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By the time he was a senior, Hayes was playing everywhere on offense—flanker, fullback, anywhere he could use his blazing speed. When the football season was over he played basketball, sixth man on a state championship team. He'd jump center. The kids nicknamed him Skywalker. The Friday after the 1972-73 basketball season was over, he ran in a track meet in the Astrodome and did a 9.7 hundred.
At the state meet that spring he ran a non-winning 9.5 and took the 220 championship with a 21 flat. "He was always a better 220 man," Balthazar says. "The longer he ran, the stronger he got." Hayes says he had 100-plus track scholarship offers but only half a dozen for football. He settled on Texas A&M, made a name for himself as a blitzing weakside linebacker for two years and then played strong safety in 1975 and 1976.
Phil Bennett, a defensive end on those teams and a defensive assistant at A&M now, says, "Lester was a phenomenal blitzer, but the most amazing thing to watch was the way he'd fly down the field on kickoffs. He'd be down there before the linemen would be set up in their wedge. No one could block him. One play he made on defense still stands out. In a Baylor game he shot in from his safety position, intercepted a pitchout and ran 77 yards for a score."
Sixteen players were drafted out of A&M in those two years. Hayes, who made one All-America team, didn't get picked until the fifth round, after 14 defensive backs had been taken. NFL scouts had checked Hayes and talked to him. He wasn't very talkative. There was the speech problem. "Dumb," they wrote down in their notebooks.
"The spring and summer before my rookie year I worked out with Pat Thomas—he'd been a year ahead of me at A&M—and that saved me as a cornerback," Hayes said. "It prepared me for the NFL. The techniques I used in college were geared to the Southwest Conference and little else. At A&M they taught us to use the shuffle technique to get back into our coverage, but Pat had used the back-pedal instead, and that's what I copied."
When Hayes got to the Raiders in 1977, there was a crash course waiting for him. It was called Fred Biletnikoff. "He could only run about a 4.9 but he was by far the most difficult receiver I've ever had to cover in the NFL," Hayes says. "I knew if I could cover him in practice, I could cover anyone. Most receivers know maybe the two inevitable break points in a pass pattern. Fred knew about 10; he could give you any of five within the first 10 yards. Each of Fred's patterns was five seconds plus, and our offensive line blocked so auspiciously that they'd give Stabler that amount of time. It was the only way a receiver of Fred's magnitude could be effective.
"Our scheme of things in those years was to run the patterns at 17 yards plus, longer patterns than any other team. There were no conservative traits whatsoever in that offense. Although I'd never played cornerback in my life, covering Biletnikoff every day did wonders for my confidence."
Willie Brown taught Hayes the meaning of an effective bump in the first five yards, and from Pat Thomas he learned the Riddell technique. "He would literally imbed that helmet in a receiver's chest," Hayes says. 'The helmet is effective for another reason. Receivers are taught to break the force of a defensive back's hand thrust by coming up with their fists or down with them. But there's no way possible for a receiver to break the thrust of a head butt.
"Sometimes I'll use my hands, too, just to vary it a little, but the whole idea is to get an upward thrust, from my legs and hips. That's where my power comes from, my strength. It's an uncoiling motion. That's why I start off low, in a crouch.
"There were a lot of other things I had to learn, like squaring up on a receiver and trying to keep him on the line as long as possible, but the key to everything is the bump. There are so many cornerbacks in the NFL who don't take full advantage of the five-yard bump zone. They just won't do it. No receiver likes to get bumped. It distorts the timing of the receiver and the quarterback. It's very important to him that he gets a free release from the line of scrimmage."