Taylor Mays, an All-American, All-Pac-10 USC safety, is pegged as fast and physical in NFL scouting reports. Known for his intense, hard-hitting play and his blazing speed, he has the ability to go sideline-to-sideline, chase down opponents and deliver crushing blows. He runs a 4.25-second 40-yard dash, and in 2008 he made 53 tackles and a team-high nine deflections.
Mays is pumped up for his final L.A. showdown against cross-town rival UCLA Bruins at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 28. While the 7-3 USC Trojans have had a less impressive year than expected, they are in bowl contention. And regardless of the teams’ records, the USC-UCLA game is always intense and usually close.
“It’s an important rivalry, a big rivalry,” Mays said. “Players play with emotions and anything can happen.”
A projected first-round draft pick and Jim Thorpe Award finalist, Mays is described as tough, smart, talented and a leader.
USC’s 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive back has a love of football that can be traced back to his February 2001 football-themed bar mitzvah party.
“That party was crackin’,” said Mays, whose mother, Laurie, is Jewish.
Mays, a Seattle native, has a reputation for being one of the most devastating safeties in the NCAA, but in person he’s polite, kind and has an easy smile. Clearly driven, he’s quick to reference his close family ties and solid upbringing when discussing his goal to play pro ball — an opportunity he recently turned down in order to complete a degree at USC.
Mays attended Sunday school starting at a young age and continued with Hebrew school twice a week. Although he attended a Catholic high school, he identifies with being Jewish and cherishes the holidays he spent with his maternal grandparents. “We celebrated Chanukah, Passover and Yom Kippur always,” he said.
“I have good examples in my life, people who have worked hard and accomplished things, and made me want to work hard and accomplish things,” said Mays, whose mother is an executive vice president at Nordstrom and whose father, Stafford, is a former NFL defensive lineman turned Microsoft executive. “I’m trying to provide the right example, do things right all the time and take advantage of every opportunity I have to get better.”
Mays was doing just that when The Journal caught up with him on a crisp November day out on the USC practice field. With the Trojan marching band finishing rehearsal in the distance, coach Pete Carroll blew the whistle on practice for the night, and the team headed to the locker room. Except for Mays, who stayed to continue working on his own. He’s the first to say he’s never completely content with his play and constantly strives to achieve more. It’s that work ethic and dedication that personifies Mays. He spends hours in the weight room, watching tapes and studying the game. He laughs off questions about outside interests like music and movies, saying football is his priority and holds his complete attention.
“I’m really focused on trying to finish the football season strong; it’s important for me to finish this right,” said Mays, who earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors on Oct. 3 after his end-zone interception against Cal.
Mays shocked many with his decision not to enter the 2009 NFL draft, and instead return to USC for his senior year. People questioned his decision to turn down millions in order to play another year at the college level, but for Mays it was the right thing.
“Following my heart, that’s what got me to the point I’m at,” he said.
Mays stayed to improve his game, increase his skill set, add more interceptions to his record and act as a leader to his younger teammates. And he says the decision to complete his higher education wasn’t the direct result of his mom’s Jewish guilt. “It was important to my mom that I finish school, and she was happy that I was doing the most to maximize myself, but my family wanted me to make the decision for myself.”
While earning his sociology degree may not be the first thing on his mind during the football season, Mays knows it’s something he’ll value in the long term. It also sends a strong message to his growing fan base. With few Jewish athletes in professional sports, Mays’ entrance into the NFL would turn him into an instant role model for Jewish kids. It’s a role he’s ready to embrace, one he’s proud and excited to take on. He acknowledges the small number of Jewish athletes in the spotlight and feels lucky that he’ll have that opportunity.
“I’m fortunate,” he said, smiling at the idea of young Jewish athletes looking up to him. “Just by playing football I’m able to reach out to people and affect people other than myself; you have to take responsibility for that. When you have that blessing you have to take advantage of it.”
As a Jewish athlete who turned down an NFL contract to get his degree, Mays has his sound-bite advice ready.
“It’s OK to be different. Sometimes doing the different thing is the right thing,” he said.
He hopes to help kids feel comfortable and proud about who they are and the choices they make — just as Mays is clearly happy with his choice to return to USC.
“Being at peace with yourself, so you don’t have regrets ... it’s important,” he said.