|Friday, February 18
Even in retirement, Hayes a one-ring circus
By Tom Farrey
Item No. 248743787 appeared the night before the Super Bowl, an honest-to-goodness gem that sparkled amid the clutter of used pocket knives and tie clips being hawked on the eBay Internet auction site. The entry included pictures and a description in salesman-quality English.
The bidding started at $3,000 and ran up quickly. Within 24 hours, with six days to go in the auction, the top bid was $11,000. The seller was elated.
The seller was not Lester Hayes.
"They stole my ring!" Hayes remembers thinking, upon learning of the auction.
That is an issue -- theft -- that may ultimately be left to a judge or jury. The retired Raiders cornerback known for his man-to-man coverage, stickum and belt-level towel is now considering suing the Reno, Nev., pawn shop that had put his ring up for auction. But this much is clear from the bizarre series of events that led up to the sale of one of the most coveted Super Bowl rings ever to hit the market: Greed is much harder to shut down than any Redskins receiver.
This, too: Toothaches suck.
"I've heard his sob story," said Denise Beruman, who as e-commerce manager for Palace Jewelers put the ring on eBay.
Hayes' misadventure began last April. After a day of signing autographs at a Reno event for the Children's Miracle Network, he was struck with a severe pain in his mouth. An abscess was growing, rapidly. So he drove to the first dentist's office he could find.
The dentist asked how he would pay.
"I reached for my wallet and it wasn't there," Hayes said.
Panic set in as began to realize he had left it at home in Modesto, Calif. -- four hours away. He told the dentist, "I'm Lester Hayes, Hall of Fame nominee (for the year) 2000," which would have been a slight fib because although eligible for Canton this year he has not been formally nominated. He said he "thought about going out to my car and getting some of my old Topps cards, but figured that game plan wasn't going to work."
With the abscess now the size of a walnut and beginning to close his right eye, Hayes hopped back in his 1986 Mercedes and drove to the first pawn shop that was open, Palace Jewelers. The owner offered him an $800 loan for the ring. It was either that, or trade in the $2,000 gold crucifix around Hayes' neck.
"That was a test of my faith," said Hayes, a born-again Christian after living what he described as a retirement filled with too many women and too many parties. "If I would have taken Jesus off my chest, something terrible would have happened to me. I believe that."
The deal: Hayes could get the ring back anytime over the next four months, for $800 plus 10 percent interest per month.
Hayes, though, never made that trip back to Reno. He said he simply forgot to pick it up because of a new ailment, a painful prostate problem that kept him in bed much of the year and still troubles him today.
"Getting that ring was the farthest thing from my medulla oblongata," he said, through his usual stutter. "When you get this kind of pain, it's your sole focus."
The next time the four-time Pro Bowler saw the ring was on eBay. Alerted by Raiders fans, Hayes begged Beruman to take it off the auction site. She declined.
When the bidding hit $14,000, he offered to pay $16,500 if she ended it right there. She declined again, citing the nature of the eBay auction system that allows buyers and sellers to rate each other. "My reputation would have been hurt and that would have made it difficult to sell stuff in the future," she said.
An Internet storm was brewing. Mark Davis, who runs the Raiders fan club and is son of Raiders team owner Al Davis, fired off a series of pleading messages to Beruman, who said he even offered her "VIP treatment at any game" if she relented. He also e-mailed the top bidders, several of whom then canceled their bids.
Still, enough of them hung in there. The ring sold for $18,200 to a sports memorabilia collector who goes by the code name "rings*things," for a handsome profit of $17,400. The winner, who declined to respond to an e-mail message from ESPN.com, prefers to remain anonymous, Beruman said.
Meanwhile, Hayes keeps the faith. He has an attorney drawing up papers against Palace Jewelers, on the notion that he should have received a registered letter before the ring was put on the market. It remains to be seen whether he can win on that technicality, or if he can recover the ring from a third party -- rings*things -- who legally purchased the item.
"God is testing me," Hayes said, "because he knows how much I cherish that ring."
Beruman finds a more secular moral in this classic story of what happens when pawn shops and incomparable sports artifacts meet the Internet.
"Come get your stuff," she said.
Otherwise, you might not be able to wear it to Canton, Ohio.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com.