HoF is great, but a higher honor awaits Mayes

YOU'D HAVE NEVER known he'd just set an almost unimaginable NCAA rushing record. In a wild shootout over Oregon in Eugene, Washington State's Rueben Mayes slashed, dashed and rumbled for 357 yards. Through nothing more than happenstance, I was there that day -- my first and only trip ever to Autzen Stadium -- and wound up interviewing Rueben in the Cougar locker room afterward.

He was surrounded by reporters. And Cougar players, fueled by the dramatic 50-41 victory, were hootin' and hollerin'. The place was downright chaotic.

Yet Rueben looked like a picture of tranquility. He answered questions thoughtfully, humbly, articulately. He looked almost embarrassed to be the center of attention.

And every time, in every way possible, that he was asked to describe what it was like to achieve something no other running back in history -- not Red Grange or Jim Thorpe, Archie Griffin or Tony Dorsett -- had done, he came back to the same theme.

All the credit belonged to the offensive line.

Each sentence he uttered seemed to include a reference to those glorious hosses up front.

On the left side there was tackle Jamie White and guard Dan Lynch. On the right, Mike Dreyer at tackle and Kirk Samuelson at guard. Curt Ladines was the center and Vince Leighton the tight end.

To this day, Rich Brooks probably has flashbacks of them whenever he sees a draw play unfolding.


Lynch, who along with Mayes would be named first-team All-American that season, was beaming on that wet and overcast October day in 1984. Dan and I had been pledge brothers in the ATO house, so he made a beeline my direction when I walked in the locker room.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. After I explained that I had snagged a spare press pass and hitched a ride with one of my colleagues at the Tri-City Herald who was covering the game, he asked if I knew Rueben had broken the single-game rushing record.

Aside from saying hello to you and Dreyer (offensive lineman Mark, also an old ATO buddy), that's why I'm in here, I explained to Dan -- to get some quotes from Rueben for the story my Tri-City Herald compatriot is writing.

Danny talked about the day the way a golfer describes a round of brilliant drives off the tee. "We were blowing them off the line four or five yards on every play."

Indeed. Mark Rypien handed Mayes the ball 39 times that day. Rueben averaged a mind-numbing 9.2 yards per carry.

Danny proceeded to grab Rueben by a shoulder pad -- even though reporters were already huddled around -- and tell him he needed to talk with me.

Mayes sounded apologetic being in the glow of the spotlight. The line made such massive holes, he said earnestly, darn near anybody could have piled up that yardage. His biggest challenge was deciding which path to daylight he wanted to take.

The guy was so genuine, so down-to-earth, so clearly a team player. It was like he stepped out of central casting to play the role of the greatest guy who ever put on a uniform.


He said he didn't have a clue during the game how many yards he was amassing and didn't learn until sometime in the fourth quarter that he was nearing some sort of record.

I've never forgotten that day in Eugene.

The game itself was a donnybrook. The rushing record was historic. But above all, Rueben Mayes stood out as the embodiment of class. He showed himself to be the type of teammate every kid in every sport in the land should have on his side.

When news arrived two weeks ago that Rueben had been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, my mind instantly was transported back to Autzen Stadium in 1984.

Breathtaking is the only way to describe what Mayes -- and his offensive line -- did on the field that day. But it represented just one of many milestones he achieved while at WSU. He led the Pac-10 in rushing as a junior and a senior, earning conference player of the year honors both seasons. He was tenth in Heisman Trophy voting. He beat the Huskies three times, and finished his career as WSU's all-time leading rusher (3,519 yards).

This lightly recruited athlete from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, went on to become NFL Rookie of the Year with the Saints and earned two Pro Bowl invitations before injuries forced him out of the game after six NFL seasons.

After retiring from the Seahawks, he continued to make a distinctive mark. First, as a tireless advocate for improving the educational opportunities available to-risk youngsters in the Seattle area. And later, right on up to today, spreading the crimson gospel as a fundraiser for the WSU Foundation.

On and off the field, Rueben has served Washington State with distinction, humility and integrity. He's a role model in so many ways.

And now he's headed to the Hall of Fame in South Bend, where only three other Cougars reside –-- Mel Hein, Turk Edwards and Babe Hollingbery. That's an honor of a lifetime.

It's not, however, an honor bestowed on him by the school he loves. It's national recognition divined by a national panel of judges.

Now WSU needs to honor Rueben in its own way. In a way reserved only for the best of the best -- the truly special individuals whose contributions are more than the sum of the parts.

Like Jack Thompson and Mel Hein -- the only Cougar footballers to have their numbers retired -- Rueben Mayes is a Cougar legend whose uncommon spirit and record of achievement transcends generations and withstands the test of time.

Retiring numbers, however, is a practice that WSU and most major-conference schools have discontinued because of the high demand for popular numbers by incoming recruits.

And that's OK, because Rueben Mayes -- like Hein, Edwards, Thompson, Hollinbery and Lone Star Dietz -- deserves more.

A row of bronze busts, or something similar, placed prominently inside the remodeled Martin Stadium, seems only fitting -- a visible, tangible reminder of the grit and determination that so defines the Cougar Nation.

So when you're sending in those donations for the stadium upgrade, throw in an extra $250 to help hire a sculptor.

As a player and a person, Rueben is among the elite. Casting him in bronze would make it official. And that's an honor that even trumps induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

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