For the last year and a half, SI senior writer Jill Lieber has been engrossed in chronicling the lives and times of two of the best defensive backs in NFL history. Much of that time Lieber spent collaborating with Los Angeles Raider safety Ronnie Lott on his autobiography, Total Impact, which was published last month by Doubleday. More recently she turned her attention to the best punt-blocker of all time, cornerback Albert Lewis of the Kansas City Chiefs. Her story on Lewis's remarkable journey from extreme poverty in South Mansfield, La., to four Pro Bowl appearances begins on page 80.
Lieber, who has covered pro football and done investigative reporting for SI since 1981, studied X's and O's with Bill Walsh long before Lott did when he played with the San Francisco 49ers. As a senior at Stanford in 1978, she took a Theory and Technique of Football course taught by the then Cardinal coach and got an A+. That grade was the result of two traits she shares with both Lott and Lewis: a strong appreciation of the game of football and a desire to be completely prepared.
"Jill has a true understanding of sport, yet she still has that excitement to learn more," says Lott.
"She's thorough, to say the least, and you get a sense of genuine concern in her interviews," says Lewis.
"Both Lott and Lewis are extremely private people, and their teammates don't know them very well," says Lieber, who was as dogged in her scrutiny of Lott's private side as she was in providing much of the reporting for SI's stories on the Pete Rose and George Steinbrenner scandals. "Jill asked me about the time I was the only black kid in a kindergarten class and the teacher asked me why I had used a brown crayon to color my face in a picture I had drawn," says Lott. "Jill said I told the teacher it was because I was proud to be black, but I told Jill that never happened. We were having a debate about this, and finally she said, 'You did do that. Your mother told me all about it.' And Jill was right."
For the Lewis story Lieber went to South Mansfield and attended a football game at Mansfield High, where three of Lewis's nephews play defensive back. "Jill spent a lot of time with my family, my teachers and all of my associates," says Lewis. "When my mother got her to try grits for the first time, the two of them really bonded."
Lieber, who admits she's now "totally hooked on grits," took the same empirical approach to the book on Lott. One section in Total Impact explores Lott's interest in the martial arts, acupuncture and other Far Eastern remedies. To gain insight into her subject, Lieber underwent acupuncture herself. "I remember that when Jill saw my different methods of healing, she got this look of, I can't believe you're doing that," says Lott. "Then when she tried acupuncture, I watched her and thought, I can't believe she's doing that!"
Just how thorough is Lieber? We could write a book.