Lester Hayes returns to his roots

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The image of him is iconic. Lester Hayes is crouched in his stance at the ready, his fingers slowly writhing like snakes coming out of Medusa's head. Gobs of stickum dripping from his arms and his shins and his tongue wags mockingly as his white towel flaps in the wind from the front of his waist band. His eyes pierce through his battle-scarred facemask and his gold No. 37 chain peeps through the top of his jersey as he stares down the unlucky receiver less than five yards away.

Mention the name of Lester Hayes, and the above comes to mind to any Raiders fan who remembers the physical cornerback imposing his will on opponents in the late 1970s and early 1980s and through a pair of Super Bowl victories.

Sunday night, though, a new snapshot will emerge of Hayes, that of a 58-year-old coulda-woulda-shoulda-been a Hall of Famer at the south end of the O.co Coliseum, admiring the masses while being admired. The Judge will light the Al Davis Flame at the invitation of Mark Davis before Oakland plays host to San Diego two days before the two year anniversary of Davis' passing.

"This is a pleasure," Hayes said this week from his home in Modesto. "I think back to 1977, when Mr. Davis drafted me. He was a great man, a great leader and a great boss. As far as loving your boss, Mr. Davis was loved. A lot of bosses say, I love you. But Mr. Davis made players feel loved. That was an important factor."


It was not always that way for Hayes, though, not when he had already been switched from linebacker at Texas A&M for his junior season to strong safety. And not when the Raiders, who had taken him in the fifth round, converted him to cornerback.

"I was 6-2, 230 pounds, I was a linebacker and strong safety," Hayes said. "I'm thinking, You don't move All-Americans; you move other dudes."

So Hayes, in his rookie camp, pleaded with John Madden to take his case up with Davis. Leave him at strong safety. Besides, George Atkinson was winding down and the Raiders could do worse than to ease in an All-American, right?

Hayes watched after practice as Madden approached Davis.

"I'm hoping, wishing, praying that Mr. Davis would say something," Hayes said.

Alas, Davis smiled and walked away and Madden came back to Hayes.

"Son," Madden told Hayes, "you can play bump and run and you can play cornerback."

"My face," Hayes said, "dropped to my knees. I was driving down Santa Rosa Boulevard, crying."

The tears, though, would come from opposing quarterbacks in later years, especially in 1980. Hayes had 13 interceptions, the most since Dick "Night Train" Lane had 14 in 1952, and was the defensive player of the year as Oakland became the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl when the Raiders thumped Dick Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10.

In a 10-year career, Hayes had 39 interceptions, with high-profile pick-6's against former teammate Ken Stabler in Oakland's wild-card win over Houston in 1980 and Pittsburgh's Cliff Stoudt on Jan. 1, 1984, when the Raiders called Los Angeles home.

Three weeks later, Hayes had his second Super Bowl ring when the Raiders beat up on Washington, 38-9.

And while his career came to a sudden halt after the 1986 season, Hayes has been a constant observer of all things Raiders. After all, he is a self-styled Jedi Knight of Silver and Blackdom.

So yeah, he's got opinions on things.

Like the job his former teammate Reggie McKenzie is doing as a second-year general manager: "Give him time. Reggie was taught to be a genius in the mold of Ron Wolf. This is not a seamless transition. Give him time."

On Wolf dealing Stabler (for Dan Pastorini), Jack Tatum (for Kenny King) and Dave Casper (for picks that turned into Ted Watts, Howie Long and Jack Squirek) to Houston in 1980: "Ron Wolf made that trade fit to Tom Flores' system. Ron Wolf was a football genius and he personally taught Reggie McKenzie. Give him time."

On how he does not buy rules today seemingly making it impossible to stop the passing game: "It's about technique. It's the same game. It's about polishing your technique. It's the same five-yard bump zone. If a player polished his technique on a daily basis ... you must shine and polish your technique."

On what he's seen from rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden, a fellow Texan: "He's got sweet feet. There are great feet, but he's got sweet feet. The most important phase of the bump and run is the bump. You must re-route him. No free passes. That's the phase of D.J.'s game that needs to be shined up. Shine it up ... his burst, his hips, it's tremendous. Great feet and flexible joints. Work and work and work and keep shining and work on his bump. Never give a man a free pass."

And, of course, on what's going on at his alma mater and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel: "There is a misconception about Johnny Football. That is not cockiness; that is confidence. That is a confident young football player."

Hayes, who overcame a lifelong stuttering problem, does not like to speak of why the likes of him, Flores, Cliff Branch, Ray Guy and Jim Plunkett are not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not even after five Pro Bowls and four times being a Hall of Fame finalist.

"In 2025 I will receive a phone call from Canton, Ohio, maybe 2030," Hayes said.

Any reason for those years? Might it have something to do with the veterans committee?

"I just feel it," he said

"I'm a 1960's mentality, I'm a 1960s football soldier. My team consistently won. That is paramount in my mind. A phone call from Canton, Ohio, is secondary."

Hayes then went in another direction: "This is so unfair to coach Tom Flores. That is so, so foul. His second season he was Super Bowl XV champion. His fifth season he was Super Bowl XVIII champion. That is the most unfair, the most unjust omission."

And on the mentality of today's breed of look-at-me cornerbacks: "Cornerbacks today speak of 'I'. No, no, no. What is important is my team consistently won and I was a champion. That's imperative in team sports. Listen now and DBs speak as if there's just them. There's great coaches and great technique coaches."

And that's how Hayes came up with being a Jedi from the Star Wars movies.

The way he sees it, his college teammate and cornerback Pat Thomas was his "Obi-Wan Kenobi," teaching him the ways of the force in the secondary. And when Hayes got to the Raiders, there was the master of the bump and run awaiting his arrival.

"Without Willie 'Yoda' Brown's expert technique-teaching on a consistent basis, I would not be asked to light the torch on Sunday."

Indeed, you could say the torch has been passed. But will Hayden receive it?