When one of DeSoto's starting defensive backs was injured just before the start of the '77 season, Lewis began getting some playing time. By the middle of the season, he was starting at cornerback and making a reputation as a hard hitter. One Friday night just before kickoff, as he was coming out of the DeSoto locker room, Albert noticed his father walking up into the stands. Brad, who didn't think Albert would see him, had heard that his son was playing well and was curious to see if he was as good as people claimed.
"It's hard to explain how meaningful it was to see my father walk through those gates," Albert says. "I've never had a feeling like that. Ever. My father didn't care about football, but he cared about me doing well. For the first time, I was convinced about that. It was the first positive motivation I had ever gotten from him. Before that, all I heard was, 'You can't play.' And I'd argue, 'I'll show you I can.' He never encouraged me. That night I played as hard and as fearless as I've ever played. It was my own personal championship. I couldn't lose."
Afterward Albert searched the stands for his father, but Brad had sneaked out the gates and gone home without speaking to his son. Albert walked back to Katherine's house, locked his bedroom door and cried with joy for an hour. Although his father hadn't come out and said it, Albert knew he had finally won his approval. No obstacle in life would ever seem insurmountable to him after that.
Albert was an all-district cornerback in his senior season and was recruited mostly by predominantly black small colleges in the South. He accepted a scholarship at Grambling and, to get a head start on the other incoming freshmen, he moved in with his sister Ella, who was attending summer school there. He joined seven-on-seven passing drills with the Tigers' returning players, and soon there was much talk on campus about how fast the kid from South Mansfield could run. So what if Albert didn't own a pair of cleats? He covered receivers in his stocking feet.
"It got so slippery that I finally took off my socks and covered them barefoot," Albert says. "I was determined to live up to my reputation. One day I looked up into the stands, and there was [Grambling coach] Eddie Robinson, holding up a pair of football shoes. They were for me."
Did it matter that the Grambling football coaches worked him so hard in his first organized practice that he threw up on the field? Or that Robinson kept him out of the starting lineup the first two seasons, preferring experience over talent? No. Albert just added an extra workout to his schedule, running sprints at the track at 5:30 each morning. He ended up starting in his final two seasons, intercepted 11 passes in that time and twice was named All-Southwestern Athletic Conference at cornerback. He also graduated in four years with a degree in political science and a B average.
And when 12 defensive backs were taken ahead of him in the 1983 draft—K.C. picked him in the third round—he vowed to become the best ever to play the game.
These days the house with the leaky tin roof on Russell Road looks as though it's going to topple over at any minute. Vera moved into a new home on Nancy Street, a present from Albert, shortly after Brad died of a stroke, at 77, in October 1988. He worked right up until a week before he passed away. Katherine had stopped by the dumpster to bring him his dinner, and she found him curled up on the ground, severely ill from his diabetes. "People tell me all the time how much they miss him," Vera says. "They say they haven't found anybody since who will work as hard."
Albert visits his family a couple of times a year, stopping on his way to the 310-acre cattle and horse ranch in Centerville, Miss., which he owns with former Grambling teammate Trumaine Johnson. Each trip home, he goes alone to the cemetery to speak to his father. "Sometimes I talk out loud," Albert says. "Sometimes I share solitary thoughts. I hold conversations about what's on my mind—my problems, my achievements, my dreams. I tell him I love him. I say all the things we never said when he was alive."
On May 11 the towns of Mansfield and South Mansfield held an Albert Lewis Day to honor him for his accomplishments in the NFL. A parade down Main Street opened the festivities, which culminated with a sold-out testimonial dinner at the DeSoto Junior High cafeteria.