Heather Schlenger knew all about the hunger that burns within her little brother, Texas State linebacker David Mayo, but it was reinforced when she paid a visit to Mayo at Santa Monica (Calif.) Junior College in 2011.
“He was actually living in a shed,” Schlenger recalled.
That, Mayo believed, was the price he’d have to pay to get to the NFL.
“This has been my dream since I was in third grade and started playing football for the first time,” Mayo, the second-leading tackler at the FBS level, said this week. “My third-grade season, I remember thinking, ‘This sport is really hard. I don’t understand what’s going on.’ I remember my mom asking me one day at the end of the season, ‘Do you think you’re going to play again next season?’ I said, ‘I’ll give it one more shot.’ Fourth grade came and it just clicked with me and I had a blast playing. Ever since then, I thought I was going to go pro in my head. That was just my mind-set. I believed in myself and that’s pretty much carried on throughout my career. Through high school, I played my heart out and I thought I was going to be good enough to play Division I football.”
Not everybody did, though. He was an all-state player at Scappoose (Ore.) High School. Oregon and Oregon State, however, didn’t show a bit of interest. Southern Oregon, an NAIA powerhouse, offered Mayo a full-ride scholarship — much to the delight of his family, of which Mayo is the youngest of seven children.
“We just grew up working hard,” Schlenger said. “We weren’t well off. We never felt like we needed anything but we worked hard for everything. We worked with our dad (who was a contractor) growing up. We were digging ditches and helping him build whatever he was building or remodeling or whatever. We just worked hard, so school and sports were a break. ...
“Our parents were working hard to pay the bills so it was, ‘You do what you do and work really hard at it and that’s the expectation.’ I knew at an early age that, with six brothers and sisters, I’m not going to get any help so I knew I had to be valedictorian if I wanted to go to college because that was the only way it was going to get paid for.”
For Mayo, football would be that ticket to a scholarship. However, Mayo was thinking bigger. He believed in himself and believed in his dreams. He wasn’t going to settle for a good situation when he saw greatness down the road. That driven personality came from being the youngest child in a family of achievers. One brother was an All-American rugby player. Another is an officer in the Army. Another is serving in Afghanistan.
So, instead of Southern Oregon, he went to Santa Monica in hopes that a Division I door would open.
“I think it was something about growing up that instilled confidence in myself,” Mayo said. “All my siblings and my parents think that I’m the greatest thing to ever hit the football field, so that helps a little bit. It’s really about believing in yourself. There’s people who doubted me and didn’t think I was good enough to play at the levels I’ve played. I think that’s fueled me even more. It pushed me to prove people wrong and prove that my belief in myself is real.”
That meant one tough year away from home. Looking for a place to stay in Santa Monica, a “crazy expensive” city to live, Mayo found a woman who was renting a space in her house. Then she offered something else.
“Yeah, it was definitely a shed,” Mayo said after being relayed his sister’s comments.
Four walls, a roof and a concrete floor. No insulation or electricity. It sounds like the home for a lawnmower and wheelbarrow.
“We stuck a bed in there and a little ottoman and said, ‘Let’s go!’ It was an experience, to say the least,” Mayo said.
Along with football and school, Mayo paid the bills by working at a church within walking distance every Sunday. Electricity to power a lamp, stay warm in the winter and charge his computer and phone came from an extension cord.
Why? Why put up with all of this? Why not just succumb to everyone who didn’t believe he was good enough?
“I definitely had my moments when I thought I was crazy, for sure,” he said. “I wanted to play football at the highest level so bad. I knew I had what it took. When I didn’t get that Division I offer out of high school, I knew I was going to have to do whatever it took to go where I wanted to go.”
The experience and belief paid off. Mayo was named to the all-conference team. Texas State, which was transitioning to FBS under coach Dennis Franchione, offered Mayo what he was looking for — a scholarship to a top-level program.
It wasn’t instant stardom, however. In 2012, he started the first seven games before missing the rest of the season with a meniscus tear. In 2013, an MCL injury sidelined him for a couple games.
Finally, Mayo put it all together as a senior. Staying healthy for all 12 games, Mayo earned some All-American accolades and was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year with a league-record-tying 154 tackles, along with three forced fumbles. Of the two 20-tackle games in the Sun Belt, Mayo had them both. Mayo finished second in the nation with 154 tackles; the leader, Arizona's Scooby Wright, had 163 but in two more games.
“That was never my goal. I never thought I was going to lead the nation in tackles,” Mayo said. “My only goals before each game were really simple: I wanted to execute the defense as it was planned to be executed and I wanted to play with phenomenal effort. I think those two combined led me to get a bunch of tackles.”
Mayo wasn’t invited to the Scouting Combine but was a big draw for scouts on the pro day circuit, with 19 attending Monday’s workout at Texas State. His official 40-yard time, according to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, went down as 4.70 seconds. Of the top 12 inside linebackers, based on rankings provided by the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te Thomas, the average was 4.69. That’s pretty good at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds. Thomas lists Mayo as a priority free agent but has given him a draftable grade.
“We’re extremely proud of him and extremely blessed and blown away. There’s no other way to put it,” Schlenger said. “We’re excited to start watching him on Sundays if that’s what’s going to happen. Couldn’t be prouder.”
And when Mayo’s phone rings on Saturday, May 2, and it’s his new team on the line to welcome him to its organization, it will be the ultimate confirmation of the road Mayo traveled.
“I will be very relieved and very happy,” he said. “Now, it’s more of a waiting game. I’m going to stay in the weight room and stay in shape but when that day comes, I’ll be a happy camper.”firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.