At a recent awards ceremony hosted by the Washington Athletic Club, USC Coach Pete Carroll strode to the podium. As he addressed the Seattle audience, he noted his star freshman safety, Taylor Mays. "Sorry to take your best," Carroll said, "but when we have a shot at them, we'll come in and steal them."
Such words serve as a dagger to the heart of any Husky fan. Losing premier local talent is always difficult, as evidenced by the recent painful migrations of Jonathan Stewart (to Oregon), Steve Schilling (to Michigan) and O’Dea high school’s Taylor Mays (to USC). However, Mays in particular was tough to lose. As the son of former Husky defensive tackle Stafford Mays, he was a so-called “legacy recruit.” There was a time when those types were slam-dunks for the U-Dub. It’s interesting to note that prior to selecting USC, Mays didn’t have any prior allegiance to the Trojans.
“Taylor hadn’t grown up a fan of USC,” said his father Stafford Mays recently. “He grew up as a Dawg! I took him and his brother to the Husky games when they were little.
“Initially when he was getting recruiting letters, they were coming in bunches,” he said. “Stanford and WSU were actually the first schools to contact him. Taylor had over fifty scholarship offers, and he began narrowing it down. When USC suddenly contacted him, he was really intrigued by that. He had been contacted by a lot of other schools but hadn’t heard from them. When he did, I told him how I had been in Minnesota when Pete Carroll was there. Plus, USC was in the hunt for the national championship at the time they were recruiting him.
“Taylor was gathering information and doing his own research,” he said. “He was looking at websites and checking out stadiums and past histories. He was looking at who was in the top ten, and who was strong academically. He got it down to five schools. So we went and visited those schools unofficially. He asked me what I would do. But I told him, `This is not my decision to make, this is your decision. I will guide you through the pros and cons, but ultimately it is up to you to make this life decision. You’ve done all the hard work to get to this point, so it’s your decision to take it to next level.’”
Ultimately, Taylor announced his intention to become a USC Trojan. Stafford was asked what it was like to see his son pack up and move out of the house for the first time.
“That was a bit of a sad day,” he said. “I didn’t like that day. It’s mandatory for (USC’s incoming freshmen) to go to summer school, to get acclimated to the area and the school. I thought that was a good thing. So we were making arrangements and getting Taylor ready to go. Taylor’s Mom and I flew down there to Los Angeles with him. We had two big duffel bags of his stuff to take into the dorms. We helped him through the registration process and then went out for dinner. Then the next morning, it was time for us to leave for home. We dropped him off, and watched him as he walked toward the dorms. And that was it! Our little boy had left home and was becoming a man.
“He called us pretty much every day, throughout the summer and the season,” continued Stafford. “Just to check in and see how things are. That made us feel pretty good. You see, for our family, the year 2006 was a pretty difficult time. My Mom passed away in February, and my wife’s Mom passed away in August. So Taylor had lost both of his grandmas in a short time. He had a heavy heart when he left Seattle and headed for Los Angeles. He was determined and all that type of stuff. And he kept in constant touch.”
It was a new world into which Taylor Mays emerged, and seemingly millions of miles away from O’Dea high school. Practices at USC were earmarked with Coach Carroll’s rampant enthusiasm and immense emphasis on competition. In his daily calls back to Seattle, Taylor provided updates to his Dad.
“He said that the practices were upbeat and intense,” said Stafford. “He said `Dad! There’s no time for resting! We’re going and going. I enjoy it and it’s super-competitive, but it’s non-stop.’ I also think the speed of the game was an adjustment for Taylor. The #1 thing was he did was a lot of film study—looking for the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. He had the maturity to prepare himself and make sure he was ready.”
And then came the day of October 7th, 2006, when the Washington Huskies traveled to Los Angeles to play the USC Trojans. Trailing 26-20 and positioned at the Trojan 15-yard line, the Huskies failed to get a final play off that might have won the game. It was later learned that UW offensive coordinator Tim Lappano had dialed up a passing play targeting USC’s injured freshman safety, Taylor Mays.
“He had a pinched nerve,” said Stafford of his son. “He had a stinger that went down his arm. He told me later that the pain was very intense. But he knew that if he went down on one knee, it would have been an injury timeout, and that would have given the Huskies time to regroup. So he had to get up and fight through the pain. I asked him what he was thinking about in those last few seconds, and he said that all he thought about was getting off that field and getting the pain out of his shoulder! I tell you, he stayed in the locker room a good forty minutes afterward, and I was worried, because I thought it was something serious with his shoulder. But it turned out OK.”
Stafford Mays was asked the inevitable question. In his heart of hearts, as he sat in the stands watching his alma mater play his son’s USC Trojans, whom was he rooting for?
“I’ve been asked that seven million times!” he said with a rollicking belly-laugh. “All I told everyone was that I wanted Taylor to play well and have a good game. That’s all I’m going to say! But I will say that it was weird to be in that position. I saw how it must have felt for Manu Tuiasosopo when Marques was quarterbacking the Dawgs against UCLA several years ago.”
Ultimately, the USC Trojans concluded with a superb 11-2 season and a Rose Bowl Championship. Stafford was asked to sum up his son’s freshman campaign.
“I was proud of him all year,” he said. “Taylor exceeded all expectations. It was unfortunate that (starting safety) Josh Pinkert got hurt, but Taylor was playing well in camp. I told Taylor how it’s all about stepping up when your chance comes along. We talked about game preparation and that sort of thing. He was ready when his chance came. Early in the season, he played safe and cautious so as to not make a mistake. I thought that was good. But you could see him progress with each game, and I thought it was really good. He seemed to break out after the Husky game. He was playing more freely and with more freelance and increasing confidence.
“But the turning point was the Oregon game,” said Stafford of USC’s 35-10 rout of the Ducks on November 11th. “Oregon ran a deep route down the sideline. I didn’t even see Taylor in that little dead space, that pocket he was in. He leaped up and snatched the ball out of the air, and suddenly he was running down the field, back the other way. He returned it 55 yards. He did it so fast, I didn’t even see it! I was asking, WHO’S THAT RUNNING DOWN THE FIELD? I had to look at the stadium scoreboard to see the replay of him going high to pick that ball off. That was a turning point for Taylor. After that, he suddenly seemed to have a little swagger to him on the field. I saw that in him.”
Stafford and his wife were also in attendance on January 1st, as the USC Trojans played in the Rose Bowl and defeated the Michigan Wolverines 32-18.
“That was really, really special,” he said. “It was a big deal for all of us. We were all disappointed because we had thought we were going to be in the BCS Championship Game. Losing the regular season finale to UCLA was tough. But as I told Taylor, with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart leaving USC last year, who would have thought that you guys would be in the Rose Bowl? He has a lot to be proud of. I never played in the Rose Bowl. I played in the 1979 Sun Bowl. That was great, but it wasn’t quite the same thing!”
Then Stafford paused, before concluding in a softer voice. “You know, our family had a really hard year in 2006,” he said. “But Taylor was our bright spot.”
Derek Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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