Superbowl Footnote

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(HOST) Commentator Brian Porto reflects on the life and possible legacy of one of his boyhood sports heroes.

(PORTO) A newspaper article has alerted me to a sad footnote to the 2005 Super Bowl, which was played in Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville’s most famous athlete, Olympic champion and professional football star Bob Hayes, once called “The World’s Fastest Human,” lies in a pauper’s grave there, with only twigs, leaves and a stray rose petal marking the spot.

I find this situation painful for both political and emotional reasons. Politically, Jacksonville’s failure to supply a headstone represents the final insult to a native son by a city that segregated him as a child and ignored him as a man. Hayes grew up in a neighborhood of shanties and rutted dirt roads known as “The Bottom”. Whites ignored his track and football exploits in high school, since the section of the newspaper that focused on blacks circulated only in black neighborhoods. Even after winning two Olympic gold medals, a friend recalls Hayes “still had to sit in the back of the bus” in Jacksonville.

Admittedly, Bob Hayes tarnished those medals with drug and alcohol abuse and a prison sentence after his athletic career ended. He died impoverished in 2002 at age 59, his body devastated by prostate cancer and by heart, liver and kidney problems. Still, Jacksonville owes him a debt for its segregationist past and its failure to honor his accomplishments. A headstone would be a downpayment on that debt.

The pauper’s grave is emotionally painful, too, because I remember watching on television, as an awestruck 12-year-old, while “Bullet Bob” raced to victory in the 1964 Olympics, winning gold in the 100 meter dash and the 4 x 100 meter relay. In the relay, Hayes, running the anchor leg, took the baton trailing four other runners. He rocketed past the field, winning by three meters and giving the American team a world record in the process. For 11 years afterward, from middle school to graduate school, I sat in my livingroom on Sunday afternoons watching Bob Hayes’s wizardry as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.

That wizardry is not important now, but the lesson of Bob Hayes’s life is extremely important for parents, teachers, school administrators and communities in New Hampshire, Vermont and across this country. This lesson teaches that we fail our children and our students unless we prepare them to lead satisfying, productive lives when they can no longer win races and score touchdowns.

It is too late for Bob Hayes to benefit from this lesson, but not for thousands of youngsters nationwide, who can improve their lives dramatically by learning from his. If that happens, Bob Hayes will have won a bigger race and scored a more important touchdown in death than he ever did in life.

This is Brian Porto of Windsor.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a freelance writer. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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