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A LOOK AT TWO OF SUNDAY'S RAIDER, RAM OPPONENTS : THE AMAZING SAINT : Rookie Rueben Mayes Is a Surprising Key to Team's Resurgence

November 08, 1986|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

METAIRIE, La. — The locker room at the New Orleans Saints' training facility is deserted. Quarterback Bobby Hebert and guard Brad Edelman have just left, exiting under a sign that says, "Never, Never, Never Give Up."

The only sound now is from a whirlpool in the training room, where rookie running back Rueben Mayes is soaking a sore foot.

Mayes apparently thinks the sign says, "Never, Never, Never Go Home."

He's almost always the first one to show up in the morning and invariably the last to leave.

That no longer comes as much of a surprise, however. He showed up in New Orleans shortly after the Saints had drafted him in the third round, before he had signed a contract. His perplexed agent was still trying to use the bargaining power of an offer from the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.

Jim Finks, the Saints' president and general manager, was equally bewildered.

"Most agents won't even let their guys come in for a little look until they've signed," Finks said. "This kid was here working out every day."

Mayes has fantasized about playing in the NFL for as long as he can remember. And he wasn't about to let something as trivial as money get in the way of it becoming a reality.

As a youngster growing up in the Canadian prairie town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, about 300 miles north of the North Dakota border, his dream of the NFL must have sounded preposterous.

But those close to him saw plenty of reasons to believe. At the age of 7, he was getting up at 7 a.m. every day to follow a self-imposed training regimen designed to improve his performance in age-group track meets.

He spent his Sundays in front of the television set, though, focusing on his future in the NFL. He eventually made a name for himself as a running back in high school.

That led to a scholarship at Washington State, where he broke every rushing record, set an NCAA mark for a single-game performance of 357 yards, led the Pac-10 in rushing as a junior and senior and was named the conference's offensive player of the year both seasons.

But the Cougars didn't employ a pro offense, and most pro scouts apparently thought none too highly of Mayes. He was drafted in the third round by the Saints, after eight other running backs had been chosen.

In fact, the Saints picked Mayes' current backup, LSU's Dalton Hilliard, in the second round.

Even so, Mayes leads the NFC in yards per carry with a 5.4 average and has exceeded 100 yards in three of his last four games. He has 606 yards in 113 carries.

"He played in an offense with a split backfield, and a lot of his ball carrying was straight-ahead type stuff," Saint Coach Jim Mora said. "I think a lot of people had questions about his ability to change directions.

"It was a good year for running backs, and a lot went before him who aren't playing as well as he is right now. But a great deal depends on the team you're on. He's had a lot of opportunities on this football team. If he was with the Rams, we wouldn't be talking about Rueben Mayes right now."

He's not with the Rams, though, and it's the Rams who must talk about him. Mayes is unquestionably a key factor in the Saints' resurgence this season and the man the Ram defense will be keying on Sunday at the Superdome.

"He's added a dimension to the running game that we definitely lacked last year," quarterback Dave Wilson said. "He's opened everything up for us."

Finks, who was picked to run the team by owner Tom Benson last January, isn't pointing to Mayes as another example of his football acumen, however.

"I don't think anyone can say now why eight others were taken ahead of him," Finks said. "We have to ask ourselves why we picked Dalton (Hilliard) before Rueben.

"The thing is, you can't judge what's inside a person. There's every indication that this kid is really motivated. Of course, durability and consistency are everything in this league, so it's awfully early to enshrine him."

Mayes is only 22, but he's seen himself weaving his way through NFL secondaries in his mind's eye for so long that he may be the only person not surprised by his instant success.

"I've worked hard all my life for this," he said. "I was in really good shape. My goal was to start for whoever drafted me. It's great I'm doing so well, but it doesn't surprise me.

"I just came into town to get acclimated, to get into top shape and to prove I could play in this league and eventually start in this league.

"And that's what I did."

Sounds simple. But it wasn't all that easy.

Mayes' parents were separated when he was 12, and he chose to live with his father, who owns an auto repair-body shop in North Battleford.

Mayes spent most of his spare time working on improving his speed, his quickness, his strength.

"I wanted to get into a Pac-10 college," he said. "I came from Canada and I knew if I wanted to play in the States, I would have to work a little harder than maybe most players would.

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