From 1988 to 1992, only two or three men on earth could run faster than Michael Bates. The incomparable Carl Lewis was one of them. The few others had a distinct advantage: they had not compromised their training by playing football.
Michael Bates was all football player. “He’s the toughest fast guy I’ve ever seen,” said Arizona coach Dick Tomey.
A few days ago, I asked 2005 Palo Verde High School state championship coach Todd Mayfield, who watched his father Ollie’s Tucson High teams win back-to-back state titles in 1970 and 1971, and has been involved in Tucson football for 50 years, to give me one name as the best football player in Tucson history.
“Michael Bates,” he said.
And yet Bates last week told me his greatest accomplishment wasn’t making it to the NFL Pro Bowl five times, but winning the 200 meters bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“I ran out of Lane 1,” he said in his customary soft-spoken tone. “No one in the 200 had ever got a medal out of Lane 1.”
Michael Bates does not run fast any more. It’s not that he’s 44 — Tucson Olympic silver medalist Bernard Lagat runs as fast at 39 as he did at 25 – it’s that once Bates entered the NFL in 1993, he ran into trouble.
On Nov. 2, 2003, playing for the New York Jets while returning his 373th NFL kickoff, Bates was tackled and forced violently to the turf by 240-pound linebacker Kevin Lewis of the New York Giants.
Bates did not play again.
On that day, only two men in NFL history, Mel Gray and Glyn Milburn, had returned more kickoffs than Bates. But Gray and Milburn did not cover kickoffs and punts, as Bates did for 11 years, earning as reputation as perhaps the most skilled special teams player in NFL history, or certainly in the conversation.
“Michael was used as a bullet,” says Tucson attorney Burt Kinerk, who has been a mentor and Bates’ representative for more than 20 years. “There’s no delicate way to put it.”
A week ago, Bates was introduced to a small audience as his selection to the Pima County Hall of Fame was made public. He wore a black suit with a pinstripe shirt open at the collar. His wife, Brittany, who he met more than 25 years ago when Michael became a local legend at Amphitheater High School, sat with him.
He still has a presence.
“I’m really not active much any more; I don’t even lift,” he said softly. “My joints ache, my hips, my hands, my feet hurt, my ankles, it’s just that my body took such a beating. If I don’t pop an Advil or two in the morning, it’s a long day for me.”
In 2000, the NFL Hall of Fame Selection Committee named Bates to the 1990s All-Decade team.
One season, 1998, he returned 59 kickoffs for the Carolina Panthers. Can you imagine the blows he absorbed? The Panthers punted 77 times and kicked off 65 that season; Bates raced downfield 142 times, a human wedge-buster, pursuing the opposing returners. He did that for 11 years.
“I had a lot of issues during my career: head, neck, back; I was knocked out cold three times,” he says now. “I broke my ankle. Broke my hand. I came back the next week every time I was knocked out.”
After investing in a Phoenix-area business a few years ago, Bates returned to Tucson and has worked periodically as a physical trainer. Often he is a stay-at-home father for his two stepchildren.
“He’s not down and out,” says Kinerk. “There are many stories of former NFL players who are really down on their luck; Michael’s not one of them.”
But the hit man can still feel the pain. Bates is one of about 4,500 former NFL players involved in on-going litigation for a myriad of health problems, central among them concussion-related brain issues. The NFL and those ex-players last year agreed on a $765 million settlement for compensation, examinations and research. That judgment is now stalled in court.
“I’ve been in some testing, I’ve been in therapy,” says Bates, who is the father of two children who live in Dearborn, Michigan. “I think it’ll be a while before the suit is settled.”
His younger brother, Mario Bates, an all-star at Amphi, ASU and a seven-year running back with the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints, is also involved in the litigation. Mario, 41, recently suffered a mild heart attack and lives in Phoenix.
Michael Bates does not regret his football days, for being a “gunner” on punt and kickoff teams and for being a moving target for 12 years.
“I had control of the situation,” he says. “I knew there would be collisions No one forced me. I wasn’t afraid.”
The culture of the NFL, then and now, is that special teams players study video of each game. If someone makes a devastating hit, the players celebrate. If one of their own is the victim of a damaging hit, the room grows quiet.
Bates was on both sides. You don’t think about the bill coming due some day. When you’re in the NFL, thoughts of aching knees and brittle hips are out of mind.
His son, 13-year-old Michael Bates Jr., plans to play high school football in Michigan next year. Like his dad of the early 1980s, he is a gifted athlete.
“I think he’ll be a quarterback,” the father says. “He loves the game. I’ve given him my thoughts and my insight. He’s a bright kid. I’ll leave the decision to him.”