The New Orleans Saints beat the Los Angeles Rams 6-0 Sunday at the Superdome in a game that was stupefyingly dull—with one fast exception, an exciting rookie named Rueben Mayes. But first, be assured the Saints aren't throwing any wins back. And it was no skin off the Rams' horns, either. So they lost. So what? It was only the 10th game, the 10th week of the four-month regular season. The 7-3 Rams still lead the NFC West, and they've got no problems that a new day and a quarterback won't cure. The Saints, on the other hand, are 5-5 and they have to love it. Even their coach, Jim Mora, admitted the Rams are "better than us." When defensive end Bruce Clark was reminded that the Saints' next opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, was a lowly team, Clark replied, correctly, "So are we."
But one thing the Saints do have is promise. After the 10th week, that's not bad for a last-place team. And Mayes? He's a running back from North Battle-ford, Saskatchewan, a third-round pick out of Washington State, a rabbit from the boonies.
Mayes introduced himself to Ram safety Vince Newsome with 11:05 left in the second quarter. The teams had been swapping an awful malaise. It was Mayes's second carry of the game. He raced into the line with eye-catching quickness, then cut back with a fearless instinct. There was Newsome, curled up to deliver his hit. Mayes gathered, lowered and drove into Newsome, bowling him over. Well, hello. Mayes weighs 200 pounds, a class down from the well-defined 218 of the Rams' Eric Dickerson. But Mayes lit into Newsome like a Dickerson. Newsome was spun 180 degrees and flattened, but made a great play and hung onto Mayes's ankle for dear life.
The play went for 17 yards—as telling a play as either side would make on offense, other than the two second-half field goals by Morten Andersen that provided all the scoring. Mayes finished the bruising contest with 73 yards in 24 carries, topping Dickerson's 21 for 57. The fleurs-de-lis were flying around Dicker-son all day. Linebackers Rickey Jackson and Sam Mills and corners Johnnie Poe and Dave Waymer were delighted with the Rams' lack of a passing game. They may have chased Dickerson to the Rams' awaiting plane.
November 17, 1986
But it was no day at the beach for Mayes, either. The Rams don't lead the NFC in fewest yards allowed for nothing, so Mayes sat being iced for 15 minutes after the game ended. And later, he was full of pride. "You don't become a professional anything without working at it," he said. "I'm learning something with every game, with every run. Today, I learned patience."
Mayes had just outgained the leading rusher in the league, but he didn't think it was a big deal. He takes the whole scene like a hardened vet. To Mayes, it's all going according to plan. When he was 13, Mayes decided he wanted to be an NFL running back, a goal not unlike that of about a million other 13-year-olds. But Mayes made it work. A native of a small Canadian town who makes it big in the NFL? Well, they say the smaller the place, the bigger the dreams. Mayes had his sports fantasies in North Battleford (pop. 15,000); he grew up during the reign of Hugh Campbell's Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL, and he played the 12-man Canadian game at school. Though talented, he got just one offer to play Division I in the United States, and that only because his high school coach sent a tape of Mayes to Campbell, who sent the news along to Jim Walden, the coach at Washington State, Campbell's alma mater. The rest is WSU history.
"I was raw but I had good, quick feet. And I wanted it," says Mayes, one of a family of five girls and two boys. According to Rueben, in 1910 his great-grandparents, who were former slaves, helped to found the first black community in Saskatchewan. In one sense Rueben feels he has come full circle. "It's ironic that I'm back in the South," he says. "The Mayes family almost starved that first winter in Canada. We're hearty, driven folk."
Those are the kind of people required for Rueben's favorite sport—ice fishing on Turtle Lake, which is 60 miles north of Battleford. He likes to fish there in the dead of winter, when it's 30 or 40 degrees below zero. "You can't beat the weather," says Mayes. "So you learn to adapt, to cope with it." He is also learning how to deal with life in the South. "The South is, well, the South," he says. "It's different. I was raised in a white society. The color of my skin was something I didn't worry about. Here, blacks and whites are separate." And, there is the language barrier. "People tell me I have a funny accent," he says. "But when those old Cajuns get to talking, you have no idea what they're saying."
Rueben's father, Murray, runs an auto body shop in North Battleford, where local allegiances had shifted toward the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL in the post-Campbell era. Then somebody pointed a satellite dish in the direction of Pac-10 telecasts. Mayes was doing all right over there at Washington State in Walden's split-veer offense. He had a 357-yard game against Oregon. He was the second player drafted by the CFL this year. By the Saskatchewan Roughriders, at that.
Yet Mayes barely gave it a thought. Did the Riders come up short in challenge or contract? "Both," says Mayes.
He was drafted by the Saints in the third round, the 13th running back chosen. Mayes had been stigmatized by the split-veer. Even the Saints saw him as a plugger, a short-yardage straight-ahead type who might work out if he was durable and could catch the ball.
Well, he could catch it. But what he could really do was run with it. "I think I opened eyes at minicamp with my cutbacks," he says. "And hey, I wasn't completely unknown. I made All-America my junior year." Yes, and he finished 10th for the Heisman Trophy that year. All that and a buck gets him a ride on a subway, but not into the NFL. His ability to run did that. Right away, he proved himself better than fellow rookie Dalton Hilliard, the Saints' second-round pick from LSU. Now Mayes bids to become one of the running back elite. He is a sure bet to be the Saints' most productive runner since George Rogers in 1983. Now we know why a battered Earl Campbell could retire and not look back. He had seen Mayes run.
"Rueben has very deceptive speed—he's fast out of the blocks," says Saints guard Chuck Commiskey. "He can use his blocks and let things develop and still hit it quick. As far as him being drafted in the third round, I knew a guy named Wilbert Montgomery who was a sixth-round pick. The big question about Rueben was that nobody really knew him, coming from Washington State and all."
"I'm not out there thinking I've got something to prove," Mayes says. "So I'm from Canada. No big deal. I'm just another player. The Rams hit hard. They all do. I don't want to remember the big hits. I want to remember the big runs. I guess between me and Eric today, it was a little bit of a duel. You kind of want to show that you are a good, quality running back, too."
Mora thinks Mayes is not as finished a product as he would be if he had played high school football in this country. He has room to grow. "I had all the athletic ability when I came WSU," says Mayes. "True, I was raw. But my running back coach at Washington State, Gary Gagnon, would always tell me, 'Die hard when you're running with the ball, Rueben. Die hard.' "
There's another NFL running back from a school way off somewhere in the boonies who took it to heart when his old college coach told him to die hard when he ran with the ball. Guy named Payton. "I admire Walter Payton," says Mayes. "I'm not in his league." Oh, but you are, Rueben. And it's not a dream anymore. It's the 11th week.