As a rookie in 1983, Lewis looked so skinny in his white uniform and red helmet that his teammates nicknamed him Match. Actually, he's extremely tough and physical. "Because of his height, instead of jamming you in the chest, he winds up getting you right in the throat," Los Angeles Raider wide receiver Willie Gault says of being hit by Lewis.
"He's a violent competitor," says Rutgers coach Doug Graber, who was the Chiefs' secondary coach from 1983 to '86. "When the Chiefs used to hold training camp in Liberty, Missouri, there were often consecutive days of 100°-plus temperatures. Defensive backs go one-on-one with receivers in one, sometimes two practices a day. There were many times Albert would get beaten, and he'd get so mad he'd kick the end zone marker into the stands. And then after the second practice of the day, he'd run 100-yard sprints, insisting he had to do that to make the team."
Lewis never lets up—even in the off-season. He says his concentration on football contributed to his divorce in 1988. He rarely takes vacations, preferring to spend his time in a daily routine that includes a two-hour kick-boxing session, a six- to 12-mile run in a weight vest and a 25-mile bike ride. Twice a week he ties a harness around his chest and pulls a weight sled with 75 pounds of iron on it. He practices martial arts disciplines that benefit him mentally as well as physically.
During the season Lewis immerses himself in the mental aspects of the game. He seldom socializes, hardly watches TV and can't name the last movie he saw. Usually in bed by 10 p.m., he rises at 5:30 a.m. and arrives at Arrowhead Stadium at about 7 to work out, sit in the whirlpool and pore over videotapes of the next opponent. Deep in concentration, Lewis takes on a scowling demeanor. "My focus is hypnotic," Lewis says. "I put myself in a trance. When I'm in total focus—absolutely there—I can meet my fears head-on and defeat them."
In meetings Lewis scrawls copious notes, and he asks many questions, even if he already knows the answers, just to make sure all the defensive backs are thinking alike. On the practice field he badgers secondary coach Tony Dungy and special teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer to critique his technique. After dinner Lewis analyzes more videotapes at his home in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kans. Old playbooks and well-worn notebooks are tucked into every nook and cranny of his office, and he has a library of 400 videocassettes and 75 film reels on opposing quarterbacks, receivers, punters, and their offensive systems and blocking schemes on punts.
His homework paid off after he noticed during the '89 season that teams were having success running slant patterns against him. He reviewed tapes of his coverage technique, studied the body control of basketball players and adjusted his martial arts regimen to further enhance his balance. Then he devised what he terms the "catch" technique. Instead of jamming the receiver at the line of scrimmage—and risk being beat on the first move—Lewis opted to drop back two or three steps and force the opponent to tip off his pattern before jamming him. In buying that extra second, Lewis was able to catch receivers early in their patterns and quickly shut them down. The catch technique has since been adopted by defensive backs around the league.
"Anyone who has mastered anything had to be consumed by it first," Lewis says. "I feel bad because of how my obsession affects other people. I tend to be short when I'm concentrating, and that can be taken the wrong way. But everything in life is measured in degrees, and to understand a person's degrees of pain, determination or obsession, you have to understand where he comes from. You have to have traveled his road."
Albert's journey began on Russell Road, which was then a strip of red clay and gravel carved through the open pastures and pine woods of South Mansfield, 29 miles south of Shreveport. The Lewis family lived in a rickety three-bedroom house with a leaky tin roof and cracked windows on a five-acre lot. The Lewises could barely afford electricity, and they went without indoor plumbing until 1973. A fireplace and a few portable gas heaters provided some warmth, but it was never enough. The children slept two or three to a bed, and when it rained the family would scurry for buckets and cans, then push their beds around the room, jockeying for a dry spot.
A great many family meals came out of Brad's huge vegetable garden, a strawberry patch and a tiny orchard. Vera helped to make ends meet by taking in ironing. She sewed most of the children's clothes, fashioning underwear from the soft white cloth of 50-pound flour sacks, and blouses and shirts from printed 100-pound sacks of chicken and cow feed. At night, while everybody was asleep, Vera, a devout Pentecostal, tiptoed from bed to bed, knelt beside each headboard, and said a separate prayer for each child.
Growing up as the 10th of 13 Lewis children, Albert was deeply moved by his family's hardships but kept his feelings to himself. In the most introspective moments of his childhood, he would retreat to the woods behind his house to ponder the poverty that surrounded him and to worry about the direction his life would take him. He took long, solitary walks through the pines on his "thinking trails" with his dog and spent hours beside a cool, clear stream, dangling his fishing line. "It was a way to solve the world's problems," Albert says. "I wanted to see people, attitudes and life change."