It was the spring of 1987, and Marc Mays was having the time of his athletic life. He had just signed a letter of intent to attend and play football at Duke University in the fall, and, within a week, he was winning the high hurdles at the Florida Relays.
But during the same meet, Mays' football career came to a halt.
"I was in the long jump and we were rushing through the event," said Mays. "I really hadn't stretched and wasn't concentrating. I made the jump, but my left knee planted in the sand and just kind of stuck there. I knew there was something wrong."
The result was a torn anterior cruciate ligament and severely stretched nerves in the knee, which at one time left Mays numb from his knee to his toes, and his career in doubt. Duke team orthopedist Dr. Frank Bassett told Mays he probably would never play again.
There are no longer any doubters.
Mays, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound senior wide receiver, was one of several players honored at the 38th Atlantic Coast Conference football banquet at the Omni Hotel last night. Mays received the Brian Piccolo Award, which goes to the most courageous football player in the conference.
"I'm very excited about this award; it's an honor that I'll never forget," said Mays, who was a second-team All-ACC pick with 35 catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns. "To be associated with an award that is represented by the name of Brian Piccolo and what he stands for is fantastic."
"He [Mays] has made a miraculous recovery," Duke coach Barry Wilson said. "For him to be on a football field is something just short of a miracle."
The road back for Mays started with two operations. Bassett heard that Mays was playing pickup basketball while wearing a knee brace and re-examined him, finding a flicker in the nerve. An operation immediately enabled Mays to move his toes again, something he had not been able to do since the injury. Then began the running and weightlifting.
That was only part of the physical side. The psychological games came later.
"At first, I was kind of devastated," said Mays, a graduate of Lovett High in Atlanta. "Here I was an 18-year-old, suffering a major injury and doctors telling me that I might not play again.
"I had a lot of things going for me, and now it was all in jeopardy," added Mays, who is expected to play out his remaining year of eligibility next season. "What made it worse was that shortly after the injury, Duke made a coaching change. I didn't even know if they still had interest. But the university remained committed on the scholarship, and I also got great support from my family."
Mays spent countless hours in rehabilitation before finally returning as a cornerback and starting three games in 1988. Mays said he switched from receiver to defensive back because he didn't know if his knee could take the cutting.
Before the 1989 season, he decided to switch back to wide receiver, playing sparingly behind All-American Clarkston Hines.
Then, in 1990, it was Mays' season to excel.
"I was kind of surprised to be named to the all-conference team," he said. "I thought I had an OK season, but nothing spectacular. A friend called me late one night, congratulated me and said he heard my name on television. At first, I thought it was a prank. Then the next morning, I found out it was true and I felt pretty good about myself."
Other award recipients last night were Virginia quarterback Shawn Moore, who was named the ACC Player of the Year; Georgia Tech coach Boby Ross, ACC Coach of the Year; the Rookie of the Year honor went to Clemson running back Ronald Williams; North Carolina State center Charlie Cobb received the Jim Tatum Award (the outstanding student/athlete football player); and former All-Pro linebacker Mike Curtis, who starred for the Baltimore Colts from 1965-75, was presented with the second annual ACC Distinguished Football Alumnus Award.
Curtis played for Duke University, where he was MVP and All-ACC in 1964. He was also an academic all-conference selection.