One of the great personal victories in sport occurred three years ago when the Raiders' All-Pro left cornerback, Lester Hayes, whipped his speech impediment—a pronounced stutter—and began to talk, as he says, at slightly less than "sub-light speed." Out of his fertile mind has since flowed tumultuous rivers of verbiage, much of it having to do with the Star Wars movies, all three of which he has seen more than 60 times and which he calls "the social aspect of my life." There are times, Hayes says, when he senses ominous tremors in The Force and when, indeed, Luke Skywalker speaks to him.
"But Luke didn't tell me about this" he says in the dressing room after a recent practice at the Raiders' camp in El Segundo, Calif. "Being clairvoyant, I envisioned it myself: Mike Haynes, No. 22, in a silver and black uniform. Factually speaking, there is only one 'n' of difference in our last names. I told Mike during the 1982 Pro Bowl that he would play for the Raiders [Haynes was then with the New England Patriots], and he said, 'There is no way possible.' But Michael Haynes came to us. It was the steal of the decade, per se. It was a blessing from God. So be it."
Mike Haynes, 31 years old, 6'2", 192 pounds, right cornerback extraordinaire, elegant and tranquil as a Jedi master, smiles at his teammate. "Lester's wonderful," he says. "I imagine he's refreshing for a writer."
Haynes continues dressing—putting on beige shorts, a white Ralph Lauren shirt and canvas slippers—conservative California attire on a scorching day. There are no hats or chains or earrings in his locker, no Raider dagger stuck in his waistband. His dark blue Mercedes is sedate, not sporty, with four doors and enough room for himself, his wife, Julie, and their three children—Vanessa, Jared and Aaron—to ride in. Clearly he is a man who is not afraid to go his own way—a man in control of himself. But at Arizona State in the mid-'70s Haynes had an unclear image of himself, although he made All-America twice.
September 23, 1984
"When I first started getting interviewed, I thought, 'How can I be different? What can I say that other guys aren't saying?' " Haynes says. He chuckles. "I tried to say 'interesting' things. And I still try. But I guess I just can't do it like some people."
On the other side of the room, Hayes says, "The five-yard bump zone has changed the mentality of the defensive backs. You must watch film to hone in on the receivers' escape routes from the zone, because you can no longer devastate the man everywhere, per se. I've been studying football since age seven, watching film constantly, beginning with The Tom Landry Show in Texas. In my first-grade class I was diagraming pass routes—even though I was a defensive lineman at the time. My teacher wanted to expel me because she thought I was insane...."
Hayes looks off wistfully at the departing Haynes. Together these two disparate souls are the best set of corners lining up in an NFL secondary. Hayes has been with the Raiders since 1977; Haynes came from New England in the middle of last season and has played only 11 games for L.A. But together they shut down the Washington Redskins' passing attack in last January's 38-9 Super Bowl win, allowing wide receivers Charlie Brown and Art Monk a combined total of four catches.
In the Raiders' second game this season, with the aid of a pass rush that Hayes calls "the best on all nine planets," they stifled the Green Bay Packers' air show, holding All-Pro John Jefferson to three catches for 19 yards and All-World James Lofton to no catches at all. Even before that game Lofton had ranked Haynes as the best corner in football, with Hayes third. "In second place I put Dallas's Everson Walls," Lofton had said, "...just to be diplomatic and to give the NFC something to go on."
"The most fantastic thing about Mike Haynes," continues Hayes, "is that here is a gentleman who has been to six Pro Bowls, who's a devout family man, a man who's so intelligent, who has it all—but he's not so great that I can't share things with him."
Indeed, all the Raiders love Haynes. And not for his athletic skill alone. The grace Haynes displays afield—the ability to dance with a receiver as perhaps nobody ever has—has been known for some time. "That's academic," says Hayes.
"What's different about Mike is his presence," explains linebacker Matt Millen. "He's so straight ahead, so honest. It sounds really stupid, but he's just so nice."
Nice? Aren't these the skull-and-crossbones Raiders, the team coach Tom Flores implies he has to pacify with slabs of raw meat before he'll even enter the locker room?
"Oh, the-image," groans Millen. "When I was at Penn State, people said I was the ail-American boy who loves children and small animals—because of the pristine environment at State College. Then I come out here—the same Matt Millen—and suddenly I'm the embodiment of Attila the Hun. People think all Raiders are nasty, cheap-shot guys. But to us, all a Raider is is somebody who plays for this team."
Haynes had to consider that popular image before signing on. It was the Raiders' Jack Tatum, after all, who had paralyzed Haynes's Patriot teammate and good friend Darryl Stingley back in 1977 with a vicious hit in an exhibition game. But Tatum was gone, and the Raiders had moved from Oakland to L.A., and Haynes liked the Raiders' only stated philosophy: owner Al Davis's "Just win, baby."
"What I learned during my career was that some teams don't want to go to the Super Bowl," says Haynes. "Winning costs them money, in salaries and that. So if winning isn't the wisest thing to do, you've got to have an ego that as to win. And Al Davis has that ego. He's a contrarian. Maybe that's why I like him."
Haynes also likes the Raiders' approach to the game, their reliance on spontaneity and talk on the field. "I'd always thought pro ball would be like sand-lot ball, with quarterbacks drawing up plays and everybody making suggestions," he says. "But it wasn't. At New England the coaches called all the plays regardless of what we thought. But last season on the Raiders, for instance, a lot of Todd Christensen's receptions came on routes he made up. And Jim Plunkett was good enough to read them. That's the way it's supposed to be."
The Raiders might have won the Super Bowl without Haynes, but it's not a safe bet. Ted Watts started at right corner for the first 13 games of 1983. He performed ably, but he was a converted free safety learning the job, and Raider corners can be nothing less than superb.
"The Raider style is to attack both on offense and defense," says Al Davis. "On defense that means you rush the pocket with more than four men, and the only way you can do that is to have two great corners who can play man-to-man. If you play zone, your linebackers have to drop, and you lose the rush."
Moreover, Raider corners need to play bump-and-run man coverage. In the old days this meant lining up on top of the receiver and pounding him all over the field. Because of a rule change made in 1978, bump-and-run now means jolting him once in the first five yards and then running with him for dear life.
"Bump-and-run is a basketball concept," says Davis. "It throws the receiver's timing all to hell, and it forces the quarterback to watch the receiver all the way to know when he's open. And this gives the free safety an easy read."
Davis first learned about the value of the bump-and-run while coaching the Raiders in 1963. Standing on the sideline he would watch Denver's Willie Brown, the bump's first full-time practitioner, shut down the Raiders' best receivers. "I knew I had to get him," says Davis. He got him in 1967, and Brown played for the Raiders until 1979. Recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Brown is now one of the Raiders' defensive backfield coaches. He says that in Haynes, "I see all the things I taught myself."
Last year it was Haynes that Davis knew he had to get to if his Raiders were going to reach the Super Bowl. The question was how. Haynes was a free-agent holdout demanding that New England pay him more than the $210,000 he'd made the year before. A lot more money. "I didn't like holding out," says Haynes. "But I just wanted to be paid what the better defensive players in the league were getting."
Money wasn't the problem for the Raiders; compensation was. And by the time Davis worked out a deal that was agreeable to the Patriots and to Haynes's agent, Howard Slusher, the trading deadline had passed by half an hour. The league voided the deal even before Haynes could report to the Raiders.
Enter John Slusher, Howard's 15-year-old son, who pondered the deadline rule that says all trades must be completed by 5 p.m. on the day after the sixth game of the season. This generally means 5 p.m. on the Tuesday after the sixth Monday night game. But, John asked his dad, what if the Monday night game goes past midnight? Slusher Sr. hurried out and got a tape of the game, between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. "It was the game in which Ken Anderson hurt his neck," says Slusher. "And sure enough, it ended at 12:08 Tuesday morning. It was Anderson's injury that did it, all the time he spent lying on the ground." For the first time ever, the trading deadline became a Wednesday and as Slusher says, "Al wasn't half an hour late; he was 23 hours early."
The Raiders gave the Patriots two high draft choices, and Haynes signed with Los Angeles for $1.2 million for three years. It was a homecoming for Haynes. Though born in Texas, he had been raised in L.A., where he starred in track and football at John Marshall High. He would have starred in basketball, too, except he never went out for the team.
"My senior year the coach said, 'Are you coming out?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'You better come out.' And because of that, I didn't. Nobody could tell me what to do."
Haynes didn't go to college after his senior year but instead got a job as a shipping clerk at Frederick's of Hollywood, one of the world's largest merchandisers of trashy lingerie. "I went into the store through a side door, so I didn't even see the mannequins and the displays out front," Haynes says. "I didn't know they made crotchless panties and cutout bras." His real problem, he says, was that he had "a naive sense of what the world was all about." He planned to move right up the promotional ladder, from clerk to foreman to executive.
"Someday soon I was going to be president of Frederick's," Haynes says. "Then one day my foreman took me aside and said, 'Son, I've been here 10 years in this position. And I'll probably be here 10 more years. Why don't you go to college?' "
Haynes took the man's advice and went off to ASU—which had offered him a football scholarship the year before. Once in Tempe he became an immediate starter in the secondary. His speed and long-jumping abilities (his personal best is 25'5") made him a natural at maintaining a cushion and going after the ball, and his long legs—he has a 37" inseam—made even his most energetic movements appear to be effortless. "He can catch up so fast and jump so high," says Raider free safety Vann McElroy, "that if he's within four yards of a receiver, the man's basically covered."
Still, what Haynes really wanted to be for the Sun Devils was a wide receiver, as he'd been in high school. In fact, he still wants to be one. But every year in college something would come up to keep him in the secondary—and that experience impressed New England enough for the Patriots to make him a first-round draft pick in 1976. In the pros, well, there just wouldn't be any sense in moving a man with nine years' experience and 29 career interceptions to offense. But Green Bay's Jefferson, Haynes's former teammate at Arizona State, says Mike "was always making interceptions that were better catches than the receivers he was covering could make." And as Haynes runs stride for graceful stride with Lofton, it's clear that only a man who knows what offense is all about could look that sweet on defense.
"Lester takes chances. He head-butts and baits receivers," says Millen. "But Mike just stays close and plays straight. What you see in their play is an extension of their personalities."
And if Haynes's personality is put together thoughtfully these days, it's only because it once was jagged and incomplete. Sitting at a sushi bar near their home in Redondo Beach, Mike and Julie Haynes examine the transformation.
"You see this food?" Mike says, holding up a morsel of raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed. "When I was young, a Japanese kid used to bring stuff like this to school in his lunch. And I'd say, Ick!' and never ask what it was. But I should have. The trouble was, I was a follower. I wasn't a questioner. That's why I played football instead of baseball. I could have been really good at baseball—it was my best sport by far—but none of the other guys played it. So I played what they wanted to, to follow."
"It's funny," says Julie, whose father is an accounting professor at Arizona State, "but when he sat behind me in a class at college, I thought it was because he was cheating off me."
"That's because I came in late for a test one day and insisted on sitting in that seat," says Mike. "Everybody figured there must be a reason."
"He held up class for about 20 minutes," says Julie. "He wouldn't sit anywhere else."
Haynes shrugs. "It was my seat."
Both Hayneses agree that such tenacity is the impetus for much of Mike's success. He had the stick-to-itiveness to work during the New England off-seasons as a novice money manager at the State Street Research and Management Company in Boston, and if the Raider deal had been permanently voided because of the trade deadline, he planned to apply to the Harvard Business School to advance his business career. But, along with stubbornness, for a time he also had a kind of tunnel vision that nearly blinded him to the world around him.
It took a black history professor at Arizona State to make him see more clearly. "He told our class to watch blacks walk down a busy campus sidewalk and see how many of them step out of the way of white people," says Haynes. "I didn't watch; I walked down that sidewalk, and I didn't step out of the way, and I ran into so many people. My world was shattered. I'd grown up in L.A., and I thought I knew what was going on. I went back to the professor, and he said, 'Haynes, where have you been?' "
Far from devastating the young man, the new outlook excited him. "For the first time I got a chance to meet Mike Haynes," he says. "I questioned all the labels I'd accepted about myself. I questioned everything."
About that same time Mike and Julie realized that their feelings for one another had gone beyond the friendship stage. Still the romance seemed to have hit the wall when Mike graduated and went off to play in New England, and Julie, who was a junior, stayed behind in Tempe. The phone bills and airline tickets cost a lot, but "we felt this real strength when we were together," says Julie. "Love is love," says Mike. "What could I do? There was no guarantee I'd find it again." They were married before Haynes's second pro season.
Now Haynes feels a completeness that often makes him smile. The only thing he still wants to do is to set a better example for black children after he is through with football than he has while playing. "Black kids set such low goals for themselves, like I did," he says. "They have enough sports heroes. They need to believe they can be Lee Iacoccas, too."
It is Haynes's inner calm that makes him relish the challenge of man coverage, rather than fear its all too public judgments. A while ago Willie Brown asked Haynes why he liked playing bump-and-run so much. "Because I feel in control," Haynes replied. Brown smiled. "That's how I felt, too," he said.
On a recent afternoon Lester Hayes stands by the Raiders' digital scale and begins weighing his many sets of shoulder pads. Cherry-red numbers flash on the black LED crystal.
"4.8 pounds."..."4.6 pounds."
When Hayes is finished, Haynes quietly places his pads on the scale. They are custom-built, copper-colored, air-filled Donzis pads.
"3.4 pounds," reads the display.
"Better get some, Lester," Haynes says. "They're what the wide receivers are wearing."
Hayes, who prides himself on always having the competitive edge, looks partly pained, partly awestruck.
Later he will say of his partner, "Believe me, beneath that clean-shaven, boyish face lurks a man who would tear out your heart on Sunday and eat it raw."
But in a nice way.