- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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Lester Hayes noticed the lanky, veteran receiver with the shaggy hair strolling toward him, but he couldn't figure out what Fred Biletnikoff wanted. The year was 1977, and Hayes was merely a rookie cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, a player hoping to make a big impression in his first preseason game. Biletnikoff was a future Hall of Famer, one who casually dabbed a gooey, brownish-yellow substance on Hayes' fingers.
"Try that, rookie," Biletnikoff said before walking away and leaving Hayes confounded. "I thought," said Hayes recently, "that Fred had put axle grease in my hands."
There are days when Hayes still looks back at his introduction to Stickum and laughs at what it did for his career. Before that moment, he was just a former college linebacker hoping to become a serviceable NFL defensive back. After that day, he became the face of a team that literally would try any tactic if it helped produce a victory on Sundays.
Hayes might have been too young to recall exactly when Raiders owner Al Davis coined the notorious phrase, "Just win, baby," but the images of Hayes' Stickum-coated jerseys are undisputed evidence that he was a devoted believer in that philosophy.
Hayes played on two of the Raiders' three Super Bowl championship teams, and he wasn't the only player who knew how to gain an advantage.
"The sole focus of our team was to win consistently," said Hayes, who helped the Raiders win Super Bowls XV and XVIII. "Whether it was a mental or a physical advantage, we were going to do whatever was necessary to win. Our attitude was that if we could get away with something, we were going to do it."
Although several Raiders skill players used Stickum -- including Biletnikoff and running back Mark van Eeghen -- Hayes made his name with the stuff. He rubbed it on his hands, wrists and forearms, slathering it as generously as a beachcomber applies sunscreen on a South Florida summer day. The reason? The Raiders played so much bump-and-run coverage that Hayes needed to ensure he could keep his hands on opposing receivers and disrupt their pass routes. It worked. Hayes became so dominant, he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1980 after intercepting 13 passes, along with five more in the postseason.
Hayes used so much Stickum even his teammates thought he went overboard.
"You practically had to pry the ball loose from him whenever he got his hands on it," said Ted Hendricks, a former Raiders linebacker.
Still, no teammates complained about the results. They also appreciated Hayes' tenacity. He actually liked to intimidate receivers by striking them in their throats whenever they crossed his path. It wasn't a legal move by any means -- Hayes drew his share of 5-yard penalties -- but he could live with minor yellow flags if it meant distracting a receiver. In fact, Hayes swears one opponent actually changed to a longer face mask whenever he played the Raiders to avoid taking a shot to the Adam's apple.
As much notoriety as Hayes gained for his tactics, he wasn't the only Raider with a decent number of tricks. He learned his craft from defensive backs such as Willie Brown, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum, veterans who often advised him, as Hayes says, "to get inside an opponent's head for 60 minutes on Sunday." Opposing teams understood the Raiders' attitude toward competition -- "When they came to town, they acted like they wanted to burn the whole village down," said Chiefs coach Herm Edwards -- and it wasn't just the defensive players who had a knack for gaining an edge.
With the Raiders from 1971 to '73, Hall of Fame offensive tackle Bob Brown persuaded the NFL to let him wear braces on his wrists, which were surprisingly fragile for a 6-foot-4, 280-pound man. What Brown didn't tell the league was that the braces were made of a hard leather substance that slipped over his entire hand, including his knuckles. Brown became so adept at wielding his heavily weighted hands that he developed a pass-blocking technique that involved taking two steps back before driving his fists into a pass-rusher's chest.
"Eventually, the league made Bob put rubber padding over those things," said Ben Davidson, a former Raiders defensive end. "But they still turned out to be pretty good weapons for him."
If the players needed any more ideas, they always could look to the sideline for help. Oakland's players learned about Stickum because former equipment manager Dick Romanski introduced them to it in the mid-1970s.
Hall of Fame coach John Madden once ran into Kansas City linebacker Bobby Bell before a Saturday morning walk-through session at Oakland Coliseum and tried to persuade Bell to watch for rats that supposedly crept through the visitors' locker room on game days. Davis created so much paranoia among his opponents that former New York Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank once suspected a helicopter flying over his practice field was a master attempt at spying by the Raiders owner.
There are still many people who suspect the worst from the Raiders, but rules changes eventually affected their tricks.
The banishment of Stickum after the 1980 season really had an impact on Hayes. Despite setting a Raiders record with 39 career interceptions in his 10-year career, he said he became "a mere mortal" after the league outlawed the substance (and cited him as a major reason for the rule).
"I'm thankful I played during the 1970s and 1980s because I was part of some great Raiders teams," Hayes said. "But if I had been born in 1985 instead of 1955, everything would've been different. I would've been one of those defensive backs you see chasing receivers every Sunday on 'SportsCenter.' I have no question about that."
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.