(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
“The Judge” deserves another day in court, and it’s long overdue.
Lester Hayes was half of the finest cornerback tandem in NFL history, but he was never the B side. What made him and Hall-of-Fame corner Mike Haynes dueling A sides for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders were his aggressiveness, instincts, explosiveness and intimidation. He wasn’t known as “Lester the Molester” for nothing. Wide receivers hated to see him across the line of scrimmage not only because they were about to be blanketed but because they were about to be hit.
“Lester was one of the best cornerbacks ever at intimidation,” Haynes insists. “He really did go after people. As a cover man and in tackling, he was just phenomenal.”
When it comes to playing corner, what else is there?
Master of the “bump-and-run” technique taught to him by Willie Brown, a Hall-of-Fame cornerback himself, Hayes was a five-time Pro Bowl performer and the 1980 Defensive Player of the Year when he put together one of the greatest seasons of any cornerback. In his fourth season as a pro, after being converted from a college safety at Texas A&M as a rookie, Hayes led the NFL with 13 interceptions, one off the mark set by Dick “Night Train” Lane in 1952.
But it didn’t end there.
Hayes went on to pick off five passes in the playoffs for a record 18 total, and for good measure added one more at the Pro Bowl in his first of five straight appearances. In five of his nine years as a starting corner, Hayes was a Pro Bowl starter despite having few quarterbacks challenge him after that phenomenal 1980 Super Bowl winning season — with Hayes producing only eight interceptions in the four years following 1980.
Yet he was named a Pro Bowl starter, and, if truth be told, he should have been selected in 1979 as well when his seven interceptions left him third in the NFL. That slight was more than made up for when he was named to the 1980s’ all-decade team.
Because of his speed and instincts, Hayes was allowed by Brown, his position coach, and defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner, to roam free,. In fact, according to Sumner, Hayes played man coverage 85 percent of the time … but always with the green light to leave his man if he felt the quarterback was throwing elsewhere. Most of the time quarterbacks did, one reason his 39 career regular-season interceptions left him 84th all-time.
“The thing about Lester, he was usually right,” Haynes said of his former teammates’ omniscience.
Hayes’ style was pure aggression. Crouched low at the line of scrimmage like a panther ready to leap, he would slam his hands into the head or chest of opposing receivers as they tried to get into their release, often knocking them backwards and shattering the pattern’s timing. The limited times a receiver caught the ball on him, Hayes would use the “Riddell technique” taught him by former college teammate Pat Thomas — slamming the front logo of his helmet into their chests as he tackled them.
“It would knock the wind out of you,” recalled Hall-of-Fame receiver James Lofton.
Hayes would continue to bump receivers down the field, a move no longer legal — in part because of his relentless willingness to do it, with Hayes literally sticking to them like glue because he was slathered with “Stickum”’ until it was outlawed after that 13-interception season. That was called “The Lester Hayes Rule.” While it and the growing wariness of opposing quarterbacks reduced Hayes’ interceptions, he continued to shut down opposing receivers for six more seasons before retiring with 47 career interceptions, including eight in 13 playoff games.
Bright and well-spoken, the two-time Super Bowl champion used to call his side of the field “my eminent domain.” Few quarterbacks argued the point with him.
After becoming a starter in 1978, his second year in the league, Hayes would go on to start in all but three of his final 135 games. Not surprisingly, he was a Hall-of-Fame finalist in each of his first four years of eligibility (2001-04) but then seemed to slip into the mist of faded memory, a Hall of Famer denied.
Lester Hayes has two years of eligibility remaining before he moves into the vast abyss that is the senior pool. It seems only just that the Hall-of-Fame jury face “The Judge” one last time before that happens.