Date with history

Two-thirds of Todd Hays' athletic career makes perfect sense.

He grew up in Del Rio, Texas, a small Mexican border town so tough he learned the martial arts in self-defense. And Texas being Texas, he took up football.

What seems to make no sense at all is his current career as a bobsled driver, snow being so rare in southwest Texas that Hays' school shut down one day after a couple of inches fell.

"We went out and played in it like we were in the Alps," he said.

In the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains starting Feb. 16 in Park City, Utah, Hays will attempt a feat that for U.S. men's bobsled competitors has been akin to scaling Mt. Everest on stilts. He is expected to help end a U.S. men's bobsled medal drought that has lasted 46 years.

It has come to this because Hays was just good enough in kickboxing and not quite good enough in football at what turned out to be two crucial junctures in his athletic career.

The first took place in the summer of 1994 after Hays, a linebacker at Tulsa who faced San Diego State's Marshall Faulk in the 1991 Freedom Bowl, was cut for the second time by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

He was back in Del Rio contemplating pursuing a football coaching career when his older brother, Lee, learned that a U.S. bobsled federation recruiting program was conducting a tryout in San Antonio the next day.

"He told me I was going to try out," Hays said. "I laughed and called him crazy."

The brothers had to leave at 5 a.m. the next morning to make the tryout, and Hays finally called his brother's bluff by telling Lee he'd go if Lee actually got him up that early. Lee did, and the brothers headed for San Antonio, borrowing an aunt's car because they weren't sure they had one that was up to the 150-mile trip.

Todd performed well enough in strength and speed tests and in a subsequent tryout in Lake Placid, N.Y., to qualify for the U.S. national team as a push athlete. Wanting to keep his fate in his own hands, he soon decided to become a driver.

He attended a driving school in 1995 at Lake Placid and showed a knack for piloting a bobsled.

"I thought, 'This is the future of the sport, this kid right here,'" said three-time Oly mpic bobsled driver Randy Will, who taught Hays at the school and coached him for the next couple of years. "He had incredibly good hands, very good eye-hand coordination and a great feel for the ice.

"He's a natural. He's a definite natural."

Hays realized that to develop his talent he needed a decent sled with which to practice. The problem was the sled cost $10,000, about $10,000 more than Hays had to spend on it.

That's when kickboxing kicked in. The 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound Hays had fought in college and won a national championship in 1993, and in 1995 he was invited to fight undefeated Japanese champion Koichiro Kimura in Tokyo for, coincidentally, $10,000.

It wasn't easy money. The match was basically "anything goes," said Hays, who fought under the nickname Hollywood, and the goal basically was to choke one's opponent into submission.

"I certainly wasn't gung-ho to go over there, but I knew it was my only opportunity," he said of getting enough money for a bobsled.

Kimura's strategy was to get Hays down on the mat. That left the Japanese fighter's neck exposed, and Hays won the match with what he called a "guillotine choke."

But he got the sled and Hays progressed steadily through the ranks of U.S. drivers. He became good enough to get a bobsled federation sled, and he made the 1998 Olympic team as an alternate.

Further improvement got him state-of-the-art equipment as well as a top crew of push athletes. All of that paid off last March when Hays broke a four-year U.S. men's gold-medal drought on the World Cup circuit by winning the four-man race in Lake Placid.

This season he has been the world's dominant driver, holding the points leads in the World Cup two-man and four-man events before pulling off the circuit with two events to go. He decided he needed extra training time on the Utah Olympic Park track in preparation for the Olympics.

"This is the opportunity of 10 lifetimes," he said. "I just had to make that decision to come back here and instead of being No. 1 in the world, be No. 1 in the Olympics."

Even a No. 3 finish in the two- or four-man event would give the U.S. men their first Olympic bobsled medal since Arthur Tyler drove his four-man crew to a bronze medal in the 1956 Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

Hays' top competitors for gold will include Christoph Langen and Andre Lange of Germany, Martin Annen and Christian Reich of Switzerland, and Pierre Lueders of Canada. Langen won gold in four-man and bronze in two-man at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Neither the opposition nor the pressure figure to rattle the fiercely competitive Hays, who said no bobsled trip is as scary as facing Kimura in front of a crowd of partisan fans. He said he is trying to focus on the task at hand rather than what is at stake in the Games.

"I know if I go out and do what I've done in the past, we will come out successful," he said. "I don't need to feel like I need to go out and pull off some kind of miracle performance. I just need to keep a level-headed frame of mine."

Hays' focus received a jolt this week when Pavle Jovanovic of Toms River, N.J., one of his top push athletes, was disqualified from the Olympics for failing a Dec. 29 drug test. Jovanovic denied knowingly taking a banned substance and appealed.

Jovanovic and Chicago native Garrett Hines were battling for the brakeman's spot on Hays' two-man sled, so losing Jovanovic might not seriously hamper Hays' medal chances. His loss would be felt more on the four-man sled, where Jovanovic was almost certain to be a significant contributor.

Will, however, believes Hays still can win a gold medal, in part because his ability as a push athlete contributes to the start Hays has said is the key.

"Todd is an incredible athlete besides having those great hands," Will said. "I think Todd has what it takes with or without Pavle."

If a fast start is the key to a bobsled race, the key to Hays' bobsled career has been slow, steady improvement.

It will be hard for the 32-year-old Texan to forget that during the Winter Olympics. A reminder will be as close as the Park City ski resort where he used to flip burgers at a mountaintop cafe to make ends meet. Hays had to take a ski lift and then wade through snow to get there.

"I've heard the greatest asset an athlete has is his ability to endure," he said. "I think my greatest asset is I've just hung around long enough and searched and found something I have a knack for, and fortunately it was bobsled because I really enjoy what I'm doing now.

"No one ever thought a guy from Texas would be driving, but the job certainly is not over. Now is the time to go in and finish the job."