Barely able to read or write, Brad Lewis was a jack-of-all-trades who devoted virtually every waking moment of his 45-year marriage to supporting his wife, Vera, and their 13 children. Dressed in bib overalls and black leather boots, he would leave the family's bungalow on Russell Road in rural South Mansfield, La., before daylight and head for any number of jobs that produced thick, callused hands and a tired, aching back.
He hitched a ride on a truck that hauled workers to nearby fields, where he chopped cotton for 50 cents a day. At a local sawmill he stood waist deep in a pond and fished out logs to be cut into lumber. He collected garbage and was in charge of the neighborhood dumpster. He slung 150-pound railroad ties over his shoulder, one after another, loading them into freight cars and refusing to stop when his skin was rubbed raw and bleeding.
"My father didn't care what he did; he just quietly worked his butt off," recalls Brad's son, Albert Lewis, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and a punt blocker nonpareil. "If he wasn't tired by the time he went to bed, he didn't have a feeling of accomplishment."
In the evenings and on Saturdays, with Albert often at his side, Brad mowed lawns and tended gardens. He would load up his wheelbarrow with bags of peanuts, which he had roasted himself, as well as homemade hot tamales, cookies and candies, and then he and Albert hawked the goodies all over town.
"My father never played catch with me," Albert says. "We communicated through work. I never accepted his nonverbal communication, but I learned to understand it. He was harder on me than he was on any of my other brothers or sisters because I think he sensed himself in me. I was determined and headstrong, just like him."
In what passed for spare time, Brad was active within his community. He helped to register fellow blacks to vote, lobbied the DeSoto Parish school board to have buses rerouted through rural areas where poor black families lived, and argued that students enrolled in the school system's free lunch program should have meal tickets identical to the ones handed out to students who paid for their food, so that there wouldn't be any discrimination or embarrassment among the children. In 1971 the neighbors elected Brad to the South Mansfield advisory council, a committee that monitored the work of local officials. He served for six years.
Brad's unrelenting work ethic was passed from father to son, and it has helped propel Albert to the top of his profession. There is no better bump-and-run cornerback in the NFL than Lewis, and few can measure up to him in overall coverage skills. His trademark in nine seasons with Kansas City has been the big play—a unique ability to turn around a game single-handedly. In 1986, Lewis inspired a 24-23 comeback victory against San Diego by forcing turnovers—two interceptions and a fumble—on three consecutive Charger possessions in the fourth quarter. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in '88, with 6:06 remaining and the Chiefs trailing 28-19, Lewis blocked a punt in the end zone for a safety, and after K.C. scored a touchdown on its next possession, he recovered a fumble on the Cincinnati 28 to set up Nick Lowery's game-winning field goal. Last year Lewis blocked four punts to give him 10 for his career, unofficially an NFL record.
And in the Chiefs' 1991 season opener, a 14-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Lewis had three interceptions, deflected four passes and had two tackles. However, on the third interception he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was sidelined for the next six games. Surgery wasn't necessary, and Lewis has returned to the starting lineup to help lead the 7-5 Chiefs in their bid to win the AFC West.
At 6'2", 195 pounds, Lewis, 31, is the tallest cornerback in the NFL by an inch. The prototype at that position is considered to be between 5'10" and 6 feet, because a low center of gravity provides better body control and lateral movement than a taller player would have. Lewis, of course, is an exception.
A graceful athlete, he keeps his body low in his backpedal and makes his cuts with the receiver in a fluid motion. Blessed with excellent acceleration and speed—he runs a 4.38 40—Lewis has the ability to recover if a receiver gets a few steps on him. What's more, his arms are 35 inches long and he has a 38-inch vertical leap, so quarterbacks must throw far enough outside or over him to get past his reach and still hit the receiver.