by Tim Gilmore, 1/24/2016
Every other family had a color TV, but we watched the Dallas Cowboys on the black-and-white screen in the den. It was one of those “dens” made of panelboard walls from enclosed suburban garages in the 1970s.
It would surprise most of my friends to know that when I was a little boy I so dearly loved football.
Later, in my rebellious teen years, listening to Sonic Youth and the Misfits and staying out late to wander abandoned buildings, the den became my bedroom, its entrance gated with folding doors and a bead curtain.
When I was four and six years old, I pulled Tonka Toys and Lincoln Logs and Hot Wheels cars from the den closet and wrote them up in variations of long lists while my mother lay on the couch and watched soap operas. I cut sections from dictionaries and claimed they were books I’d written.
When I was six and eight, barely 1980s, my father and I watched football here in the den.
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The black granite tomb of Bullet Bob Hayes—a local high school halfback who raced for several world records in short dashes and won gold medals in the 1964
summer Olympics, considered “the world’s fastest man,” who was shortly thereafter drafted as wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, who surpassed 1,000 yards in his rookie year, who by 1974 had caught 371 passes for 71 touchdowns and 7,414 total yards, who, after Superbowl VI, when the Cowboys beat the Miami Dolphins 24-3 in 1972, became the first person to win and is still the
only person to have won both an Olympic gold medal and a Superbowl ring—stands most prominent on the drive into Edgewood Cemetery in Northwestern Jacksonville.
* * *
I played “flag football” for a year, when I was 11 or 12 years old, at Collins Road Christian Academy. The Kindergarten-through-12th-grade school strictly observed a “six-inch rule,” meaning its students could not only not touch, but could barely approach one another. One secret meeting of male students behind the school featured top-secret knowledge that girls too had “balls,” but that “girls’ balls” were somewhere up inside them.
“Flag football,” whose players wore 12-inch flags on either hip, seemed not to violate the six-inch rule, sometimes inexplicably. Instead of tackling your opponent, you pulled off a flag. It was understood you did so without getting too close. Otherwise, the ref might blow a whistle.
When I attended Trinity Christian Academy in my early teenage years, I tried out for and somehow made the (tackle) football team. I was weak and slow. Jason Hersey, the football star who punched that “white trash” loser (how did his family afford Trinity’s tuition?) right there in the classroom and broke his jaw and never got into an ounce of trouble for it, asked me one time, “Gilmore, how come you got all that size and no power?”
I didn’t know, I stood still and thought about it, and someone’s shoulder pads made landfall in my solar plexus and took me to the ground.
* * *
In 1979, living in Dallas, Bob Hayes pleaded guilty to selling cocaine and speed to an undercover cop, and then he blacked out for more than a decade.
From the mid-1990s to 2002, Hayes lived with his parents in Jacksonville. Almost no one knew.
He went to rehab for cocaine and alcohol abuse three times in his Jacksonville retirement, and the world’s fastest man died suffering from prostate cancer, liver failure, and kidney failure in 2002 at age 59.
* * *
One year, between Collins Road and Trinity, I asked for my own football helmet for Christmas. By the mid-1980s, I was consistently astonished with how running-back Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears (He lived a shorter life than Bob Hayes, dying of liver disease at age 46.) received a hand-off and jumped straight over the defensive line, frequently landing straight-upside-down, right on top of his head, in a motion that looked like it should have snapped his spine.
I wore that football helmet in the den, 11 and 12 years old, when I watched the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys alone.
* * *
“I won gold medals representing this country, but I’ve gotten more recognition around the world than I have in my own back yard,” said Bullet Bob Hayes.
He had a point.
Historically, Jacksonville’s rarely celebrated its own citizens, its native born. Most of the city’s best-known are better-known everywhere but Jacksonville.
Jacksonville’s been far more likely, however, to recognize its football players than its writers, humanitarian leaders, artists, and diplomats. The year of Hayes’s death, Delaware sculptor Kristen Visbal’s bronze statue of Hayes in motion carrying the Olympic torch was placed in A. Philip Randolph Park (At least there’s a park named for Randolph.) on the Eastside, blocks from where Hayes grew up.
Still, it took five years for more than a temporary marker to memorialize Hayes in Edgewood Cemetery. Hayes’s daughter said it took time to get things right. Then in December of 2007, his casket was moved to the black granite mausoleum beneath an Olympic flag, an American flag, and a Japanese flag representing Hayes’s performance in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
* * *
His headstone says, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out
how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man […] in the arena.”