The phone rings in the locker room at the Oakland Raiders' practice facility. Long distance for Lester Hayes.
"Another stickum for you," says the equipment man as he hands the phone to the Raiders' left cornerback.
"Yes," says Hayes, listening and then nodding to the equipment guy to verify the nature of the call. "Uh huh. No, it won't interfere with my intercepting the ball. I've explained this before. The value of the stickum was to prolong the bump in bump-and-run coverage. No, I don't think it'll curtail my effectiveness."
A few more yesses and nos and uhhuhs and the call is over. Hayes puts the phone down and sighs. "Ever since they outlawed stickum in March, that's all I've been asked about. Every 20 minutes. Is this the end of Lester Hayes? I wish they'd talk about the 19 interceptions I had last season."
Hayes speaks slowly and deliberately. Every now and then there's a pause of two or three seconds. What you hear is a triumph, because a year ago Hayes's speaking three or four continuous sentences would have been a feat roughly comparable to his covering John Jefferson after spotting him 10 yards on a deep corner pattern. Hayes's problem was that his brain was racing along at 100 mph while his speech was still in the righthand lane, and the result was a monumental traffic jam at the verbal level. He had a stammer. He says he picked it up as a youngster in Houston, when he started imitating another kid who was a congenital stutterer and one day found that the monkey had been shifted to his own back. Pressure made it worse, and finally last spring he checked into the Communications Research Center at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va. and defeated the thing.
The therapists there slowed Hayes down. They got him to drop his voice level from E pitch to C and gave him a little computerized gadget to monitor his speech pattern. They also performed an invaluable service for the chroniclers of pro football, because when the door was finally unlocked, what stepped out was a man who had a lot to say, and, better yet, a wry, cryptic and at times hilarious way of saying it. For instance:
•On the lack of adjustment in Houston's sluggish, two tight-end offense that was dismantled by the Raider defense in last year's playoffs: "They had no tomfoolery in their scheme of things, no change of venue."
•On Jefferson, formerly of San Diego, now of Green Bay: "He will be the possession receiver for the Packers, the guy to catch the tough one over the middle, although for the life of me I can't picture him performing in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. John Jefferson has been blessed with a great deal of intestinal fortitude. Being an ex-linebacker, I can instill fear in some receivers, but with Jefferson, I can bump him, I can pound him, I can have my Riddell helmet tattooed all over his anatomy, and he will keep coming back with the same zeal."
•On a cornerback's need to constantly change tactics: "If a defensive back allows himself to become homed in on, he will be unemployed in the near future."
•On his senior season at Houston's Wheatley High, when he was a pass-rushing terror as a defensive end: "Have you ever heard of an individual procuring 35 sacks in a single nine-game season? I ran a 4.4 forty and I weighed 197 pounds. I sacked everybody."
Hayes points to the chin strap on his helmet. It's the same one he wore as a senior at Wheatley, and a replica of the one worn by his idol, Zeke Moore, the Oilers' old cornerback. Yes, there's a story that goes with it: "Some friends of mine in Houston visited this sporting-goods store one night and managed to procure some intangibles. They ended up holding a big garage sale. I bought the chin strap for a dollar."
Al Davis, in trying to capsule Hayes, has called him "a street kid, the kind of guy I like to have around me," but that's only part of the story. Hayes grew up in Houston's Fifth Ward, which lists George Foreman as its most famous graduate.
"George was a bully per se," Hayes says. "Guys from his neighborhood thrived on living off other kids' hush money." Aside from extortion, the thriving sport in the Fifth Ward was something called Neighborhood Ball, an activity akin to football, but much more ambitious in scope.
"We'd play it in this huge pasture off the East Tex Freeway called The Grass," Hayes says. "A normal-size field wouldn't do, because there would be 35 men on a side, one neighborhood against another. We'd play every Saturday night, and my friend, Michael McQuarm, and myself were the youngest guys on the team. We were in junior high. There were individuals in that game 35 years old.
"You'd line up and there would be 18 offensive linemen, 10 receivers. Cleats and track spikes were the only things resembling equipment, plus an official NFL football donated by Zeke Moore. The pileups generated by that game were incredible, and it wasn't unusual to see a bit of weaponry come falling out of those tangled masses of humanity, a few knives, occasionally a more serious weapon. There was always Gatorade on the sidelines—Gatorade in the form of Thunder-bird wine.
"I always stationed myself on the flank, as far away as possible from those individuals who had just procured a drink and fancied themselves Bob Brown or Art Shell, et cetera. How some of those people functioned in 100° weather and all that humidity, I'll never know."
Now, 12 years later, the 26-year-old Hayes has grown into the most feared cornerback in the NFL, a bump-and-run specialist whose style has people talking about the good old days in Oakland, when the Raiders would simply assign their All-Pro cornerbacks, Willie Brown and Kent McCloughan, man-to-man coverage and pencil in the remainder of the defense. But Brown and McCloughan had functioned under the old rules; they were allowed to bump a receiver all over the field and knock him out of his pattern. The generous passing regulations of today make it practically impossible for a cornerback to dominate a receiver, but here comes Hayes, lining up dead on his man in that unique stance of his, crouched, fingertips practically brushing the ground in front of him, hands jerking in a peculiar nervous twitch as he waits to plant his Riddell helmet on the numbers—"the Riddell technique," he calls it. Or maybe the quick, tight turn and the race downfield, the stride-for-stride sprint as the ball spirals toward the receiver, the perfectly timed leap, the interception.
Hayes picked off 13 passes in the 1980 regular season, one fewer than Night Train Lane's alltime record. Four more interceptions were wiped out by penalties. Opponents stopped testing him, but every now and then they'd give it a shot. Gee, here he was in single coverage, while people were being doubled on the other side. The book says you go at the single coverage...and maybe, maybe just this once....
"Lester plays 85% of the time in man coverage without help," says the Raiders' linebacker coach, Charlie Sumner. "We'll play some man on the other side, but not as much. We can use combinations or roll a zone that way, too, while we're keeping Lester alone."
By year's end, Hayes was playing, as he says, "in a kind of euphoria." People were describing him in mystic terms. They'd go interplanetary. The Force—Lester had The Force with him.
"It's baffling," he says, "but I hit a streak where I felt that I had such a positive, driving force at work that I simply couldn't be beaten on a pass. I think I had four or five shutouts in there."
In the first playoff game Houston's Kenny Stabler tested Hayes six times and completed three passes, but Hayes intercepted two and ran one back 20 yards for a touchdown. Hayes also sacked Stabler twice on blitzes. Cleveland's Brian Sipe tried him five times, completing one—an 18-yarder to Reggie Rucker. Hayes picked off another two. The San Diego Chargers were a different story. Jefferson had beaten Hayes for two touchdowns in their first meeting of the season; there would be no fear here. But in the AFC title game in San Diego, Dan Fouts threw 17 times against Dwayne O'Steen's coverage on the other side, and only five against Hayes's. All five went to Jefferson. One was completed. On another, Hayes got his fifth postseason interception. The other three fell incomplete. Hayes's interception streak ended in the Super Bowl. Eight Philadelphia passes went his way, and three were completed.
A week later in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Hayes turned in one of the most remarkable cornerback performances in history. Ron Jaworski and Steve Bartkowski tried him 11 times. Only one pass was completed, a 15-yarder to Alfred Jenkins on third-and-22. Hayes also had one interception. His postseason report card: nine of 35 passes completed, no touchdowns, six interceptions. Pro Bowl included, for the season he had 19 interceptions; some cornerbacks don't pick off that many in a career.
The Raiders are flying to Detroit to play the Lions (they lost last Sunday 16-0 to make their record 2-2), and Hayes is sprawled in a window seat, watching the Rocky Mountains turn into the Great Plains. His shirt is light across his chest, his pants strain against his formidable thighs. Davis says the first thing he noticed about Hayes in college was his "raw power, his explosion," and yes, Hayes does give off a feeling of intense energy. There are two kinds of cornerbacks playing in the NFL, the smooth and graceful instinctive pass coverers, like the Washington Redskins' Lemar Parrish, and the physical types, who can be little, like the Rams' Pat Thomas, or big, like Hayes and the Steelers' Mel Blount. In Hayes's first two years at Texas A&M he was a 220-pound linebacker, but the Raiders melted him down to 205. The bump became his trademark. Not a push, not a timid brush by a defender who would prefer a safer style, but a meaningful bump, the Riddell technique. It's flirting with disaster. Miss your bump and you're chasing feet. It takes an unnatural amount of confidence to be a true bump-and-run cornerback. Plus pride. Tremendous pride is another of Hayes's trademarks, but now, in the fourth week of the 1981 season, that pride is being questioned by something Willie Brown has said.
Brown, one of the great cornerbacks in NFL history, works with the Oakland defensive backs, and he has been asked about Hayes's slow start. Lester had no interceptions in the first three games. In Minnesota the Vikings' Sammy White beat him on a non-scoring 44-yarder. What's the problem?
"He's forgotten about how hard he worked last year," Brown said, choosing his words carefully. "He's forgetting about what it takes to be a good cornerback. The concentration he had last year—well, it wasn't there in that game in Minnesota. He's doing things now that he wasn't doing last year. He's turning the wrong way, not concentrating on the receiver. He's being lackadaisical. He's not giving the respect to the receiver that he should. He doesn't think the ball's going to be thrown on him; he thinks it'll go somewhere else, and the next thing he knows it's thrown to his man and he has to bust a gut to get over in time."
The words might be a bit of a psychological spur. The old psych game is very big in Pride and Poise country, but whatever the words are, they have had the desired effect on Hayes. He is bristling.
"Willie Brown said that?" he says. "He said I'm showing a lack of concentration? Look, I know what the problem is and I'm living to correct it. It's a matter of technique, a wrong step. It's a matter of my stance, being cocked at an inside angle a smidgen too much. You know, you make All-Pro and it's almost like you're a marked man. Teams are homing in on every wrong step I make. I've never seen that before.
"But look at the three-game ratio compared to last year. Last year after three games I'd gotten three interceptions and been beaten for three touchdowns, two by Jefferson, one by Ricky Thompson of Washington. This year I have zero interceptions, but they've scored zero TDs on me. It's very easy to talk concentration from a coach's standpoint. It's an old clichè: If an All-Pro gets beaten, it's always lack of concentration or lack of fundamentals. Some people think I never should be beaten. Look, I live off HO and breathe the same air other poor mortals breathe. Every now and then it's going to happen that I get beaten on a pass. But as far as lack of concentration—that's a true falsehood." (Two days later against Detroit, Hayes will intercept his first pass and almost a second.)
Hayes stares out the plane window for a minute. Things still aren't settled.
"Do you know that I have my own film archives?" he says. "I've got films of myself through the years, and I've got films of receivers I've had to cover since I was a rookie in '77. They go way back. Every receiver has certain trademarks, little idiosyncrasies that don't change through the years. If something's gone good for him, he's not going to deviate from it. I've also got a mental chart of every pass pattern I've been beaten on since I started playing in the NFL. Go ahead, ask me about a game."
Broncos in Denver in 1978?
"A live-yard fade to Haven Moses."
Eagles in Philly last year?
"No completions playing in man-to-man coverage."
Jets in Shea in 1977?
"That was my rookie year. I didn't start."
He stares out the window again. "Look," he says, "you think it was easy breaking in here the way I did? I'd been a linebacker in college two years, a safety-man for two. I felt I was the best strong safety in the college draft, but in my first practice session as an Oakland Raider I'm immediately put out in no-man's-land at the corner in man-to-man coverage and told that's where I'd be for the rest of my NFL career. I had very, very strong feelings of insecurity."
Hayes had begun his life in organized football as a guard. It was logical. Louis Hayes, his father, had been an all-state guard on Wheatley's only state championship team, in 1954, and his dad's teammate, George Balthazar, had become—and still is—the line coach at Wheatley. Balthazar remembers Lester as "small and quick with a perfect stance. On defense he played what we called the Anchor End. That was the pass-rushing end. He replaced Godwin Turk, who was later drafted by the Jets. The other end, the Blood End, had to drift out in coverages. With Lester's speed he turned into one of the greatest pass rushers in the city."
"Coach Balthazar had one unusual trait," Hayes says. "When you made a mistake he'd get out this big two-by-four and make you block it. He'd just hold it up in front of him and you'd go at it. It toughened you, all right. It also gave you a set of sore shoulders."
By the time he was a senior, Hayes was playing everywhere on offense—flanker, fullback, anywhere he could use his blazing speed. When the football season was over he played basketball, sixth man on a state championship team. He'd jump center. The kids nicknamed him Skywalker. The Friday after the 1972-73 basketball season was over, he ran in a track meet in the Astrodome and did a 9.7 hundred.
At the state meet that spring he ran a non-winning 9.5 and took the 220 championship with a 21 flat. "He was always a better 220 man," Balthazar says. "The longer he ran, the stronger he got." Hayes says he had 100-plus track scholarship offers but only half a dozen for football. He settled on Texas A&M, made a name for himself as a blitzing weakside linebacker for two years and then played strong safety in 1975 and 1976.
Phil Bennett, a defensive end on those teams and a defensive assistant at A&M now, says, "Lester was a phenomenal blitzer, but the most amazing thing to watch was the way he'd fly down the field on kickoffs. He'd be down there before the linemen would be set up in their wedge. No one could block him. One play he made on defense still stands out. In a Baylor game he shot in from his safety position, intercepted a pitchout and ran 77 yards for a score."
Sixteen players were drafted out of A&M in those two years. Hayes, who made one All-America team, didn't get picked until the fifth round, after 14 defensive backs had been taken. NFL scouts had checked Hayes and talked to him. He wasn't very talkative. There was the speech problem. "Dumb," they wrote down in their notebooks.
"The spring and summer before my rookie year I worked out with Pat Thomas—he'd been a year ahead of me at A&M—and that saved me as a cornerback," Hayes said. "It prepared me for the NFL. The techniques I used in college were geared to the Southwest Conference and little else. At A&M they taught us to use the shuffle technique to get back into our coverage, but Pat had used the back-pedal instead, and that's what I copied."
When Hayes got to the Raiders in 1977, there was a crash course waiting for him. It was called Fred Biletnikoff. "He could only run about a 4.9 but he was by far the most difficult receiver I've ever had to cover in the NFL," Hayes says. "I knew if I could cover him in practice, I could cover anyone. Most receivers know maybe the two inevitable break points in a pass pattern. Fred knew about 10; he could give you any of five within the first 10 yards. Each of Fred's patterns was five seconds plus, and our offensive line blocked so auspiciously that they'd give Stabler that amount of time. It was the only way a receiver of Fred's magnitude could be effective.
"Our scheme of things in those years was to run the patterns at 17 yards plus, longer patterns than any other team. There were no conservative traits whatsoever in that offense. Although I'd never played cornerback in my life, covering Biletnikoff every day did wonders for my confidence."
Willie Brown taught Hayes the meaning of an effective bump in the first five yards, and from Pat Thomas he learned the Riddell technique. "He would literally imbed that helmet in a receiver's chest," Hayes says. 'The helmet is effective for another reason. Receivers are taught to break the force of a defensive back's hand thrust by coming up with their fists or down with them. But there's no way possible for a receiver to break the thrust of a head butt.
"Sometimes I'll use my hands, too, just to vary it a little, but the whole idea is to get an upward thrust, from my legs and hips. That's where my power comes from, my strength. It's an uncoiling motion. That's why I start off low, in a crouch.
"There were a lot of other things I had to learn, like squaring up on a receiver and trying to keep him on the line as long as possible, but the key to everything is the bump. There are so many cornerbacks in the NFL who don't take full advantage of the five-yard bump zone. They just won't do it. No receiver likes to get bumped. It distorts the timing of the receiver and the quarterback. It's very important to him that he gets a free release from the line of scrimmage."
Hayes stares out the plane window once more, shaking his head at the knowledge of how difficult it is to play his position well. The stickum is gone now from his bag of tricks. The receivers are "homing in" on every misstep he makes. His coach is reminding him to stay alert because "they're coming after you." Life is lonely out there in the game's loneliest position.