Lester Hayes, the Oakland Raider cornerback who has had 18 interceptions in his team's 19 regular-season and playoff games (four others were called back because of penalties), credits his extraordinary success to Kwik Grip Hold Tight Paste, a substance consisting of "natural wood resin, Isopropyl Myristate, Encol resin, Balsam of Fir, Beeswax, lanolin, turpentine, Petrolatum and Wax Victory Amber." According to the directions on the jar, the user is to "apply a thin layer to the fingertips and spread to the palms as needed." Hayes applies Kwik Grip the way a high school girl applies Copper-tone. He smears it in layers all over his body, so that when he's done he looks for all the world like someone who has spent an eventful day in a glue factory. Hayes affectionately calls his favorite concoction "stickum."
Ted Hendricks, the linebacker who led the Raiders in quarterback sacks (10½), fumbles recovered (four) and blocked kicks (three), also has a favorite concoction that he thinks has given him the inspiration and the strength to become the sparkplug of one of the NFL's fiercest defensive units. He calls it blackberry brandy. It is taken internally.
They are dissimilar, the swift and cunning defensive back and the rangy, freewheeling linebacker, the one quietly confident, the other noisily self-deprecating, but together they have played havoc with opponents' game plans. Seldom in league history have two defenders gotten their hands on the other team's ball so often. The seemingly ubiquitous Hendricks, who operates from no fixed position behind the Raider line, instead situating himself where he believes the action is most likely to occur, has three interceptions to go with his other takeaways. These figures don't include the number of fumbles his crushing tackles have caused or the number of interceptions his 6'7" presence in the opposing back-field has created. Hayes, with two fumble recoveries to go with his interceptions, has stolen the ball a total of 20 times. This is thievery of a high order.
When the literally glue-fingered Hayes came to the Raiders in 1977, he had clean hands. Then in a game against Houston midway through his rookie season, a sure interception slipped through his fingers. Disconsolate on the sidelines, he was approached by the legendary Raider wide receiver, Fred Biletnikoff. "He just pulled out this jar and stuck my hand in it," Hayes recalls. "I didn't know what he was doing. 'Here,' he said to me, 'you're too good to be missing interceptions like that.' " This was Hayes' rude introduction to stickum. Now he can't function without the stuff—lots of it. Hayes insists he uses only half a jar, or about nine ounces, a game. Raider Equipment Manager Dick Romanski, who dispenses the stickum, puts the amount at more like "a jar and a half, or about 24 ounces." Hayes has so much gook on his fingers that his hands look like webbed feet. He smears reserve supplies on his socks, pants and jersey and uses Kwik Grip spray-on to dampen his jersey numbers and exposed skin. His hands are so sticky that Raider field assistants must mop his brow for him and pour drinking water into his mouth when he comes to the bench. A special skin cleanser is required to remove the stickum after a game. Anything Hayes touches during a game suffers the fate of objects handled by 2-year-olds.
January 26, 1981
"You may have noticed in the playoff game with Houston that the referee threw a flag down on the field just before the half for no apparent reason," says Burgess Owens, the Raider free safety. "What happened was that Lester walked by and touched the ball, leaving a big glob on it. The referee was furious. He told Lester, 'You do that again and I'll call something.' We couldn't image what it would be." Football suddenly had its very own ball-defacing incident, reminiscent of those in a sport involving Gay-lord Perry.
Owens confesses that he and the other Raider secondary defenders—Corner-back Dwayne O'Steen and Strong Safety Mike Davis—are also stickum users, but he says their addiction is mild compared with Hayes'. "If I feel I don't have enough on my hands," says Owens, "I'll just walk over and touch Lester someplace, anyplace, even on the helmet. It's amazing. He has it everywhere."
Hayes, who is extremely shy because of a pronounced stammer, calls stickum his "top-secret weapon," though even he suspects its primary virtue is psychological. "It helps me to believe that if I've got the opportunity to intercept, I'm not going to miss the ball. It gives me a boost. Actually, it might help just a smidgen in catching the ball."
Stickum alone hasn't made Hayes the brilliant performer he has become this season. Oakland cornerbacks must bear a heavier burden than their counterparts on other teams because the Raiders, typically going against the grain, play primarily man-to-man pass coverage instead of the zones favored elsewhere. In man-to-man the cornerback is all alone with the likes of San Diego's John Jefferson and the Eagles' Harold Carmichael, who at 6'8" and 225 pounds is eight inches and 30 pounds bigger than Hayes.
"The two most difficult positions in football are cornerback and offensive lineman, because they're so vulnerable," says Charlie Sumner, Oakland's canny linebacker coach. "If an offensive back, a linebacker or even a wide receiver makes a mistake, there's a chance nobody will notice it. But if the quarterback is sacked, the offensive line gets the blame. And if the receiver catches one for a touchdown, the man with him, the guy on the corner, gets it."
Hayes, says Sumner, has all the right tools to play this demanding position. "He has the speed to run with the receivers. He has size and he has quickness. Right now, he's playing as well as anyone I've ever seen."
"Lester has worked hard to be one of the best," says Oakland Coach Tom Flores. "He studies the game plan. He's always well prepared. He's the best in the NFL at the moment, but the measure of a great defensive back is consistency. He must do it year in and year out."
Al LoCasale, Raider boss Al Davis' longtime executive assistant, maintains that another measure of a defensive back is his willingness to play man-to-man on the corner, as the Raiders expect. "The world is full of safetymen," LoCasale says, exaggerating slightly. "What we need more of is corners." By these standards, Hayes scarcely measures up, because if there was one position he didn't want to play it was cornerback.
"I thought I was the top safety in the whole '77 draft," says Hayes, who played at Texas A&M and was picked in the fifth round by the Raiders. "I didn't want to play cornerback. I kept asking Mr. Davis if I could play safety. The answer was always no. To me it just didn't seem to compute. It took me two seasons to convince myself that I could play corner. I was baffled for those two years. Now I've got no doubts. The thing is to put yourself on a plateau where you say you can't be beat. Logically, playing man-to-man—and the Raiders will play man-to-man as long as there's a Statue of Liberty—you're going to get beat. But it is imperative that you have a degree of cockiness. Bump-and-run coverage is my forte now. There's no mere mortal I fear. I am auspiciously euphoric."
For man coverage to be effective, there must be a strong pass rush, and the Raiders have one of the strongest, in large part the result of the ofttimes bewildering antics of Outside Linebacker Hendricks. "Ordinarily teams wouldn't be throwing so much to Hayes' side," said the old San Francisco quarterback, John Brodie, who, as an NBC commentator, was watching the Raiders practice last week. "Jimmy Johnson [who was All-Pro for the 49ers when Brodie played] never saw anywhere near the number of balls Hayes does, and a lot of that had to do with Dave Wilcox [the All-Pro linebacker on Johnson's side]. But Hendricks moves around so much, confusing the picture, that quarterbacks have no choice but to test Hayes, who is usually all alone with the man he is covering. And look what's happened—all those interceptions."
"We use Ted to confuse the offensive line," says Flores. "They don't know where he's coming from, and he's an excellent pass rusher. Last season we were taking him out in passing situations. This season, because we're rushing the passer more, we're keeping Ted in on every play. He doesn't even have to get to the passer. That big frame is enough if he gets up close. Trying to throw over him and John Matuszak, who's 6'8", is like trying to throw over a mountain."
"You can't really say I'm a linebacker," says Hendricks. "You can call me a fifth defensive lineman because I'm blitzing so much of the time. In man-to-man coverage, the linebacker is an endangered species, anyway. That's a great expanse of real estate out there. The thing to do is give the passer the least amount of time to see what's there, to pressure him into throwing too quickly."
Game situations dictate how Hendricks is deployed. In the AFC championship against San Diego he and the Raiders came to realize in the third quarter that when the Chargers went into a double tight-end formation, one of those ends, Greg McCrary, consistently stayed in to block on pass plays. Sensing a mismatch, Hendricks moved to McCrary's side. "A tight end isn't used to pass blocking," Hendricks says. "He's a power blocker on runs and a pass receiver. I had the advantage. From the third quarter on, I was blitzing."
"It's unbelievable the things Ted can do," says Owens. "He's always around the ball—for fumbles, sacks, interceptions. Our defense is made for Ted to do his thing. He's elusive, quick and strong. He looks like such a lanky guy at 225 pounds, but he does so many things to get around people. He put so much pressure on [Quarterback Dan] Fouts in the San Diego game that it dictated what happened in the secondary."
Hendricks was a skinny, 214-pound defensive end at the University of Miami who didn't seriously consider playing professionally until his senior year, 1968, when as the Mad Stork he made everybody's All-America team. "What position would I play?" says Hendricks. "Defensive end? They all weighed 270, like Bubba Smith. Linebacker? Remember Dick Butkus?" But play he did, and very well, for Baltimore. Then midway in his career, after he was traded off to Green Bay in 1974, he entered what he calls a "valley of fatigue." Oakland gave the Packers two first-round draft choices as compensation after signing Hendricks as a free agent in 1975. Last year he resented the Raiders' 3-4 defensive setup, which made him too much of a spot player. This season, at age 33, he has climbed out of the valley to the very peak of his 12-year career.
But Hendricks' value is as much inspirational as physical. "I've been around eight years," says Owens, "but I'd never been in the playoffs. I thought I should take a more serious approach to these games. Ted kept me loose. He made me realize that all we had to do to win was play the way we had been."
On a team that has rogues and renegades from the managing general partner on down, Hendricks is the the blithe spirit. "I adopted the philosophy a long time ago that you're on this earth to do anything you like as long as you don't hurt anybody," he says. Davis once inquired of Hendricks how he thought Matuszak, the gigantic but perennially troublesome defensive end, would fit in with the Raiders. "Al," Hendricks said, "what possible difference will one more make?"
On his days off, Hendricks drives from his home in Orinda in the East Bay to San Francisco's Union Street, which abounds in chic singles bars. Hendricks, who is married and the father of two young sons, eschews these in favor of the Bus Stop, which is the sort of neighborhood tavern one is supposed to find only in places like Pittsburgh. He is a folk hero in this resort for frustrated jocks, and to some of the regulars, like Mike Clark and Tom Bartley, he has become a close friend. Hendricks' good-natured macho humor has made him, in every sense, one of the Bus Stop gang. Last week he said farewell there before leaving for New Orleans by buying rounds of "the championship drink—blackberry brandy." Then, for good measure, he crossed the street to Perry's, a somewhat more fashionable place, to buy one for bartender Michael McCourt, another old friend. And he startled some of the customers there by reciting from his favorite poet, William Blake: "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/In the forests of the night...."
"When O.J. was playing for the 49ers," Hendricks recalled in a more prosaic moment, "we'd work both sides of Union Street—he in Perry's and me in the Bus Stop. Once I helped his girl friend get the heel of her shoe out of a vent in the sidewalk, and then I scared hell out of her by pretending to clothesline O.J. She thought he was being attacked by some ruffian from across the street."
The blackberry brandy-fueled merriment continued after practice the following day as Hendricks presided over a cast of NFL stars, past and present, at the Hilton Hotel bar near the Raiders' practice field. The celebrants included Brodie; his fellow NBC analyst and former All-Pro defensive tackle, Merlin Olsen; former 49er Tight End Monty Stickles, who's also a broadcaster; former Raider and current Oiler Tight End Dave Casper; and, among other Raiders, Matuszak, Jeff Barnes and O'Steen. Championship drinks flowed in profusion. Hayes wasn't among this garrulous company, but he will be there on Sunday at his familiar corner when the Raiders, this most heterogeneous of NFL teams, regroup for a last unified effort.
As Hendricks' house poet, Blake, has written, "What immortal hand & eye/Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"