As he raises Arabian horses on his spread in Missouri, at times Albert Lewis cannot help but be curious where life’s path will take him next.
For example, back when the Raider cornerback was in school, his major was political science. So perhaps, like freshman congressman Steve Largent of Oklahoma, a man Lewis once chased all over a football field, running for public office should be his next step.
“I am,” Lewis says.
Absolutely, the 34-year-old veteran campaigner says with a straight face, as he prepares for Christmas Eve’s reunion with his old playmates from Kansas City.
Quite likely the most eloquent athlete on his team, if not his league, Lewis would make a splendid politician, and on this bright December day he hoists his palm like a Boy Scout taking an oath and hereby promises that he is being deadly serious, that he will, someday soon, be a candidate.
“Yeah, but from which state?” a visitor asks.
“Ha! That’s the catch,” Lewis says, laughing. “I’ve lived in most of them.”
They say Albert Lewis is the best interview on the Raiders, and they do not exaggerate. He has a facility for the English language right up there with the great sesquipedalian Todd Christensen, and would make a natural television sportscaster should those political ambitions be sheer folly. Or maybe he would serve mankind better raising horses, who knows?
With a genuine interest in whichever subject is on the table and with none of that autospeak to which so many jocks are prone, Lewis slips easily into a discussion about what it took to assimilate (his word) everything he needed to cram into his skull upon becoming a Raider with everything he had already absorbed in 11 full seasons with the Chiefs. He concentrates on every question and avoids easy answers.
“You must sometimes still feel like a Chief at heart,” the visitor presumes.
“I was never a Chief at heart,” is Lewis’s unexpected response.
What with the Chiefs coming to town before Santa to attempt to bring the Raiders lumps of coal, it would be convenient for Lewis to simply recollect all the good times in Kansas City, the four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, the 11 blocked punts, those three interceptions in the 1991 season opener. A guy expresses astonishment that Chiefhood wouldn’t be in his blood.
“Eleven years, Albert . . . ?”
“I always wanted to be a Raider at heart, not a Chief,” Lewis interrupts. “See, something I have come to accept in this business is that the logos change, the colors change, the scenery changes, but none of this, in and of itself, constitutes my being anything but a football player. All that any player can do is the very best job he knows how to do, for whichever football team employs him.”
He was a Grambling Tiger who couldn’t wait to come roaring out of college and into a new life. The great Willie Brown had dropped by his own alma mater to do some advance work for the Raiders, for whom he had excelled in the defensive backfield for a dozen seasons. He assured Lewis that when NFL draft day rolled around, the Raiders would ring his phone, and sure enough, they did.
Lewis was ecstatic. As a young three-sport letterman in Mansfield, La., he had had no particular favorite team, in spite of friends trying continually to shove the Dallas Cowboys in his face. Then around came Willie Brown and that got Lewis to following the exploits of Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes and picturing himself alongside them in the Raider secondary, particularly when the third round began and they gave him a call.
“I had just received word that the Raiders intended to take me with their very next pick,” Lewis recalls, “when the phone rang.
“And somebody whispers, ‘It’s the Chiefs.’
“I was in shock.”
He is still able to vividly flash back to that trip up north, which--regardless of his fib about living in many states--was one of the few times in young Albert’s life that he had traveled beyond Louisiana’s borders. That drive he made to begin his pro career with the Chiefs, it seems like yesterday, yet what Lewis remembers most is, “I had a car and one suit and that’s it. And I stayed 11 years.”
“What kind of car?” he is asked.
“It was a . . . no, maybe I shouldn’t tell you,” Lewis says. “Let’s just say a lemon.”
No matter how well he comported himself with the Chiefs, the plain and undeniable truth is, Lewis projected himself as a Raider. From the sideline, before games, he says, Al Davis would tell him one minute how Cliff Branch would burn him and another minute how a guy as good as Lewis belonged with the Raiders, not with these guys wearing, ugh, red.
Oh, those great Raider-Chief wars.
“I remember the fights better than I do the games,” Lewis says, lightheartedly. “I remember when Greg Townsend snatched Brad Budde’s helmet right off.”
“Yeah, good fight,” a man agrees.
“I’ll say,” Lewis says. “I thought it was Brad’s head.”
A black uniform with Lewis’ name on it was waiting. He considers the Kansas City secondary he played for to be one of the greatest ever assembled, but the time had come to break up the act. Fleeing as a free agent, Lewis defected to the Chiefs’ deadliest of enemies, where he would eventually be paired at cornerback with another Pro Bowl player from a town called Mansfield (in this case Ohio), the very able Terry McDaniel.
But it took a while to become a pair. Lewis did not start for five weeks. He saw talent being wasted, not merely his own, and spoke up about it, using his status as a veteran to lecture teammates on being immature and unprepared. Lewis became the speaker of the house.
Came the game at New England and finally Coach Art Shell juggled the lineup. The Raiders turned a corner that day and Lewis is not even half serious when he says, “Wasn’t that the day I joined the lineup? No, really, I will tell you one thing that happened on that day. We became a team that day. For the first time all season, we felt that every single man had left everything he had out on that field.
“The one thing I have harped on since coming here is, you cannot beat yourself. It was always integral to Kansas City’s game plan to make the other team beat itself. The Chiefs are a very disciplined organization and very well coached. We can defeat them, but only if every individual on this Raider team commits himself to the fullest extent.”
And, being diplomatic, Lewis presumably will be sure to say hello to every Kansas City player before the game?
He takes this under consideration and says, “Only if they say hello first.”
More Mike Downey
* For a collection of recent columns by Mike Downey, sign on to the TimesLink online service and “jump” to keyword “Mike Downey.”
Details on Times electronic services, B4