as a memory -- Hayes will once again stand alone.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Hall pass

The NFL Hall of Fame enshrinees. Ceremony begins at 4 p.m. PDT today on ESPN:

- Bob Hayes, wide receiver

- Randall McDaniel, guard

- Bruce Smith, def. end

- Derrick Thomas, linebacker

- Ralph Wilson, owner

- Rod Woodson, def. back

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