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Lewis Starting Over as Non-Starter : Pro football: Raiders, however, keep options open for former Chief great in grand scheme.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a 1994 home video football game, Albert Lewis is a starting cornerback on the Kansas City Chiefs’ all-time team.

With his trademark No. 29, Lewis flies around the Chiefs’ secondary making interceptions and tackles while playing on the same defense as NFL Hall of Famers Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell and Buck Buchanan. Lewis was a four-time Pro Bowl selection in 11 seasons with Kansas City and is the Chiefs’ all-time punt block leader with 11.

The problem for Lewis, however, is that he finished his career with the Chiefs last March when he signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Raiders.

“It’s not something that I’ve spent a whole lot of time thinking about,” said Lewis, who was drafted by Kansas City in the third round in 1983 from Grambling. “But it is an odd feeling knowing that I’ve spent so many years there. At some point of time, I may reopen the book and look back.”

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For now, Lewis is trying to become a starter for the Raiders, something he was not promised when he moved to Los Angeles during the off-season.

With Pro Bowl selection Terry McDaniel at left cornerback and 12-year veteran Lionel Washington on the right, the Raiders already had two quality players at Lewis’ position.

The Raiders told Lewis he would only get a chance to compete and nothing was going to be given to him.

“Having Albert adds a quality cornerback who has the ability to cover and make plays,” Raider Coach Art Shell said. “He adds experience and toughness, which is vitally important to our team.”

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So after being a leader and a mainstay on the Chiefs’ defense since breaking in as a starter in 1984, Lewis realized that he would almost have to start over in Los Angeles. Which he knew was not going to be easy.

“It’s always difficult to leave after playing in one spot for so long,” said Lewis, who is third on the all-time active interceptions list with 38. “But it’s also exciting. The challenge of it all and the opportunity to play for a team you’ve went against for so long.”

One of the first things Lewis did when he began practicing with the Raiders was to make a deal with second-year safety Patrick Bates, who wore No. 29 last season.

Bates, who last year made it known that he liked No. 29, drove a hard bargain but eventually gave in to Lewis’ request.

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“I had so much history with that number,” said Lewis, who wore No. 29 throughout college and his NFL career. “I just had to have it. I wouldn’t say that it was difficult to have (Bates switch to No. 24), but I would say that it was expensive.”

Once he had his old number back, Lewis did not take long to show that he had not lost a step despite being sidelined with a knee injury in 1991 and a broken forearm in 1992. The injuries forced him to miss a combined 15 games after missing only five non-strike games in the first eight years of his career.

At 6 feet 2, 195 pounds, Lewis, 33, displayed the same skills that made him a consensus All-NFL selection in 1990.

“I think that I am a better player now than before because my injuries forced me to concentrate and to not take things for granted,” Lewis said. “I’m not putting myself into situations where I am vulnerable for injury. I am more of a technician now.”

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When the Raiders reported for training camp in July, they put Lewis at left cornerback behind McDaniel while he became familiar with the team’s defense, instead of putting him in direct competition with Washington.

The Raiders moved Lewis to right cornerback before their exhibition game at Pittsburgh, which also was the game in which Washington suffered a hamstring injury.

Lewis has played with the first defense ever since. So when the Raiders take the field Saturday at Houston, Lewis won’t be complaining while he’s in the lineup while Washington rests.

“Basically, the Raiders have three starters at cornerback,” Lewis said. “But, if they brought me here solely to be a third-down guy on passing situations, they signed the wrong guy.”

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The Raiders expect to have Washington back for their regular-season opener against San Francisco Sept. 5, and Shell has not indicated there might be a starting change once everyone is fit.

“I’ve said too many times that starting is not too important on this team,” Shell said. “It’s your contribution to make your football team win that is what is important.”

Which for Lewis can mean more than just starting at cornerback.

In his career, Lewis has made a living blocking kicks. Five times his blocks turned into touchdowns and twice he recovered his own blocks for touchdowns.

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“I’ve always prided myself as a special-teams player and I don’t think that will change this year,” Lewis said. “A lot of things have changed around the league and it is not as easy as it once was to get blocks, but I think that I’ll always be out there blocking punts.”

So far, Lewis has adjusted well to the Raiders and living in Palos Verdes. The only thing he regrets about leaving Kansas City is that he left his horses home.

“I like being out here in California playing for the Raiders, but I’ll feel a whole lot better once I get my favorite horse (Stetson) out here. And he’ll be here by Christmas.”


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