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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.