NFL “speed” trailblazer Bullet Bob Hayes will finally get his due as he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions that are held every year in Canton, OH are special for a number of reasons. Each year the small-town in middle America welcomes the National Football League’s best, making “The Place Where Football Legends Come to Rest” feel alive. Of course every year ‘s induction class is special and this year’s group is no different with names like Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson, Derrick Thomas, Randall McDaniel and Ralph Wilson Jr. However the crown jewel of this year’s Hall of Fame induction class, in my opinion, will be a player who truly revolutionalized the game of football forever.
Ever wonder why football announcers are always enamored with talking about “World Class Speed” and NFL scouts are just as obsessed each year about potential draft picks forty-yard dash times at the NFL Combine. The NFL’s obsession with speed has gotten so crazy over the years that teams were reportedly contacting current Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt about football, even though the Jamaican had never played the game. The NFL’s “need for speed” can be directly attributed to an athlete named Robert Lee Hayes, who was affectionately known as “Bullet Bob” during his heyday with the Dallas Cowboys from 1965 to 1974. “This guy revolutionized the passing game and forced them to come up with the zone defense, just like Wilt Chamberlain forced them to change certain rules in basketball,” Hall of Fame defensive back and former teammate Herb Adderley said.
Hayes arrived on the pro football scene in 1965 and was already a worldwide star after achieving Olympic glory at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. The “World’s Fastest Man” won gold medals in the 100 meters and 4×100 meter relay at those games – got his title after running an amazing 8.6 second relay split in a come from behind relay victory. His combination of size (5’11, 185) and speed were what attracted the Dallas Cowboys’ braintrust led by scout Gil Brandt to draft Hayes in the 7th round of the 1964 NFL Draft. However the difference between Hayes and most “track” guys that attempted to play football was that he had no fear of contact and didn’t try to avoid being hit. The Bullet had been a star running back at HBCU powerhouse Florida A&M while learning under legendary head coach Jake Gaither that physicality was part of the game of football and that he needed to harness his speed within the game.
In his rookie season of 1965, the NFL was forever changed as Hayes piled up stats of 46 receptions for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns to lead the Cowboys in those categories while only playing in 13 games. In just his second regular season game, he gave the Redskins and the NFL a glimpse of the future of the fledgling league. He only touched the football twice in that game, however both times he found the end zone including a 45-yard touchdown catch and an 11-yard touchdown run as Dallas won easily 27-7. Hayes followed up his outstanding rookie campaign by setting career-highs of 64 receptions for 1232 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1966. Though he played on a team geared mostly toward running the ball, Hayes went on to post six seasons of at least 800 receiving yards and went over 10 TDs in a season five times over an 11-year career
The three-time Pro Bowl player made the long bomb a staple in Tom Landry’s offense — of his 71 career touchdown receptions were 50 yards or longer — causing other teams to start looking for their own game-breaker (see the Oakland Raiders) plus causing headaches on the defensive side of the ball. Hayes didn’t just run a “nine” or fly route down the field every snap, but he also went inside in high traffic if needed. In addition to receiving, Hayes also returned punts for the Cowboys and was the NFL’s leading punt returner in 1968 with 20.8 yards per return average and two touchdowns, including a 90-yarder against the Pittsburgh Steelers. St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame safety and contemporary Larry Wilson paid Hayes a compliment by saying, “The difference between Hayes and other track men was that he used his speed in a ‘football sense’, than just trying to run as fast as possible”.
During the 1970 season, Hayes put up amazing numbers of 34 catches for 889 yards and 10 TDs in leading the Cowboys to Super Bowl V against the Colts — lost 16-13 on Jim O’Brien’s famous game-winning field goal. His yards per catch that season were an unthinkable 26.2 yards leading the NFL in that category – which should probably be renamed after him. The next season in 1971, his last great NFL season, Hayes along with quarterback Roger Staubach and others willed the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl where they defeated the Miami Dolphins by a score of 24-3. In the game, Hayes only had two receptions for 23 yards and one punt return for minus one yard. But it was the consistent threat of his speed and his ability to run by the Dolphins’ secondary that kept them on their heels the entire game. At age 29, Hayes led the Cowboys and the NFL with a scary 24 yards per catch average.
In total, Hayes would play 10 years for the Cowboys before finishing with one non-descript season for the San Francisco 49ers, retiring at age 33. Hayes was named first or second team All-NFL four times and led the Cowboys in receptions three times. The Jacksonville, Florida native had 71 career receiving touchdowns (still a Cowboys record), which places him ahead of hall of famers Michael Irvin and Art Monk. Finished with career numbers of 371 receptions, 7414 yards, and an eye-popping 20 yard per catch average with a long of 95 yards. Hayes was enshrined in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2001 and Bullet Bob is still the only man to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.
Unfortunately on September 18, 2002, Hayes died in his hometown Jacksonville of kidney failure at age 59, after battling prostate cancer and liver ailments. At the time of his death, it was feared by many that the man that brought true “world class speed” to the NFL might never get his just due of Hall of Fame enshrinement. For years several voters danced around the issue of Hayes and substance abuse, which occurred after his playing days and also caused a brief prison stay. Hayes non-selection year after year caused some voting pro football writers to question the whole selection process and in fact Sports Illustrated Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman resigned in 2004 from the selection committee after efforts to enshrine the Bullet had failed again.
Finally the prayers of Hayes’ many supporters were answered when the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s senior committee voted him into football’s highest fraternity in January 2009. It took 29 years after the Bullet first became eligible and seven years after his death, which is a travesty in my book. But the moment of Hayes induction in Canton will surely be a thrilling one and you know his former quarterback and fellow Hall of Famer Staubach will do him proud when he presents his former deep-threat for induction. After American football pioneer Jim Thorpe, Hayes will be the second Olympic gold medalist to be inducted to the Hall of Fame.
Former NFL head coach Mike Ditka, who played with Hayes, said of his former teammate, “I know one thing and I played with him, he changed the game”. Ditka added, “He made defenses and defensive coordinators work hard to figure out what you had to do to stop him”.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)