HOUSTON The penalty, fair or not, has been served. Bob Hayes didn't live long enough to witness a vote that could finally put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Little more than a year after his death, the former Dallas Cowboys receiver is a finalist for the first time. He was nominated by the hall's seniors' committee, and the vote is set for Saturday.
It will be, by most accounts, his best chance to earn a spot that eluded him for more than a quarter century, dating to his retirement in 1975. It will also be a chance to make amends for what, in many circles, is viewed as one of the more flagrant miscarriages of justice in the history of the hall.
''I first played with him in a college all-star game,'' said Roger Staubach, who also was Hayes' teammate on the Cowboys for six seasons. ''He definitely had another dimension, in terms of speed. It affected the game, as far as how it was played.''
A track star who won two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, ''Bullet'' Bob Hayes was called the ''World's Fastest Human.'' When he took that speed to the football field a seventh-round draft pick out of Florida A&M it really did change the game. It forced the unsophisticated defenses of the day to ditch man coverage in favor of zones in an attempt to control a player no cornerback could catch.
In today's NFL, zone defenses are as common as the forward pass.
''The one thing people forget about him is that he did it all when we weren't in a passing league,'' longtime Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt said. ''Had he done it in this era, he would have been even better.''
But Hayes' life after football was tarnished by drug addiction.
In 1979, the year before he first became eligible for the hall, he served 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to delivering narcotics to an undercover police officer. The episode ''destroyed my life,'' Hayes wrote, years later in his autobiography.
Back then, Hayes' troubles were considered scandalous, and while the public argument about his hall worthiness centered on his statistics over an 11-year career, the truth lurking beneath was that voters were reluctant to enshrine, or even discuss, a drug-abusing convict with a surly personality.
His nomination this week comes against a much different backdrop.
Hall of Fame bylaws make no mention of a player's off-the-field behavior. And really, the problems Hayes encountered seem far less daunting when set against more modern headlines, with athletes like Lawrence Taylor and Pete Rose defining the debate about how morality plays into the definition of sports greatness.
''Bob Hayes had his problems, but he turned them around,'' said Staubach, who helped Hayes fight his addiction. ''Anyone who knew Bob Hayes knows that he was a good man.''
But by the time Hayes turned things around in his personal life he did charity work and spent extensive time promoting high school sports in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. his window of opportunity was closing.
New names were coming up for votes every year, and guys like Lynn Swann, Charlie Joiner and Steve Largent were getting enshrined, their better statistics and purer lifestyles helping transform Hayes' history-making exploits into an afterthought.
''There's a lot of pain in my heart because what I accomplished was second to none,'' he said in 1999. ''I'm not losing any sleep, but I do pay attention every year at this time.''
When it comes to discussing his hall worthiness, the statistics, at least on the surface, won't wow everyone. His 371 receptions don't even rank in the top 100 receivers of all time. He didn't shine in either of the two Super Bowls he played in.
But he averaged 19.98 yards a catch, second best of anyone in the history of the league with more than 300 receptions. He scored 18 touchdowns of 50 yards or longer. He averaged a touchdown for every 5.2 catches. Jerry Rice, by comparison, averages a touchdown for every 7.6 catches.
Hayes also remains the only athlete to win an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl title.
''When he ran, the ground would literally churn up behind him seven to 10 yards,'' Dick LeBeau, a former Lions cornerback, said in an interview a few years ago.
The last piece of Hayes' legacy now rests with the 39 Hall of Fame voters. He is one of 15 players up for consideration. Besides Hayes, the seniors' committee also nominated former Eagles tackle Bob Brown.
Voters will choose between four and six players to be enshrined in August; two of those slots are almost sure to go to John Elway and Barry Sanders.
If Hayes is chosen, there will be a celebration back in Jacksonville and in Dallas, where he was finally placed in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor in 2001.
Hayes said he appreciated that honor, but conceded it was one step short of the one he always sought the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
''I hope he gets in,'' Brandt said, ''because I think he's very, very deserving.''
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