North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada. Pullman, Wash. South Bend, Ind.
Which of those cities is truly well known in college football circles?
On Saturday, Rueben Mayes, who grew up in the first and made his mark in the second, will be enshrined in the more-famous third, home of the University of Notre Dame and college football’s Hall of Fame.
It’s a journey that even his old coach wondered if Mayes would ever make.
“The big numbers by guys from schools that don’t do well team-wise seem to get overlooked,” said Jim Walden, Mayes’ coach at Washington State from 1982 through 1985, when Mayes set rushing records and was named All-American twice but the Cougars were only 20-23-1.
“That makes it even a greater honor. What he did, with whom he did it and who he did it against, is phenomenal.”
“It sends a message that anyone, if you have some athletic ability and you work really hard, you can go to a place where they coach you up, a great academic institution, and you can do great things,” is how Mayes sees his selection, announced in May of 2008. “WSU is one of those places. It’s not a big powerhouse like Nebraska or Ohio State … but it’s great that I can represent WSU in this way and give it some recognition.”
And there’s another message with Mayes’ enshrinement as well.
Besides the on-the-field accolades a player must have received, the Hall emphasizes the player’s “post-football record as a citizen” in its criteria.
And, more than a then-NCAA-record 357 rushing yards against Oregon in 1984, more than 1,637 yards he gained on the ground that year, or his 3,519 yards in his WSU career, it’s that aspect of the honor that means the most to Mayes.
“One of the key missions of the college Hall of Fame is that you are a community leader,” he said this week, “that you’ve kept your nose relatively clean, even now, post college, 15 years later. I get to be around these men that have not only been All-Americans, successful for their alma mater, but also good citizens and good leaders.
“That’s the part I feel most proud of.”
After years working at his alma mater, Mayes, 46, is now the executive director of the Sacred Heart Medical Center Foundation in Eugene, Ore., where he raises funds for the hospital’s work.
The Mayes clan, which includes wife Marie, sons Logan, 16, and Kellen, 13, has made a home in a place where Mayes was once notorious as a Cougar (he set the single-game rushing record in the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium).
Now it’s eldest son Logan who is gaining the notoriety, the junior-to-be linebacker at Marist High recently earned an award at WSU’s football camp.
“I tell him to keep focused and work hard and try to get better every day,” Mayes said, passing on a lesson learned on the longer, wider football fields of Canada.
“One of the Canadian Football League guys up in Edmonton told us he pretty well runs for a touchdown every time he touches the ball and I thought that’s pretty impressive,” Walden remembered.
But even if Mayes hadn’t held a provincial sprint record or hadn’t run for thousands of yards against overmatched competition, Walden says he still would have recruited him. It all had to do with his character.
“When he came to visit, he might have been one of the most alert, appreciative, maybe, to use an old cliché, well-mannered recruits we ever had,” the coach said.
“And he was, in fact, the perfect-looking player.”
Saturday that perfect-looking player from Saskatchewan will share the South Bend dais with Troy Aikman, Billy Cannon, Lou Holtz, Thurman Thomas and 16 others and become the third Cougar player – joining Mel Hein and Turk Edwards – to earn college football’s highest honor.
“I just feel humbled,” said Mayes, who was named to two Pro Bowls and earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in an injury-shortened, six-year NFL career, “that I am named in the same arena as a Troy Aikman or Thurman Thomas, those guys who went on to the Hall of Fame in the NFL.
“As far as college, I get to be in this elite fraternity.”