Rueben Mayes: The saint from Shiloh - North Battleford's famous athlete

At the outset, I am indebted to Larry Romanow for researching the information on Rueben Mayes. Larry's work included the story of the Shiloh people, Rueben's forbearers. Most important, Larry detailed Rueben's awesome athletic talent, his high school football and track accomplishments, his record breaking exploits at Washington State and his meteoric rise to stardom in the National Football League. Without Larry's research. Rueben's story would have been greatly diminished.

Rueben Mayes was born on June 6, 1963 to Murray and Marie Mayes at North Battleford. He received his elementary education at Connaught Elementary School and Grades 10, 11 and 12 at North Battleford Comprehensive High School.

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Rueben showed promise of being a great athlete early in life. As a member of the North Battleford Legion Track Club I coached in the early 1970s, 10-year-old Rueben would zip across the length of the gym handily beating the high school runners. I personally witnessed Rueben, a high school senior, run 100 meters in ten seconds flat on the track north of the John Paul Collegiate (no longer there) and high jump six feet from a standing position. In 1980, Rueben led the North Battleford Comprehensive High School Vikings to an undefeated season and the Saskatchewan High Schools Athletic Association 3A Provincial Football Championship. In 1981, he set a high school provincial record in the 100 metre race - a record that still stands.

Later, when Rueben was a professional football player, he worked out at the the Battlefords Athletic Club in the summers. Not only was he incredibly fast, he was immensely strong - pound for pound, stronger than any of the club's 600 members.

North Battleford's famous athlete came from humble beginnings. After the American Civil War in 1865, thousands of former slaves migrated to territory in the state of Oklahoma where they were granted a measure of freedom. But in 1907, Oklahoma achieved statehood and ushered in an era of segregation. The solution was to move. In 1910, dozens of African-American families arrived in Saskatchewan taking advantage of the federal government's offer of free homesteads for anyone willing to settle the west. Twelve families settled in the Eldon district north of Maidstone. In 1912, they built the Shiloh Baptist Church, a one-room structure constructed of hand-hewn square poplar logs. From that point forward, these humble and devout African-American settlers were known as the Shiloh people, of which their most famous descendant is Rueben Mayes.

Rueben's exploits on the football field are well known. But what kind of a person is Rueben Mayes? Rueben noted that he was, at heart, a small-town boy who learned "fundamental stuff, really - the good old fashioned work ethic." Rueben drew from the character of the Shiloh people. His paternal great-grandmother, Mattie Mayes, was a spiritual leader and educator of the Shiloh people. Her husband, Joe, was the minister of the church. Rueben noted that, "Their ideals were always held up to me. I was taught that I was a Mayes, and that being a Mayes always means doing your best." Basic values that were, in turn, upheld by his grandparents and parents. Rueben is devoted to his family and, " respects everything my family has gone through to make life better for me."

Like his parents and forbearers, Rueben is a devout Christian, doesn't smoke or drink, and has nothing to do with drugs. And, he is in possession of an exceptionally strong work ethic that he learned in his father's auto body shop - sweeping floors, changing oil and helping with the books.

It should come as no surprise that Rueben was a model student. He respected his teachers and his classmates. Despite his awesome athletic ability and hero status, it never went to his head. Nor did his fame as an NFL star. "I don't care how successful I am," said Rueben, "I will always be the guy wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap, the one driving a Jeep. I'll always be the kid from North Battleford." Even so, his high school coach, Don Hodgins, noted Rueben was dedicated, focused and disciplined. He spent hours in the weight room, not just on the football field. Rueben knew what he was training for - to play in the NFL.

Considering where Rueben came from, it took the NFL some time to come to terms with his meteoric rise to stardom. Some of the sports commentators' observations were humorous. They called him, "lightning legs who could run faster than the prairie wind." At a University of Saskatchewan Huskies Dogs' Breakfast where he was guest speaker, Rueben noted they wanted to know, "Who's this black guy who talks funny? Where'd this guy come from? They call it Kotchaching or some place." They called him, "a rabbit from the boonies." Rueben took it all in stride. He noted that, "when you're scoring touchdowns, it all goes away. It's results that counts." It wasn't long before admiring fans gave Rueben a nickname that fit, "the Bayou Bullet."

Before beginning his professional career, Rueben played for the Washington State Cougars where he set single-season and career-rushing records (1, 632; 3,519 yards respectively). He also established an NCAA record for most rushing yards in one game, a record that remains the Pacific-10 Conference standard. Rueben was drafted in the third round of the 1986 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He played five years with the Saints before being traded to the Seattle Sea Hawks for the final two years of his career.

Rueben's NFL career statistics speak for themselves. He rushed for 3,484 yards for an average of 4.0 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Rueben's career highlights and awards are more than impressive. He received the Pop Warner Trophy in 1985. He was named to the Pro-bowl twice (1986, 1987). He was also an All-Pro selection twice (1986, 1987). Most important, Rueben was named the 1986 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

In 1995, a panel of experts commissioned by the the Spokesman Review named Rueben to the all-time WSU team. IN 1998, the honour was repeated when it picked its list of WSU's all-time greatest players. Finally, Rueben was elected to the U.S. College Football Hall of Fame.

Rueben is Canada's best-known football player to play in the United States. Most of the Battlefords was tuned into the Saints games when Rueben was playing. In February of 1987, North Battleford held a Rueben Mayes Day, complete with posters, banners, plaques and testimonials. Rueben was likely Canada's most popular athlete after Wayne Gretzky. He was certainly the most popular in his hometown.

In recognition of his accomplishments, the practice field at North Battleford Comprehensive High School was named after Mayes in 2012.

After his football career was over, Rueben turned his attention to helping at-risk youth. He later earned a master's degree in business administration and returned to Washington State as an administrator. He is now the director of regional development for Sacred Heart Medical Centre in Eugene, Ore. where he lives with his wife, Marie, and two sons, Kellan and Logan.

On the occasion of North Battleford's centennial, we stand in admiration of a native son and North Battleford's great sports hero. We applaud, not only his extraordinary athletic talent, but his sterling character as well. Rueben Mayes has brought honour and pride to our city.

(Sources: Mayes family; Wikpedia, Sports Illustrated, Saskatoon StarPhoenix)

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