A Chip Off The Old Block

With his father's determination, Chiefs cornerback Albert Lewis has made the big plays
December 02, 1991

Barely able to read or write, Brad Lewis was a jack-of-all-trades who devoted virtually every waking moment of his 45-year marriage to supporting his wife, Vera, and their 13 children. Dressed in bib overalls and black leather boots, he would leave the family's bungalow on Russell Road in rural South Mansfield, La., before daylight and head for any number of jobs that produced thick, callused hands and a tired, aching back.

He hitched a ride on a truck that hauled workers to nearby fields, where he chopped cotton for 50 cents a day. At a local sawmill he stood waist deep in a pond and fished out logs to be cut into lumber. He collected garbage and was in charge of the neighborhood dumpster. He slung 150-pound railroad ties over his shoulder, one after another, loading them into freight cars and refusing to stop when his skin was rubbed raw and bleeding.

"My father didn't care what he did; he just quietly worked his butt off," recalls Brad's son, Albert Lewis, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and a punt blocker nonpareil. "If he wasn't tired by the time he went to bed, he didn't have a feeling of accomplishment."

In the evenings and on Saturdays, with Albert often at his side, Brad mowed lawns and tended gardens. He would load up his wheelbarrow with bags of peanuts, which he had roasted himself, as well as homemade hot tamales, cookies and candies, and then he and Albert hawked the goodies all over town.

"My father never played catch with me," Albert says. "We communicated through work. I never accepted his nonverbal communication, but I learned to understand it. He was harder on me than he was on any of my other brothers or sisters because I think he sensed himself in me. I was determined and headstrong, just like him."

In what passed for spare time, Brad was active within his community. He helped to register fellow blacks to vote, lobbied the DeSoto Parish school board to have buses rerouted through rural areas where poor black families lived, and argued that students enrolled in the school system's free lunch program should have meal tickets identical to the ones handed out to students who paid for their food, so that there wouldn't be any discrimination or embarrassment among the children. In 1971 the neighbors elected Brad to the South Mansfield advisory council, a committee that monitored the work of local officials. He served for six years.

Brad's unrelenting work ethic was passed from father to son, and it has helped propel Albert to the top of his profession. There is no better bump-and-run cornerback in the NFL than Lewis, and few can measure up to him in overall coverage skills. His trademark in nine seasons with Kansas City has been the big play—a unique ability to turn around a game single-handedly. In 1986, Lewis inspired a 24-23 comeback victory against San Diego by forcing turnovers—two interceptions and a fumble—on three consecutive Charger possessions in the fourth quarter. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in '88, with 6:06 remaining and the Chiefs trailing 28-19, Lewis blocked a punt in the end zone for a safety, and after K.C. scored a touchdown on its next possession, he recovered a fumble on the Cincinnati 28 to set up Nick Lowery's game-winning field goal. Last year Lewis blocked four punts to give him 10 for his career, unofficially an NFL record.

And in the Chiefs' 1991 season opener, a 14-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Lewis had three interceptions, deflected four passes and had two tackles. However, on the third interception he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was sidelined for the next six games. Surgery wasn't necessary, and Lewis has returned to the starting lineup to help lead the 7-5 Chiefs in their bid to win the AFC West.

At 6'2", 195 pounds, Lewis, 31, is the tallest cornerback in the NFL by an inch. The prototype at that position is considered to be between 5'10" and 6 feet, because a low center of gravity provides better body control and lateral movement than a taller player would have. Lewis, of course, is an exception.

A graceful athlete, he keeps his body low in his backpedal and makes his cuts with the receiver in a fluid motion. Blessed with excellent acceleration and speed—he runs a 4.38 40—Lewis has the ability to recover if a receiver gets a few steps on him. What's more, his arms are 35 inches long and he has a 38-inch vertical leap, so quarterbacks must throw far enough outside or over him to get past his reach and still hit the receiver.

As a rookie in 1983, Lewis looked so skinny in his white uniform and red helmet that his teammates nicknamed him Match. Actually, he's extremely tough and physical. "Because of his height, instead of jamming you in the chest, he winds up getting you right in the throat," Los Angeles Raider wide receiver Willie Gault says of being hit by Lewis.

"He's a violent competitor," says Rutgers coach Doug Graber, who was the Chiefs' secondary coach from 1983 to '86. "When the Chiefs used to hold training camp in Liberty, Missouri, there were often consecutive days of 100°-plus temperatures. Defensive backs go one-on-one with receivers in one, sometimes two practices a day. There were many times Albert would get beaten, and he'd get so mad he'd kick the end zone marker into the stands. And then after the second practice of the day, he'd run 100-yard sprints, insisting he had to do that to make the team."

Lewis never lets up—even in the off-season. He says his concentration on football contributed to his divorce in 1988. He rarely takes vacations, preferring to spend his time in a daily routine that includes a two-hour kick-boxing session, a six- to 12-mile run in a weight vest and a 25-mile bike ride. Twice a week he ties a harness around his chest and pulls a weight sled with 75 pounds of iron on it. He practices martial arts disciplines that benefit him mentally as well as physically.

During the season Lewis immerses himself in the mental aspects of the game. He seldom socializes, hardly watches TV and can't name the last movie he saw. Usually in bed by 10 p.m., he rises at 5:30 a.m. and arrives at Arrowhead Stadium at about 7 to work out, sit in the whirlpool and pore over videotapes of the next opponent. Deep in concentration, Lewis takes on a scowling demeanor. "My focus is hypnotic," Lewis says. "I put myself in a trance. When I'm in total focus—absolutely there—I can meet my fears head-on and defeat them."

In meetings Lewis scrawls copious notes, and he asks many questions, even if he already knows the answers, just to make sure all the defensive backs are thinking alike. On the practice field he badgers secondary coach Tony Dungy and special teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer to critique his technique. After dinner Lewis analyzes more videotapes at his home in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kans. Old playbooks and well-worn notebooks are tucked into every nook and cranny of his office, and he has a library of 400 videocassettes and 75 film reels on opposing quarterbacks, receivers, punters, and their offensive systems and blocking schemes on punts.

His homework paid off after he noticed during the '89 season that teams were having success running slant patterns against him. He reviewed tapes of his coverage technique, studied the body control of basketball players and adjusted his martial arts regimen to further enhance his balance. Then he devised what he terms the "catch" technique. Instead of jamming the receiver at the line of scrimmage—and risk being beat on the first move—Lewis opted to drop back two or three steps and force the opponent to tip off his pattern before jamming him. In buying that extra second, Lewis was able to catch receivers early in their patterns and quickly shut them down. The catch technique has since been adopted by defensive backs around the league.

"Anyone who has mastered anything had to be consumed by it first," Lewis says. "I feel bad because of how my obsession affects other people. I tend to be short when I'm concentrating, and that can be taken the wrong way. But everything in life is measured in degrees, and to understand a person's degrees of pain, determination or obsession, you have to understand where he comes from. You have to have traveled his road."

Albert's journey began on Russell Road, which was then a strip of red clay and gravel carved through the open pastures and pine woods of South Mansfield, 29 miles south of Shreveport. The Lewis family lived in a rickety three-bedroom house with a leaky tin roof and cracked windows on a five-acre lot. The Lewises could barely afford electricity, and they went without indoor plumbing until 1973. A fireplace and a few portable gas heaters provided some warmth, but it was never enough. The children slept two or three to a bed, and when it rained the family would scurry for buckets and cans, then push their beds around the room, jockeying for a dry spot.

A great many family meals came out of Brad's huge vegetable garden, a strawberry patch and a tiny orchard. Vera helped to make ends meet by taking in ironing. She sewed most of the children's clothes, fashioning underwear from the soft white cloth of 50-pound flour sacks, and blouses and shirts from printed 100-pound sacks of chicken and cow feed. At night, while everybody was asleep, Vera, a devout Pentecostal, tiptoed from bed to bed, knelt beside each headboard, and said a separate prayer for each child.

Growing up as the 10th of 13 Lewis children, Albert was deeply moved by his family's hardships but kept his feelings to himself. In the most introspective moments of his childhood, he would retreat to the woods behind his house to ponder the poverty that surrounded him and to worry about the direction his life would take him. He took long, solitary walks through the pines on his "thinking trails" with his dog and spent hours beside a cool, clear stream, dangling his fishing line. "It was a way to solve the world's problems," Albert says. "I wanted to see people, attitudes and life change."

Along the way, he drew courage and hope in conversations with his grandfather Mitchell Lewis, who grew up on the Louisiana plantation where his parents had been slaves, and from listening to his mother's stories about his great-grandmother Rachel Youngblood Hewitt, who had had to fight for the right to pray on the plantation where she was kept.

The evils of racism weighed heavily on young Albert's mind, dating back to an incident that occurred when he was five. He and his father were walking on railroad tracks at a lumberyard, and a pickup truck suddenly sped up the road, spewing rocks and dust. "Get off my tracks, you black sons of bitches!" screamed Frank Matthews, a white man who owned the lumberyard. "I'm tired of you niggers being on my tracks."

Brad had figured he could ignore the NO TRESPASSING signs because he was one of the most diligent workers Matthews had. The black men who were stacking lumber in the warehouses nearby stopped and stared at Brad. The pained looks on their faces reflected all of the demeaning racism they had had with Matthews. Brad placed his hand in Albert's and quietly said, "Come on, son."

"I couldn't understand why my father didn't stand up to him," Albert says. "I was ready to fight. It was very traumatic, the first time I'd come face-to-face with racism in a very hard-core way. I remember walking away, turning and looking back at all those black men, seeing the humiliation in their eyes. I'm sure my father was only trying to protect me. He was such a product of the South. For the longest time, it caused an emotional separation between us. I think, for a time, I didn't respect him."

The misunderstanding between father and son went both ways. When, at 13, Albert expressed a desire to play football, his parents were vehemently opposed. Brad insisted that a good education was more valuable than sports. Vera was petrified that Albert would get hurt, knowing they couldn't afford to pay medical bills. Also, there was no way for Albert to travel the four miles home after football practice; a mule and cart was the family's only mode of transportation.

Before beginning eighth grade, Albert went against his parents' wishes when he packed his belongings and moved to the east side of town to live with one of his older sisters, Katherine Jamerson. Her house was within walking distance of DeSoto High, an all-black school encompassing grades seven through 12. But when he tried out for the DeSoto football team in both the eighth and ninth grades, he was told by the head coach, Clyde Washington, that at 5'11" and only 146 pounds, he was too slight to play.

Albert was devastated, and for three years he spent his fall afternoons watching football practice through a chain link fence, trying to learn the game and praying that he could muster the nerve to try out again. Sensing his frustration, Nettie Pennywell, his homeroom teacher throughout high school, went out of her way to bolster his confidence. "I saw some potential in Albert that he didn't even know he had," Pennywell says. "He was talented in sports and his books. He didn't realize the heights he could go to."

Lewis got a boost when he went out for the DeSoto track team and made the squad as a sprinter. Then, in the spring of Lewis's sophomore year, a young, slightly built assistant coach, Garland Spivey, who was new to DeSoto, noticed Lewis at a track meet and coaxed him into trying out for football again. "Never use your size as an excuse—whether you're too big or too small," Spivey said. "I promise I'll only look at the size of your heart."

This time Albert made the team. During the summer of 1977, he mowed lawns to earn money for the $35 medical-insurance fee, and he trained like a maniac. To put on weight, Albert gulped down concoctions of whole milk and raw eggs. He lifted 25-pound bags of flour to build up the muscles in his upper body, and he chopped firewood under the hot sun. Albert increased his speed by running up and down Russell Road, a plow line tied around his waist dragging two car tires behind him. He ran the half mile to Patterson's Grocery, and then it was another half mile to Troger's General Store.

"He never wanted to quit," says Glen Hall, a DeSoto teammate who joined Lewis in this exercise. "I'd say, 'We've been out here for two hours with these tires.' Albert would yell, 'Keep going!' "

When one of DeSoto's starting defensive backs was injured just before the start of the '77 season, Lewis began getting some playing time. By the middle of the season, he was starting at cornerback and making a reputation as a hard hitter. One Friday night just before kickoff, as he was coming out of the DeSoto locker room, Albert noticed his father walking up into the stands. Brad, who didn't think Albert would see him, had heard that his son was playing well and was curious to see if he was as good as people claimed.

"It's hard to explain how meaningful it was to see my father walk through those gates," Albert says. "I've never had a feeling like that. Ever. My father didn't care about football, but he cared about me doing well. For the first time, I was convinced about that. It was the first positive motivation I had ever gotten from him. Before that, all I heard was, 'You can't play.' And I'd argue, 'I'll show you I can.' He never encouraged me. That night I played as hard and as fearless as I've ever played. It was my own personal championship. I couldn't lose."

Afterward Albert searched the stands for his father, but Brad had sneaked out the gates and gone home without speaking to his son. Albert walked back to Katherine's house, locked his bedroom door and cried with joy for an hour. Although his father hadn't come out and said it, Albert knew he had finally won his approval. No obstacle in life would ever seem insurmountable to him after that.

Albert was an all-district cornerback in his senior season and was recruited mostly by predominantly black small colleges in the South. He accepted a scholarship at Grambling and, to get a head start on the other incoming freshmen, he moved in with his sister Ella, who was attending summer school there. He joined seven-on-seven passing drills with the Tigers' returning players, and soon there was much talk on campus about how fast the kid from South Mansfield could run. So what if Albert didn't own a pair of cleats? He covered receivers in his stocking feet.

"It got so slippery that I finally took off my socks and covered them barefoot," Albert says. "I was determined to live up to my reputation. One day I looked up into the stands, and there was [Grambling coach] Eddie Robinson, holding up a pair of football shoes. They were for me."

Did it matter that the Grambling football coaches worked him so hard in his first organized practice that he threw up on the field? Or that Robinson kept him out of the starting lineup the first two seasons, preferring experience over talent? No. Albert just added an extra workout to his schedule, running sprints at the track at 5:30 each morning. He ended up starting in his final two seasons, intercepted 11 passes in that time and twice was named All-Southwestern Athletic Conference at cornerback. He also graduated in four years with a degree in political science and a B average.

And when 12 defensive backs were taken ahead of him in the 1983 draft—K.C. picked him in the third round—he vowed to become the best ever to play the game.

These days the house with the leaky tin roof on Russell Road looks as though it's going to topple over at any minute. Vera moved into a new home on Nancy Street, a present from Albert, shortly after Brad died of a stroke, at 77, in October 1988. He worked right up until a week before he passed away. Katherine had stopped by the dumpster to bring him his dinner, and she found him curled up on the ground, severely ill from his diabetes. "People tell me all the time how much they miss him," Vera says. "They say they haven't found anybody since who will work as hard."

Albert visits his family a couple of times a year, stopping on his way to the 310-acre cattle and horse ranch in Centerville, Miss., which he owns with former Grambling teammate Trumaine Johnson. Each trip home, he goes alone to the cemetery to speak to his father. "Sometimes I talk out loud," Albert says. "Sometimes I share solitary thoughts. I hold conversations about what's on my mind—my problems, my achievements, my dreams. I tell him I love him. I say all the things we never said when he was alive."

On May 11 the towns of Mansfield and South Mansfield held an Albert Lewis Day to honor him for his accomplishments in the NFL. A parade down Main Street opened the festivities, which culminated with a sold-out testimonial dinner at the DeSoto Junior High cafeteria.

But the most meaningful moment came during a presentation by Dessie Lee Patterson, the mayor of South Mansfield and the owner of Patterson's Grocery—Albert's destination on many a sprint down Russell Road as a youngster. Lewis swears he got faster once the town laid asphalt, which his father had fought for as a member of the town advisory council. After Patterson presented Albert with the key to South Mansfield, she announced that from that day forward Russell Road would be known as Albert Lewis Way. Tears flooded Vera's eyes. Russell Road had been named for a wealthy white landowner named Tommy Russell.

"Who would have ever thought that a black family would have a road named for them, especially the way we lived all those years?" Vera says. "This is history for us."

Holding the new street sign in his hands, Albert was overcome with emotion, and he thought of his father and how proud he would have been. "It isn't just my street sign," Albert said recently. "It belongs to my father. Nobody in town will ever mention Albert Lewis without knowing who my dad was. They'll mention me and my father, and hopefully, his father and his father. The street sign is my lather's legacy in Mansfield. He left something behind that is timeless."

PHOTOBEN WEDDLE/NFL PHOTOSLewis's 10 blocked punts are believed to be an NFL career record. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHAt 6'2" and with long arms, Lewis is tough to get around. TWO PHOTOSJOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA-LIAISONKatherine (left), Vera and 13 other Lewises barely had a roof over their heads. PHOTOJOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA-LIAISONMartial arts is one phase of the off-season conditioning program that Lewis has devised.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)