Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Citius, Altius, Fortius

In honor of the start of the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London this Friday, Naptime Huddle will be introducing you this week to some of the NFL players who have represented the United States in the Olympics.  It just so happens that the players we'll look at today exemplified the first part of the Olympic motto, Citius--which means "Faster."

Jim Thorpe (May 28, 1888 - March 28, 1953)

Jim Thorpe has been the focus of several NH posts, so I won’t go into much more detail about his football career today.  To learn more about Thorpe and his many contributions to football (and other sports), click here, here, and here.  What’s important for our purposes is that one of Thorpe's most significant achievements was his participation (and domination) in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.  He competed in four track and field events: long jump, high jump, pentathlon and decathlon.  At the 1912 Games, the pentathlon consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, 200-meter dash and 1500-meter run.  The decathlon's events were pole vault, shot put, javelin throw, discus throw, 120-yard hurdles and races of 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and one mile.

Thorpe didn’t medal in the long jump or high jump.  We’ll forgive him, though, since he crushed the competition in the pentathlon and decathlon, winning gold in both events.  Of the combined fifteen individual events, he won eight; his 8,413 points in the decathlon set an Olympic record.  He also won two “challenge prizes” that were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden (decathlon) and Czar Nicholas II of Russia (pentathlon).*  Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Thorpe’s victories at the Stockholm Games was that he achieved them wearing shoes that weren’t his!  Someone had stolen his shoes as the events were about to begin, so he had to rummage through a trash bin to find replacements (see picture); one was too big and he had to wear extra socks to make them fit.

Sadly, Thorpe’s medals were stripped in 1913 when a newspaper reported that he had played professional baseball—for a mere pittance—in 1909 and 1910.  The Amateur Athletic Union asked the International Olympic Commission to revoke Thorpe’s amateur status.  Though they violated their own procedures (protests such as these had to be made within thirty days of closing ceremonies), the IOC rescinded Thorpe’s amateur status and took back his medals.

Ollie Matson (May 1, 1930 - February 19, 2011)

An accomplished runner, Ollie Matson represented the U.S. in the 400-meter race and 4x400-meter relay team in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.  Ollie won the bronze medal in the 400 meters and his relay team won silver. 

Ollie was a drafted third overall in the 1952 NFL Draft by the then-Chicago Cardinals.  In his senior year at the University of San Francisco, Matson led the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns and was selected as an All-American.  He enjoyed a long and successful career playing for the Cardinals (1952-1958), the Los Angeles Rams (1959-1962), the Detroit Lions (1963) and the Philadelphia Eagles (1964-1966).  Over his 14-year career, he earned six Pro Bowl selections (winning MVP honors in the 1956 Pro Bowl), seven All-Pro selections and was named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.  When Matson retired, his 12,799 career all-purpose yards were second only to rushing legend Jim Brown.  Ollie Matson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.

Ollie Matson died in his Los Angeles home where he and wife Mary had lived since his time with the Rams; it’s been determined that Matson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), as a result of the blows to the head he endured during his career.

Bob Hayes (December 20, 1942 - September 18, 2002)

“Bullet” Bob Hayes has the distinction of being only the second Olympic gold medalist (along with Jim Thorpe) to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame; he was inducted into the Hall in 2009.  He is also the only man to win both Olympic gold and a Super Bowl ring (take that Tom and Eli!).  A two-sport athlete at Florida A&M University, where he set several track records, Hayes was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the seventh round of the 1964 draft.  This was a gamble by the Cowboys because Hayes was an unproven football player; he had been a backup halfback in high school and had focused on track in college.

Before he could prove his worth on the football field, however, Hayes represented his country in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.  Bullet Bob gave a memorable performance at the Games, earning himself the title “World’s Fastest Human.”  He won gold in the 100-meter dash and, in a Thorpean twist, Hayes ran that race in borrowed spikes--he didn’t realize until he got to the event that he had misplaced one of his shoes.  Even more amazing, though, was his leg in the gold-winning running of the 4x100-meter relay, for which the U.S. team set a World Record at 39.06 seconds.  The victory is all the more sweet because it was his final track race, as he made the switch to football after those Games.

Lucky for us, the race is on YouTube—Hayes had the anchor leg:

So, how did the Dallas experiment work?  Brilliantly.  His success on the track enabled him to transition flawlessly to the role of wide receiver.  He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in each of his first two seasons; he is credited for spurring the development of zone defenses since no one man could cover him.  In addition to being a receiving threat, he also punished opponents on punt returns.  In addition to being a part of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl win in 1972, Bob Hayes was named to three Pro Bowls and set numerous team records in his ten-year career with the Cowboys, ten of which still stand today. 

Willie Gault (born September 5, 1960)

Willie Gault attended the University of Tennessee and was drafted in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.  While at Tennessee, he was a member of the world record-setting 4x100 meter relay team; he also ran the 110 meter hurdles.  He would have been part of Team USA in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Russia.  Unfortunately, Gault's Olympic dream became a victim of Cold War politics—the United States boycotted the Moscow Games and Willie would focus on football after being drafted by the Bears.  However, he did compete, and medal, in the Liberty Bell Classic—an alternative to the Olympics held in Philadelphia by the countries boycotting the 1980 Games.  Gault’s relay team earned a gold medal, and he won the bronze in the 100 meter race.

That wouldn't be Willie Gault's only championship hardware.  He won a Super Bowl ring when the Bears won Super Bowl XX.  Over his 11-year NFL career (with the Bears from 1983 to 1987 and the Los Angeles Raiders from 1988 to 1993), he amassed 333 receptions for 6,635 yards and 44 touchdowns.  Today, Willie Gault is very active in Masters Athletics, which is an avenue for track and field veterans to continue to compete in various age classes. 

Don't miss our next post for a look at more "Faster, Higher, Stronger" NFL players!

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