Shiloh Baptist Church stands beside a gravel road that winds through the rapeseed fields north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan, deep in the Canadian heartland. A one-room log structure, it was erected in the early 1900s by black immigrants from the U.S. Out back, tiger lilies grow among the rows and rows of white crosses that mark the graves of the settlers.
This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1987 issue
Inside, a framed photograph of Mattie Mayes in a flowered skirt and lace-collared shirt hangs where the altar used to be. She was a midwife, a spiritual leader and educator of the Shiloh people. Her husband, Joe Mayes, was the minister of the church. Their great-grandson, Rueben Mayes, is a running back for the New Orleans Saints. He is imbued with their relentless spirit.
"Their ideals were always held up to me," says Mayes. "I was taught that because I was black, I'd have two strikes against me before I even got up to bat. But I was also taught that I was a Mayes, and being a Mayes means always doing your best."
Last season being a Mayes meant being Rookie of the Year in the NFL and leading all first-year players in rushing with 1,353 yards. The league's fourth-leading ground-gainer, he would have played in the Pro Bowl had he not undergone Achilles-tendon surgery in late December. Not bad for someone who was only the 13th running back taken in the draft and the second chosen by New Orleans. (The Saints drafted LSU's Dalton Hilliard in the second round, Mayes in the third.)
"Rueben had a big impact on the club before he even gained a single yard," says Saints general manager Jim Finks. "After he was drafted, he moved to New Orleans and practiced with the team—without a contract. Finding a draft choice who will do that these days is almost unheard of. That made a big impression."
Mayes may be Canada's most popular homegrown athlete—after Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, of course. Mayes certainly is the best known Canadian-born pro football player to compete in the U.S. since Bronko Nagurski starred for the Bears in the '30s. Last February, Mayes's hometown of North Battleford held Rueben Mayes Day, complete with posters, banners, plaques and a testimonial from Mayor Glenn Hornick, who personally sold many of the more than 1,000 tickets.
"Every Sunday all of North Battleford is tuned to the Saints game," Hornick says. "I probably shouldn't say this, but our local cable station pirates signals. We've seen almost every pro game Rueben has played."
Situated 85 miles northwest of Saskatoon on the Yellowhead Route, North Battleford is primarily a service center for the surrounding agricultural community. A towering statue of a Mountie stands before the chamber of commerce building, a few doors down from the bingo parlor. Of the 15,000 residents, fewer than 20 are black.
Mayes mentions his upbringing every chance he gets. "I don't care how successful I am," he says. "I will always be the guy wearing jeans and a baseball cap, the one driving a Jeep. I'll always be the kid from North Battleford."
In other words, it looks as though he'll always be a guy with small-town wants and small-town values. A devout Christian who doesn't smoke, drink or have anything to do with drugs. A man with a strong work ethic who sets lofty goals and realizes them.
To wit: Mayes played last season with a frayed Achilles tendon. He had two hours of treatment each day and took Advil before every practice and game. "I held my breath every time he carried the ball," says Dean Kleinschmidt, the Saints' trainer. "If the tendon had ruptured, his career could have been over."
Above all, though, Mayes is devoted to his family. Last spring he insisted that his mother, Marie, visit him for a week at his off-season apartment in Pullman, Wash. He wanted to get to know her better. "She took care of me," he says. "She cooked dinners for me. I can't remember the last time we spent a week together—alone. We got so close.
"I understand the history of the Mayes family," he continues. "I'm not a romantic about it, but I respect everything my family has gone through to make life better for me."
Mattie was born in 1849 on a plantation near Atlanta. While her family toiled in the cotton fields, Mattie, who was named for the master's wife, waited table in the main house. Her primary job was shooing flies from the food.
After the Civil War, Mattie's family moved to Tennessee, where she met and married Joe, a Baptist minister, with whom she had 13 children. They traveled west with the land rush and settled near Edna, Okla., on Horse Creek. However, sometime after the turn of the century racial tensions began to build. At the same time the Canadian government was trying to entice Americans to move north of the border by advertising cheap land in U.S. newspapers. Then a flood ruined the Mayeses' cotton and sugarcane crops. So in 1909 the family packed their wagons and set off for Tulsa. There they boarded a train bound for barren Battleford, then the capital of the Northwest Territories. The Mayeses filed for a 160-acre homestead near Maidstone.
The congregation referred to itself as the Shiloh people. According to the Bible, after the enslaved Israelites fled Egypt in search of the Promised Land, they stopped at a town called Shiloh. In Hebrew, shiloh means place of rest.
In 1912, after several hundred blacks had settled in Saskatchewan, the Canadian government began discouraging black immigration. It even sent agents to Oklahoma to warn blacks of Canada's harsh winters. "My great-grandparents didn't want to deal with the slavery attitudes anymore," says Mayes. "But not long after they got to Canada, they faced more hostility. People didn't know what blacks were all about. They almost starved that first winter."
Life wasn't much better two generations later for some of the Mayeses. Rueben's father, Murray, spent part of his childhood in a one-room sod house on a corner of his uncle's farm. He sometimes went to bed hungry. "I had nightmares," Murray recalls. "We only had 12 chickens to live off. We'd go for days without bread. By spring, our vegetable supply would be depleted."
Severe winters kept Murray from walking the three miles to school; the family couldn't afford shoes or heavy coats. "After the Christmas program, we didn't see our friends until spring," Murray says. He finally managed to complete sixth grade before dropping out to work in construction.
When Murray was 31, he married Linda Mae (Marie) Weisbrodt, 17, the foster daughter of his aunt. Marie never met her real parents, though she was told her mother was a white German Lutheran and her father a black French Canadian. "I disliked my natural mother," says Marie. "I knew there couldn't be anything that hard that would have prevented her from raising me."
Today Murray is the manager of Mayes Auto Body Shop on 110th Street in North Battleford. Radiators are his specialty. A small man with a thin mustache, Murray never goes anywhere without a hat and a smile. Marie is a tall, muscular woman who is as comfortable with a fishing rod as she is with a frying pan. She's spunky and sassy. She also is a house manager at a center for emotionally disturbed children.
Rueben, the oldest of Murray and Marie's seven children, was a mischievous tyke. He once teased his mother with a rubber snake, and she smashed through the front door in fright. "I cut my behind and had to get stitches," she says. "I went after him."
All the Mayes children have worked in their father's shop, sweeping floors, changing oil and helping with the books. On Friday nights the family would pile into the body shop's van and drive to track meets. Rueben's first involvement with sports came at age 10, when he joined the North Battleford Legion Track Club. With little training, he won nearly every event he entered, setting a number of provincial records.
Murray and Marie separated when Rueben was 14 and later were divorced. Marie insisted that Rueben live with his father. His five sisters and one brother remained with her. "I never gave him the chance to decide," says Marie. "Rueben was at an age when he needed his father."
Both parents worked hard to give the children a feeling of family. They took turns hauling them to the Dairy Queen after track meets and on fishing trips to the Saskatchewan River. But Rueben's sister Charlotte, 22, says living four blocks from her brother was much too great a distance. "I missed him," she says. "I saw him at school every day, but I always felt I was missing something, missing watching him grow up."
Says Rueben, "It hurt. But I couldn't dwell on it. I told myself someday I'd get to know my sisters and brother."
At 15, Rueben was a scrawny, 5'9", 135-pound sophomore running back for North Battleford Comprehensive high school. The Vikings were looked upon as country boys and didn't play in the big-city leagues of Saskatoon and Prince Albert. Coach Don Hodgins had to beg for opponents. Weeks would pass without games. Then suddenly the Vikings would play two games in one weekend. They would take six-hour bus rides across the prairies to places like Moose Jaw and Swift Current. Mayes carried his equipment in a plastic garbage bag. The players taped themselves.
"We played on fields with no grass," says Garth Link, an assistant coach. "In Humboldt there were 40-mile-an-hour winds and silt flying everywhere. We had to take players off the field between series and wash out their eyes." By October, the Vikings were tackling snowdrifts and frigid temperatures. Under his helmet Mayes wore a wool cap, and beneath his uniform he wore long Johns.
In his junior year Mayes led the Vikings to the Provincial AAA championship by rushing for 280 yards and three touchdowns in a 46-10 victory over Regina Central Collegiate. James Maher, then the mayor of North Battleford, presented the Vikings with certificates at city hall. Maher, who was in his 70's and hard of hearing, went on and on about how the baseball team had made the city so proud. "The kids were confused, but I thought it was funny," says Link. "It was such a small town, winning the championship was no big deal."
To Mayes, however, it was a big deal, because provincial renown in football gave him a reason to work harder. A college scholarship in the States would be his only way out of North Battleford. "I knew unless I wanted to grow up and work in the body shop with my father, I had to get out," Mayes says. "And I knew I needed a lot of help from some guardian angels."
Thanks to a strength program devised by Link, Mayes put on 20 pounds before his senior year. Weightlifting in the high school gym usually started at 6 a.m., even on 45-below-zero mornings. "I would back the car down the driveway, and the tires would be square," says Mayes. "I would go thump, thump, thump to school."
The task of finding a scholarship for Mayes fell to Hodgins, who called the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL for help. Worried that Mayes would never return to Canada, they didn't offer any. Saskatoon sportscasters predicted he would fail in the States. "Running backs are a dime a dozen down there," said one on TV. Said another, "Mayes will be lost in the crowd."
Hodgins spent five months and hundreds of dollars calling American universities on Rueben's behalf. "Schools had no idea where we were," he says. "When I'd tell the coaches Rueben could run a 4.4 40, they laughed and asked if it was a legitimate 4.8. They called me a liar."
Unfortunately, Hodgins couldn't support his superlatives with game films. Once, he got a Saskatoon television station to tape a night game, but the effort turned out to be a waste of time. "The film was so dark, and the camera was so far away that the players were nothing but dots," Hodgins says. "You couldn't tell who was who."
The only schools that displayed real interest in Mayes were North Dakota, Drake and Northwestern, but the NCAA signing date passed without any scholarship offers. Frustrated and desperate, Hodgins called Hugh Campbell, coach of the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos. Campbell had been an All-America receiver at Washington State, and on this day he was in his office with Bob Padilla, a former assistant coach at State. One thing led to another and two weeks later Mayes had a scholarship to Washington State.
"We couldn't recruit like USC, UCLA and Stanford," says Gary Gagnon, then the Cougars' running back coach. "We had to hunt and peck and take the kids no one else wanted. Pullman is not an easy place to sell."
However, it was the right place for Mayes because, like North Battleford, it is rural and unthreatening. Located in southeastern Washington, Pullman is between the Rockies and the wheat fields. Washington State's 16,000-member student body is the largest concentration of people for 75 miles. Being there reminded Mayes of home, especially on spring afternoons when he would fish for rainbow trout in nearby streams, and on cold, still winter nights when he would stand in his driveway and count the stars.
Gagnon spent hours and hours going over defenses and basic running techniques with Mayes. "We called him Wrong Way Mayes," says Kerry Porter, who played in the same backfield with Mayes and was drafted this year by the Buffalo Bills. "Rueben could never keep the plays straight."
Gagnon didn't give up. "It took Rueben longer to mature than a kid who had grown up with the game," Gagnon says. "He wasn't very good when we got him. But he was such a driver, such a worker, that in the end he surpassed kids who had had more talent as freshmen."
Mayes blossomed in his junior year, setting an NCAA single-game rushing record with 357 yards against Oregon and gaining 1,637 overall to finish second in the country (to Ohio State's Keith Byars). Mayes was named All-America, Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, Saskatchewan Male Athlete of the Year and Canada's Outstanding Black Male Athlete.
All the awards and honors inspired Mayes to work harder than ever. Enter Rick Sloan, Washington State's assistant track coach and a former Olympic decathlete. Mayes had noticed Sloan, now 40, working out at the track. "Everybody in Pullman thought Rick was nuts, he put himself through so much torture," Mayes says. "But I figured that's what I needed to make the NFL."
Sloan ran Mayes ragged. He put him through three-hour workouts twice a day. In addition to sprint drills, Mayes lifted weights, rode an exercise bike, ran the stadium steps, jogged, and then ran the dreaded College Hill as many as eight times at a crack. Playing for the 4-7 Cougars as a senior, Mayes ran for 1,236 yards to lead the Pac-10 in rushing and was again named its Offensive Player of the Year. He finished sixth on the conference's career rushing list with 3,519 yards.
It is 5:30 a.m. on the Louisiana bayou, 15 miles east of New Orleans. A vibrant red sun cuts through the puffs of black smoke from a nearby marsh fire. Mayes steers the small fishing boat past the blackened hulls of abandoned shrimp boats and the imposing brick walls of Fort Macomb. He enters Chef Menteur, the busy channel between Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain.
Mr. Barney, who owns the docks where the boat was launched, has promised Mayes that the speckled trout will be biting today. "They've pulled out 165,000 pounds in the last five weeks," he says. Mr. Barney also claims he has a 14-foot, 800-pound pet alligator named Big Bertha. "We brush her teeth with a toothbrush," he says with a chuckle. "My grandson, Little Barney, rides her."
For the next five hours, Mayes ties minnows and shrimp to his line. No luck. Don Brewer, a New Orleans policeman and the owner of the skiff, reels in a 14-incher. The guys in the surrounding boats are pulling 'em in hand over fist. "I've never been skunked," Mayes says, shaking his head.
Last season he spent hours sitting on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, which was right outside his apartment. He often was up before the sun. "That's when the fish are feeding," he says. He was lakeside at dusk, too. Mayes ate only one meal in the French Quarter all season.
"Early in the year he hardly caught anything," says Bobby Hebert, the Saints' quarterback. "He couldn't figure out what he was doing wrong. We all laughed at him because we knew he was fishing in the wrong places."
Mayes's luck improved when Hebert and running back Hokie Gajan, who grew up in the bayous, took him fishing in the marshes of Golden Meadow, La. They also introduced him to some of their Cajun friends and relatives. Mayes liked being with these people, whose ancestors came from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. He exchanged Joe-and-Mattie stories with them. "I had the darndest time understanding those Cajuns," says Mayes.
Says Hebert, "And they were mesmerized by this black kid with his Canadian accent."
To Mayes, the best part about fishing isn't hooking the big one. Rather, he enjoys rocking softly in the water as he watches the sun come up and mulls over how fortunate he is. Thanks to a signing bonus and performance incentives, Mayes earned $325,000 last season, nearly double his salary. He's putting Charlotte through the University of Saskatoon; she wants to be a veterinarian. He's helping another sister, Lesa, 19, who's at York University in Toronto; she hopes to make the 1988 Canadian Olympic team in the heptathlon. The loan on his mother's car has been paid off. And his father's auto body shop, which went bankrupt a few years ago, has a new benefactor.
"When Rueben was home at Christmas," Murray says, "he ran out of checks." Mayes plans to fly both parents to New Orleans for a game this season. Marie hasn't seen him play football since his high school days.
"I enjoy the finer things, like fishing, peace and quiet, and close friends," Mayes says. "I'm happy and thankful for what I have, and I never do anything halfheartedly. When I was growing up, my family gave me everything they had. Now it's my turn to help them, and I really enjoy doing it. I wouldn't be where I am today without them."