LOS ANGELES -- Taylor Mays doesn't remember the exact moment he decided to forfeit millions of dollars and an NFL career (for a year, anyway) to return to USC. He didn't wake up one morning and have an epiphany. There wasn't a sole moment, reason or motive behind one of the most surprising decisions of the college football offseason. The Trojans were no strangers to surprises this winter, of course. Mays' teammate Mark Sanchez left USC after just 16 starts at quarterback, prompting coach Pete Carroll to openly critique the decision.
"You thought it would be the other way around, right?" Carroll said, referencing the commonly held belief Sanchez would return and Mays would go pro. "Well, Taylor was emotionally connected to the school differently than Mark was. He was much more comfortable here and wanted to stay here where Mark was compelled to leave. He was emotionally different than Mark. Taylor is a lot like Matt Leinart in that they didn't want to go even when everyone thought they should."
Walking around the sun-soaked campus with Mays as thousands of students prepare to squeeze into their new cramped quarters on move-in day, it's easy to see why. You wouldn't ask someone why he or she decided to spend an extra week in Hawaii, and this is Mays' own paradise.
There's a certain care-free simplicity to being "the big man on campus" that a million-dollar NFL contract can't buy. Mays found that out by consulting former USC players like Lawrence Jackson and Willie McGinest about whether to go pro. "They told me that there's nothing like playing in college," said Mays. "They said the NFL will always be there but that you only have one chance to play in college." Right now, Mays could be a millionaire trudging through NFL training camp, fighting for playing time and coping with rookie hazing. Instead, he's laying out underclassman during scrimmages, signing autographs for kids on the sidelines and chatting up the USC Song Girls after practice.
"I didn't really come back to walk through campus and have all the girls," Mays said with a smile. "I mean, that's cool, but I came for football."
Yes, the girls are cool, as Mays showed when he filmed a segment with the Song Girls in the offseason. In a YouTube clip destined to become a recruiting tool, Mays chatted up each girl on the squad as he went through practice with them, attempting a full split stretch and high kicks. "I'm their biggest fan," said Mays. "I like to talk to them during games." He's been known to dedicate a hit or two to them during games, too.
"He's got hits for the Song Girls, he's got hits for the Spirit Leaders, he's got hits for his mom, his girlfriend, he's crazy," said senior safety Will Harris, who used to room with Mays. "He'll let them know before and after. I've seen a couple of them and all I can say are actions speak louder than words."
As much as Mays likes to play for the Song Girls and Spirit Leaders, he admits he's as singularly focused off the field as on. He is currently dating Paige Obradovich, a sophomore on the USC women's volleyball team whom he met on campus after he decided to return to school in January. Mays has taught Obradovich about protein shakes and tackling running backs ("She knows how to cover a deep ball, too," he said.), and Obradovich has forced Mays to go to the beach and into the water for the first time in his life. "It was crazy at first, with the waves going over my head," he said. "I thought I was going to drown, but it was cool. I might have to take it easy until the season is over. I don't want to get hurt out there. Coach Carroll would kill me."
Mays' demeanor when talking with friends and teammates belies the 6-foot-3, 235 pound wrecking ball that college football fans have become accustomed to seeing on Saturdays. His bone-jarring hits and knack for getting involved in every play no matter where he lines up has drawn comparisons to Sean Taylor, the late Washington Redskins safety who was Mays' favorite player. Taylor's jersey hangs in Mays' closet, a framed picture of him hangs on Mays' wall and Taylor's number, 21, is written on Mays' arm before every game. "I looked up to him ever since he was in Miami," said Mays. "He's a big safety who could run and hit. I'd like to be compared to him one day."
The thing is, there really is no comparison. No one with Mays' size should run and move as fast as he does. Everyone on the Trojans, including speedy tailback Joe McKnight, agrees Mays is the fastest player on the team. He's been clocked at 4.25 in the 40-yard dash and possesses a 41-inch vertical leap. When he trains back home in Seattle in the offseason, the gym he goes to has to remove a couple of ceiling tiles so he can go through jumping drills without knocking them out. USC strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle said the only time he's seen anything that big move and jump like Mays was when he walked past the cheetah cage at a wildlife park. "I've never seen anyone like him," Carlisle said. "Never."
Turns out comparing Mays to a cat is appropriate, because some of his teammates swear they hear one when they talk to him. "His favorite word is 'meow'," said Harris. "He meows at everyone. It's funny because he'll do it anywhere, at anytime. You'll be talking and all of a sudden -- meow." During tense situations, Mays will whisper a meow in his teammates' ears. "I just like to give them a little meow," said Mays, who didn't get his catch phrase from the movie Super Troopers but is familiar with the famous scene now. "It throws people off. They always wonder where it comes from."
Just like his decision to stay, instead of cashing in as a top 10 draft pick. "I had always said I was going to leave, that I was going to be a three-and-out guy, and then halfway through last season I began to think that I should stay," said Mays. "I know that a lot of people were surprised because I had the attitude that I wanted to leave. It was tough, but it's going to come soon enough." Some players receive pressure to turn pro early so they can support their families, but Taylor's father, Stafford, a former NFL defensive lineman who is now an executive at Microsoft, and his mother, Laurie, an executive at Nordstrom, left the decision up to him.
Not everyone was so supportive. Mays' good friend and former roommate Brian Cushing, who was selected with the 15th overall pick by Houston and who has since signed a five-year, $14 million contract, constantly reminds Mays of his decision. "Cush just bought a nice house and a Porsche Cayenne," said Mays, who lives by himself in a one-bedroom apartment off-campus and drives a Cadillac CTS. "He sends me pictures of it, and I'm like, where's mine? He owes me all this money from when we were roommates and he used to steal my clothes. I almost had to stop being friends with him because he stole my Sean Taylor jersey and wore it out. I almost had to take him out for that."
Cushing may have the Porsche, but Mays wants something money can't buy. He wants to earn an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, and he wants to win a national title.
"This is my last chance," Mays said. "I feel like I'm on a stage and this is my last chance to leave a lasting impression. I want to leave a final stamp on my career that everyone will remember."