HOF-bound 'Bullet' Bob Hayes first became a phenom as a youth in Jacksonville

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  1. fgoodwin

    fgoodwin Well-Known Member

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    Hall of Fame-bound 'Bullet' Bob Hayes first became a phenom as a youth in Jacksonville

    Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, August 06, 2009

    Long before Bob Hayes put up numbers that would land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night and atop the podium at the 1964 Olympics, his world revolved around numbers of an entirely different sort.

    And they threatened to derail his athletic career before it began.

    It was a numbers game in a part of east Jacksonville called Hell's Hole. The racket was run by Hayes' father, who said no son of his would play sports when he could be cleaning the shoeshine parlor the father used as a front.

    In due time, Hayes would join one of the best high school football teams in state history, an undefeated squad so loaded it relegated him to second string. In due time, Hayes would become the only athlete to have both a Super Bowl ring and Olympic gold. And in time, Hayes would overcome segregation that was the '50s and made him a mystery to all but Jacksonville's black community until a world record in the Olympics forced everyone to notice.

    But first, Bob Hayes needed permission from his father, George Sanders, who didn't live with him but ran his life.

    Two coaches from Hayes' Matthew Gilbert High had seen Bob in gym class and appealed to Sanders and his right-hand man, Josh Baker, to let Bob play football.

    "I want him to stay here and run this shoeshine parlor and help in my numbers business," Sanders told the coaches, according to Hayes' autobiography. "I make more money than the principal, the football coach, his teacher and his counselor all put together and he can do the same thing."

    It was only when Baker said he would take care of the store while Bob practiced that Sanders acquiesced. Two days later, Baker split and the business was Sanders' problem.

    He died in 1977, Hayes in 2002. Alvin White, an assistant coach on that 1958 Gilbert team and later a head coach and educator, said recently that while he couldn't confirm details about Sanders' numbers game, he knows the meeting took place "and I know that it took him a while to even make up his mind."

    The sports world knows the highlights of the rest of the story. How Hayes won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games and played in two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, winning one.

    Much less is known about Hayes' accomplishments at Gilbert High, intriguing as they are.

    Just ask Jacksonville's Alfred Austin.

    "During those days, Al Austin was a pretty big name this side of town," said Austin, who still lives in Jacksonville, attended rival Stanton High and was undefeated in sprints for a couple of years when he was blind-sided by Hayes on a makeshift track with crooked lines. Austin knew something was amiss when a false start was called on the initial run.

    "When I looked up, he was down the track and I wondered about that," Austin said. "I said, "Now wait a minute. What in the world is this? Even if he was the one to false start, he shouldn't be that far.' Like he was shot out of the blocks with a cannon."

    Like a Bullet, you might say, which later became Hayes' nickname.

    "It was as if Spud Webb had beaten Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a one-on-one basketball game," Hayes wrote.

    Austin won their second meeting but Hayes took the third race in 9.6 seconds. Officially. Unofficially, several watches read 9.4, but timekeepers were concerned no one would believe that.

    "I was there," White said. "I think he ran it, but everybody was afraid."

    Before passing this off as another legend, consider Hayes' anchor leg of the 4x100 relay at the Tokyo Olympics, won by the United States in a world-record 39.0 seconds.

    Hayes took the baton in fifth place, "then unleashed one of the most awesome and breathtaking displays of sprinting ever seen," according to David Wallechinsky's Complete Book of the Olympics. "Observers disagreed as to Hayes' time for his flying-start 100-meter leg, but the slowest estimate was 8.9 seconds."

    If such debate can happen at the Olympics, Austin isn't about to question Hayes' 9.4 on the high school level.

    "I don't doubt that," said Austin, who became a close friend and relay teammate of Hayes at Florida A&M.

    Less is known about his basketball and baseball career at Gilbert, now a middle school. Hayes wasn't a big scorer in basketball, but "he could get up above the rim," said White, who coached him in baseball and basketball.

    In baseball, Hayes played outfield. Not left, right or center field.


    "I had my left fielder three feet from the left-field line and my rightfielder three feet from the right-field line," White says. "I stuck him in the middle. It was simple: He ran everything down."

    This weekend in Canton, Ohio, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will welcome Hayes as a former Cowboys receiver whose speed led to the introduction of zone defenses. Although he didn't break such ground individually on the prep level, he was part of history from a team perspective.

    In 2007, the Florida High School Athletic Association named the '58 Gilbert Panthers the best team of the 1950s in the "Team of the Century" celebration. Gilbert went 11-0 (12-0 by some accounts) and won the first black-school state championship during Hayes' junior year by defeating host Fort Lauderdale-Dillard 14-7 before 11,000.

    Because segregation kept them out of hotels and restaurants, Gilbert players packed sandwiches for the trip and many slept in the Dillard gym.

    Segments of Jacksonville never heard what took place because the city's dominant newspaper, The Florida Times-Union, published separate editions for black and white communities. Unless readers purchased the "black star" edition, they never read about Gilbert High and Hayes.

    "It seems unbelievable, doesn't it?" White said. "At that time, it wasn't popular to care."

    When did Jacksonville discover Hayes? "When he went to the Olympics," White said.

    Even then, Sanders didn't care, turning down an offer to go to Tokyo. As Bob grew up, whenever someone asked if Bob was his son, Sanders would answer, "That's what his mother says."

    "That really hurt me," Hayes wrote.

    There was one exception. Hayes ran 78 times for 525 yards as a senior running back, following a junior year in which he carried just nine times but scored a 99-yard touchdown.

    "That's my boy," Hayes heard Sanders say while standing near the bench.

    "I could not believe it," Hayes wrote.

    Those five words captured a frustrated son's feelings about his father.

    They also describe how fans watching Bob Hayes run felt about him.

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