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Could Olympic gold-medal sprinter Bolt charge into the NFL?

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Petr David Josek / Associated Press
A lightning-quick sprinter, Jamaica's 6-foot-5 Usain Bolt would be a perfect marketing fit for the Chargers.


Someone asked me the other day what I thought about the idea of making Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt a football player. Let's put it this way: If Hall of Fame general manager Tex Schramm and I were still running the Cowboys, we'd be in Jamaica right now waiting for Bolt's plane to land.

That's not to say anyone can predict what the fastest human being alive might do on a football field. But in a sport that places such a premium on raw speed, why not take a chance on a guy who just shattered world records?

Bolt electrified the Olympics this week as he set records in both the 100-meter and 200-meter events. He became the first Olympian since Carl Lewis in 1984 to win gold in both those races.

James Flores / National Football League
Bob Hayes is the exception when it comes to track stars trying to make transition to the NFL.

Photos: From track to the turf

FYI, we drafted Lewis in the 12th round of the 1984 draft. It was a calculated risk; Lewis never signed with Dallas.

We had set the ultimate precedent for that 20 years earlier, when we used our seventh-round draft pick on a marginal running back from tiny Florida A&M. Of course, it wasn't his skills as a running back that impressed us. We drafted Bob Hayes for one reason and one reason only: speed.

I first met Hayes in the spring of 1963, when I was introduced to him by Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither. The Cowboys just loved fast guys, and we felt he was worth a shot. Teams were allowed to draft players back then even if they still had a year of eligibility left, so we took Hayes in the 1964 draft -- which was actually held in December 1963.

Hayes had already set records in track, but his finest moments as a sprinter came later, in the 1964 Summer Games. Hayes set a then-world record of 10 seconds flat in winning gold in the 100 meters (even though he was running in a lane that had been badly worn from a race the day before). And in the 4 x 100 relay, he led an amazing come-from-behind victory with a 100-meter leg that was unofficially timed at 8.6 seconds.

When Hayes arrived in Dallas, we moved him to wide receiver to best take advantage of his speed, and it proved to be a wise move.

As a rookie with the Cowboys in 1965, Hayes caught 46 passes for 12 touchdowns and was selected to the Pro Bowl. After his first three seasons in Dallas, Hayes had a total of 159 receptions and 35 touchdowns -- an incredible average of one touchdown every 4.5 catches.

When you consider that the Cowboys ran the football 56 percent of the time back then, and they played a 14-game season, well, it's no wonder his teammates nicknamed him "Speedo." Not only did Hayes excel at receiver, but in 1968 he led the NFL with a 20.8-yard punt return average, returning two punts for scores (to go along with 10 TD catches -- his fourth consecutive season with at least 10).

While it's true that offensive schemes were much simpler in those days, Cowboys head coach Tom Landry did find creative ways to get Hayes the football. Not that it wasn't enough just to send Hayes deep every week. But Landry did something that was quite new at the time: He would have Hayes line up on the outside, take a step back as the ball is snapped and get a quick pass from the quarterback. The wide receiver screen was born.

Bob Hayes, WR

Career Statistics:
Seasons: 11
Receptions: 371
Yards: 7,414
Average: 20.0
Touchdowns: 71

With Hayes running the receiver screen, it was an unbelievably dangerous play. I remember former Giants cornerback Dick Lynch was once asked about Hayes' speed and he said, "Well, I remember one game when he caught a quick screen at the 45-yard line. I started out even with him -- and by time he crossed the goal line he was 10 yards ahead of me."

Simply put, Hayes did more to change defenses than anyone to come into the league at that time. His ability to stretch the defense forced coaches to adjust the basic zone defenses they were using at the time.

It remains a major bone of contention to me that he is still not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nobody will convince me that he doesn't belong. That said, he remains the only athlete to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

In 1982, we lost out to the 49ers in our effort to sign another world-class track star, hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah. If not for America's boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the reigning world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles at the time, likely would have matched Hayes' amazing double. He played three seasons for the 49ers and was part of the 1984 team that won Super Bowl XIX.

Other athletes to make the transition from the track to the turf include Ron Brown, Willie Gault and James Jett. Interestingly, all three, at one point in their NFL careers, played for Al Davis' Raiders.

Of course, that doesn't mean signing Olympic speedsters is a no-brainer.

Three years after we drafted Hayes, the Miami Dolphins tried to follow suit. Jimmy Hines was a sprinter from Texas Southern who did in the 1968 Olympics exactly what Hayes had done four years prior. Hines broke Hayes' Olympic record in the 100 meters, and he led an amazing comeback win in the 4x100 relay with a blazing anchor leg.

The Dolphins had drafted him in the sixth round in 1968, and they signed him just four days after the Olympics.

But Hines was no Hayes. In fact, it didn't take long before Hines earned a nickname of his own. The Dolphins called him "Oops" -- because that's what he said every time he dropped a pass in practice, which was often. Hines caught a total of four passes in parts of two NFL seasons.

So would Usain Bolt make it in the NFL?

There's no way of knowing for sure. He's got a tremendous body. The thing that would concern me is that he's such a long strider. Those long legs help him run fast, but they wouldn't do a lot of good making cuts.

That said, he could probably fly past most any cornerback. If he had any hands at all, he'd be scary. Certainly worth giving him a look if you're a team in need at receiver.

You never know when you might strike gold.

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