“Bullet” Bob Hayes holds a very rare distinction.
Of the many world-star athletes who have competed in the Olympics or the NFL, Hayes is the only one to have reached the pinnacle of both competitions.
Hayes won two Olympic gold medals, and was a receiver for the Super Bowl VI champion Dallas Cowboys.
And his amazing story began right here in Jacksonville.
Hayes was born in Jax on December 20, 1942. He grew up in an era of segregation, when all-black high school football teams had to play in a completely different tournament. He went to Matthew Gilbert High School, winning a state championship as a backup running back.
Hayes would end up becoming a sought-after recruit by the end of his high school career, and earned a football scholarship from Florida A&M.
It was at Florida A&M where Hayes’ athletic career took off. He was coming into his own as a contributor on the football team, and he’d also quickly become a star on the school’s track and field team.
In a 1962 track meet at University of Miami, Hayes tied a world record, running the 100-yard dash in just 9.2 seconds. By 1963, he had broken that same record with a time of 9.1 seconds.
Hayes would set several sprinting records during his collegiate career – many of which have since been broken.
Then came 1964, the biggest year of Hayes’ life.
As preparations for the ’64 Olympics in Tokyo began, football took a backseat to the chance at national glory. Nonetheless, the Dallas Cowboys decided to take a chance on Hayes, betting that his speed and raw athleticism would translate into on-field success. They selected him in the seventh round of the 1964 NFL Draft.
Then came the Olympics.
Hayes entered the games in Tokyo having won 48 races in a row, making him an early favorite.
In his first event – the 100 meter – Hayes not only won gold, but also tied the world record with a time of 10.06 seconds.
In his second, he took over with his U.S. team trailing badly in the relay. Undeterred, Hayes set a world record by running his leg of the race in under 9 seconds, leading the U.S. to gold.
Having won two gold medals, Hayes officially retired from running.
The young athlete then turned his attention to football – and made a pretty immediate impact on the field. In his first two seasons with the Cowboys, Hayes twice led the league in receiving TDs – and also topped 1,000 yards receiving in both seasons.
In 1966, Hayes set a franchise record (since broken) with 246 receiving yards in one game. He was also named to the NFL All-Pro team for the first time that year.
Hayes reeked havoc on defenses with his unprecedented speed, forcing them into zone coverage and allowing the Cowboys’ run game to thrive. His speed made him a deep threat, with his career average for yards per reception sitting right at 20.
In 1972, Hayes’ eighth season, the Cowboys made it to Super Bowl VI in New Orleans. It was a record-breakingly dominant performance by Dallas, who beat the Miami Dolphins 24-3.
The 28-year-old Hayes, for his part, caught two passes for 23 yards and had a 16-yard run.
By the mid-’70s, Hayes was entering the twilight of his career. In 1975, the Cowboys traded him to the San Francisco 49ers. He lasted one year with the team before being waived, ending his football career at age 33 with a tally of 7414 receiving yards and 71 TDs.
Unfortunately, life after football wasn’t always kind to Hayes.
Things started on a good note, with Hayes being inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976.
But then, in April 1979, Hayes pled guilty to delivering narcotics to an undercover police officer. He served 10 months in prison, and the incident severely hurt his chances at getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In fact, it took until 2001 – shortly before his death – for Hayes to gain formal acknowledgement for his success on the football field. It was that year that Hayes was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
While the incident – and his Hall exclusion – haunted him for years, he still managed to move on and find success after football. He worked in real estate, and finished up credits to receive his degree from Florida A&M in 1994.
Hayes died in 2002 in his hometown of Jacksonville, having battled health issues including prostate cancer.
In 2009, just short of seven years after his death, Bob Hayes was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, a letter Hayes had previously written for such an occasion was read.
In the letter, he thanked many who contributed to his success, including the people of Jacksonville – particularly those from his old Eastside neighborhood.
His note ended with just one line:
“I love you all.”