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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Waking the Echoes: Mayes puts life before football

Lou Holtz has a story about everyone.

“Derrick Mayes should have been a kicker,” Holtz’s story often begins about the former record-setting Irish receiver. “I swear he should have been a kicker. You know why? Because he kicked everything around. What time does practice start? What time is practice over? What time is curfew? What were we eating for dinner?”

Notre Dame receiver Derrick Mayes catches a pass during a 48-20 victory at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California on Oct. 2, 1993. The Irish finished the season 11-1 and ranked No. 2 in the polls.
Observer File Photo
Observer File Photo
Notre Dame receiver Derrick Mayes catches a pass during a 48-20 victory at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California on Oct. 2, 1993. The Irish finished the season 11-1 and ranked No. 2 in the polls.
Mayes recalls the storytelling prowess of his former head coach, a man with whom he shares a special connection.

“He’s tongue-in-cheek about everything,” Mayes said recently about Holtz. “Anyone, you mention his name, he’s got a story about that person.”

Mayes’ story actually begins with Holtz, too. Growing up in Indianapolis, Mayes was heavily recruited. As his college decision neared, he narrowed down his schools to Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Miami and Notre Dame.

It was a family decision for the star pass-catcher, and it was Holtz who made a commitment to the Mayes clan.

“He said, ‘Derrick, you give me four years commitment at Notre Dame, I’ll be there for the next 40 years of your life,’” Mayes recalled Holtz saying during the recruiting process. “And I knew he meant it.

“I knew that life was far more beyond football. So for me, making that decision to go there was easy because it meant that I had a support system in place for life.”

Fast-forward just over 20 years, and Holtz and Mayes remain connected. Mayes, who ranks fourth in Notre Dame program history in career receiving yards and is tied for fourth in career touchdown receptions — he held both records himself in 1995 at the time of his graduation — runs Holtz’s foundation, Lou’s Lads. Mayes serves as the Executive Board Director of the foundation, which provides scholarship assistance to deserving Notre Dame students.

“I know I’m doing service in his good name,” Mayes said. “I knew that would always be sort of my way in life. I said [to Holtz], ‘You’re not getting rid of me now. I’m gonna call on you for advice, for ideas and for support.’ I’ve done that throughout my career, throughout my life, since I met the guy.

“It just proves that I made the right decision to come to Notre Dame, to be around great people who are doing great things.”

Lou’s Lads has its annual scholarship reunion dinner the weekend of the second Notre Dame home game each season. Throughout the year, Mayes goes through the scholarship process while working with the endowment group.

“A lot of the times it’s making sure we uphold Coach’s wishes and bringing back as many players as possible, so he can get a chance to see them and make fun of them,” Mayes said.

It was Holtz who instilled in Mayes the notion that football was a hiatus from life, not the other way around.

“You get to play football along the way, that’s just gravy on it,” Mayes said. “I never considered myself a football player.”

Still, despite two trips to the Super Bowl in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, Mayes said he wouldn’t trade his college experience “for the world.”

Late-night midterm rallies on North Quad. Walks from Mass to the Stadium. “Shenanigans” in the locker room. His first trip out to USC as a freshman. Leaders on the 1992 squad like Rick Mirer, Demetrius DuBose, Devon McDonald and Irv Smith. They all stand out vividly to Mayes today.

He found some success as a freshman before his “coming-out year” as a sophomore in 1993. Mayes helped power the 11-1 Irish with 24 catches for 512 yards. Mayes began breaking records as a junior, in a season he described as difficult after the loss of such a strong senior class from the previous campaign.

“To lose that leadership was very tough,” Mayes said. “I don’t think the class ahead of us was prepared to take on the leadership role. There was a lot of growth taking place.”

A junior leader — though not a captain — Mayes racked up 847 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Knowing he could leave for the NFL and expect to be a top-50 pick, Mayes still honored his four-year commitment to Holtz and returned to be a captain for his senior season.

“The only thing that would have been difficult would [have been if] I decided to go the other way,” Mayes said. “It was easy for me to decide to come back.”

The Irish bounced back in 1995 with a 9-3 season, following the 6-5-1 mark in 1994. The Green Bay Packers drafted him in the second round of the 1996 draft, and Mayes immediately joined a strong squad in Wisconsin. The Packers advanced to two Super Bowls, winning the first and losing the second, with quarterback Brett Favre at the helm.

“It’ll spoil you real quick,” Mayes said. “You take a lot for granted because you figure, ‘Hey, well, this is how it’s supposed to go.’ You go from Notre Dame and then on to Green Bay, win Super Bowls. But obviously that’s not reality. I know I’m privileged to do that from the jump, so I didn’t take that for granted.”

After three seasons in Green Bay, Mayes jumped to Seattle, where he embarked on his best professional season, nabbing 62 receptions for 829 yards and 10 scores in his first year with the Seahawks.

At one point in 1999, Mayes invested in a business plan created along with an old college roommate. The idea centered around a website for college students that would allow them to communicate with each other, barter and trade their books. Mayes sent the business plan to Seahawks owner Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. Mayes makes it clear it wasn’t a financial request.

“I thought, ‘Man, he’s my owner. Who better to help let me know if I got something here,’” Mayes said. “And I’ll never forget, I got a phone call from their office. [Seahawks head coach] Mike Holmgren had gotten wind of it. I ended up having to go into the office, and I was told very directly, ‘This is not what you’re here for. You’re here to play football.’”

Mayes still doesn’t know where the directive came from. Regardless, it opened his eyes.

“That was the sign for me to say I need to start making my exit strategy now,” Mayes said. “This is a wake-up call to let me know either what kind of object I am or how little my own ambitions are received in this industry. So let me start making my plans to take the next step and put a close on this hiatus of my life.”

Nothing became of Mayes' website.

“Facebook happened,” he laughed.

Following his retirement from the NFL, Mayes got into the production industry, utilizing his communications and film degree from Notre Dame.

Seven years ago, he moved into the protection world for high-profile individuals, groups and organizations. In the last two or three years, Mayes said, his company’s services have taken on lives of their own, and now they’ve branched out into protecting the information of their high-profile clientele.

They’ve also created a curriculum called Defensive Communications, which educates on appropriate online communications. Mayes’ group has a strong foothold in the sports and entertainment industry and works with various Division I athletic departments.

“I feel like I get more out of it than the kids do and the student-athletes and the coaches and the staff members,” Mayes said. “I know they get something out of it too so it’s a win-win situation. It’s not work.”

Mayes is married with a seven-year old son and lives in Los Angeles.

“I’m just thrilled to be in this space doing what I’m doing … working hard and still representing my university and serving them proud,” Mayes said.