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.
"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.