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.
"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."