Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Grambling greats: Albert Lewis

GSU's Lewis beat the odds to earn Hall induction

June 24, 2004

By Nick Deriso
Albert Lewis arrived at Grambling State so poor that he didn't have cleats. But the young freshman also had enough raw confidence in his own athleticism to cover older college kids without them.

Legendary GSU coach Eddie Robinson looked on in silent awe, marveling over this shoeless wonder.

"I developed a reputation that summer," Lewis said. "The story got around that I was covering them without shoes. I was one of those kind of people who, even before I started playing football, I always knew what I was going to do. I never had one doubt or a question about doing something else."

Lewis, who earned first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference honors in 1981-82, led GSU in interceptions in 1981 - picking off seven passes for 86 yards.

That in turn earned Lewis notice from the NFL's Kansas City franchise, which picked him at No. 61 in the third round of the 1983 NFL Draft.

Lewis would eventually record 42 interceptions, 123 passed defensed, 13 sacks and 13 forced fumbles during a 225-game pro career. After more than a decade with the Chiefs, he finished his career in Oakland.

Those accomplishments have earned him a spot in the 2004 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class, in his first year on the ballot. He and six other greats will be inducted Saturday in Natchitoches.
The 43-year-old Lewis said it's a hometown honor that he treasures.

"I never left Louisiana until I went to the NFL. I spent most of my life here," he said.

Perhaps it was inevitable that he would return to the area. Since retiring from the NFL after the 1998 season, he has bred and trained racing horses on the Greystone Ranch, a 320-acre spread north of Centreville, Miss., across the river from Baton Rouge.

"Albert was one of the greatest corners who ever played," said fellow Grambling State player Willie Brown, now a coach and personnel director at Oakland. "He had the size and the speed and the arm length, and also the quickness to do all the things that you would like to see a corner do."

Brown, who oversaw the final five seasons of Lewis' career at Oakland, also witnessed that early athleticism in college.

Robinson would often bring back alumni who had gone on to success in the NFL to offer advice to his players during off-season training sessions. Brown was one of them.

"The first time I saw him that summer," Brown said, "I just couldn't believe how quick he was. He was covering everyone. I thought, he's ready right now - not just for Grambling, but for the NFL."

A father of three, the Mansfield native had remarkable stamina - playing 15 NFL seasons in the secondary.

"This all started at Grambling, with the things that coach Eddie Robinson instilled in all the players," said Brown, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "That work ethic carried over to the pros. If you look at the history of guys who came to the pros from Grambling, they had that kind of stamina."

Lewis says being a late bloomer contributed to his longevity. He said he didn't contribute much to the football team at the then-all black DeSoto High School.

Not until that fateful day on GSU's practice field did Lewis - who hadn't started playing football until the 11th grade - begin to feel like he was coming into his own.

"As a high school player, I was average," said Lewis, who was coached by Louisiana High School Coaches Association Hall of Famer Clyde Washington Jr. at DeSoto.

"I made a big play here or there, but I didn't get a lot of interceptions. The one thing I did in high school was show a lot of physical ability. I didn't understand the game because I started so late."
Washington - who would later coach better teams at integrated Mansfield High to seven district titles in 14 years and the school's only state football title in 1991 - remains an inspiration to Lewis.

"He was very influential in my career - because he always challenged me," Lewis said. "He didn't necessarily pat me on the back."

Lewis said Washington and Robinson, both Louisiana legends, set him on course to become one of the NFL's best shutdown corners. He had four consecutive seasons with four or more interceptions to begin his career - including eight in 1985.

Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, a renowned architect of the old American Football League, listed Lewis among the 12 best Kansas City players ever.

Lewis started in all but five games in five seasons with the Raiders, notching eight of his 13 career sacks there.

He also added four interceptions, before finishing with a flourish: Moved to free safety in 1998, his last year in the league, Lewis returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown in a win over Seattle on Nov. 1.

But both of Lewis' NFL teams often struggled, so he perhaps didn't get the accolades a four-time Pro Bowler (1987-90) might have.

Until now.

"Recognition like this comes not only just because of his ability," said Brown, also a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. "He is a true leader out there. Guys respected him a heck of the lot. They listened to a guy like Albert. He is a total person, on and off the football field."

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Corner's back
Grambling great Albert Lewis returns to help coach secondary

August 9, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
GRAMBLING — He got out of his car, this unassuming figure in a gold T-shirt, and walked onto the practice field.

Then former Grambling State great Albert Lewis started working with the defensive backs.

Just like that, the game changed.

“Having him around was amazing,” said cornerback Bakari Guice, the zippy former Wossman wide receiver. “He’s somebody who can immediately help us dominate in the secondary.”

Tuesday afternoon’s conversations with players focused on the basics, then Lewis happily dove into breaking down practice video and sketching out defensive looks with the staff.

“It’s my first day, so I’m still getting a feel for the scheme,” said Lewis, who gave no timetable for how long he’d be on hand during these fall sessions. “I mostly worked with them on technique,” he said, “but after I get in some more film work, I’ll delve into the terminology.”

Lewis, inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame two years ago, recorded a staggering 42 interceptions, 123 passed defensed, 13 sacks and 13 forced fumbles during a 225-game NFL career at Kansas City and then Oakland. Lewis later began a successful career breeding quarter horses before becoming an assistant with the San Diego Chargers.

He has some working knowledge of the current group of GSU defensive backs, having dropped in on the program’s practice sessions last spring.

Starter Greg Fassitt is still rounding back into day-to-day duty from a late-season hamstring injury, as he was back then. Grambling’s No. 1 unit on Wednesday included Guice and LSU transfer Jeffrey Jack on the corners along with DeMichael Dizer and Zaire Wilborn in the safety positions.

The secondary is expected to become that much more competitive with the arrival later this week of Virginia transfer Phillip Brown, who should be eligible.

Each will get a rare chance to learn from a local legend, in an age-old tradition that dates back to former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson’s celebrated tenure.

“Back in the day, Coach Rob had guys come back to work with the younger players,” said GSU coach Melvin Spears. “This is part of what’s always gone on here. We’re blessed to have him.”

Lewis earned first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference honors playing for Robinson in 1981-82, and led GSU in interceptions in 1981 — picking off seven passes for 86 yards. A late bloomer who didn’t start playing football until late in his high school career, Lewis got even better once he got to the pros.

He had four or more interceptions in his initial four NFL seasons — including eight picks in 1985. After more than a decade with the Chiefs, Lewis played his final five NFL campaigns with the Raiders.

There, he started in all but five games and notched eight of his 13 career sacks. He also added four interceptions, before finishing with a flourish: Moved to free safety in 1998, his last year in the league, Lewis returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown against Seattle.

“You can’t talk about Grambling defensive backs, without talking about Albert Lewis,” Spears said. “He’ll be working with the players, but he’ll be working with the coaches, too. It will be a learning experience for all of us.”

Lewis, who always had an easy relationship with his fame, is predictably low-key about his role.

Joking around afterward with defensive line assistant Charlie Lewis — a former Grambling teammate in the early 1980s — Albert Lewis could have been a jovial passerby, one of the dozen or so fans who always cluster around following the practices. But the players seemed to immediately grasp what he’d accomplished, and what Lewis in turn could help them accomplish.

“The thing about him is, he’s played and coached at the highest level,” Guice said. “It’s going to make everybody better.”

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