Thomas Mayo was 5 feet 6 and barely 120 pounds when he showed up at South Lakes High football practice as a freshman nine years ago, small enough to draw a chuckle out of his old high school coach when John Ellenberger dug out a dated roster recently and read the measurements.
Today, Mayo is an NFL hopeful, one of the most unlikely prospects waiting to hear his name called at this week’s NFL draft. He stands 6-1, a chiseled 210 pounds. “Like an Under Armor display mannequin,” Ellenberger said.
Mayo said the foundation was already inside the skin-and-bones teenager who eventually became a 4,000-plus yard wide receiver at the NCAA Division II level and a prospect some say could be taken in the draft’s late rounds.
The physical aspects would come later, developed through a love affair with the weight room and with the help of man who became a surrogate father. His mental framework was fashioned watching his mother endure three spinal surgeries that threatened her ability to walk and by a desire to repay those who took care of him.
“I really, truly believe that everything happens for a reason,” Mayo said. “Maybe I needed all them bad times to make good times. I’m just happy and grateful and blessed.”
Mayo’s father was not in his life growing up. In his absence, however, he found a pillar of strength in his mother, whom he called his best friend. In 2000, Leslie Mayo underwent surgery for a tumor in the tissue of her central nervous system, between two vertebrae. She had another surgery in 2003, just before Thomas Mayo entered high school.
Before the second surgery, Leslie Mayo was told she might never walk again. She did not inform her four children until she got home from the procedure and, because of nerve damage, was unable to feel parts of her feet and legs.
“When I left Hopkins I couldn’t walk at all, but I really wasn’t concerned. I just didn’t believe it,” Leslie Mayo said. “It just wasn’t an option not to walk again. I wasn’t angry. I just knew I had to [walk]. I had to take care of my kids, and that was it.”
A third surgery in 2004 threatened that resolve. But Leslie Mayo still can walk today, though she said she has little feeling in her feet and has trouble walking in the dark. She even re-taught herself how to drive so she could take her son to visit colleges.
“Mind over body,” she said. “Until something happens, you don’t understand. But once you believe, there’s nothing else anything can do.”
For a father figure, Mayo had Deshannon Cotton, who said he saw a lack of direction in the teenager at South Lakes.
“I grew up without my father and I went and seen him play a couple times. I noticed it was just his mother there and his brother and two sisters,” said Cotton, whom Mayo calls a father.
Cotton offered to work out with Mayo, but under one condition. “He told me if I missed one day with him, he was done with me,” Mayo recalled. Mayo never missed a day.
Yet Mayo was not even considered the best player on his own high school team, a South Lakes unit that won just three games in Mayo’s only varsity season. That distinction went to teammate A.J. Price, who lined up at wide receiver across from Mayo and signed with Penn State.
Mayo first attended Concord University, a Division II school in Athens, West Virginia. Mike Kellar became the school’s head coach in December 2008, and couldn’t believe the wide receiver he found. By then, Mayo appeared to be the kind of athlete who could have chosen to play anywhere.
“I’m still trying to figure out how Concord got him,” Kellar said.
Concord was one of the only schools to take a serious interest in Mayo, who transformed himself through his “no days off” motto. In the second game of his sophomore season, Mayo hauled in 16 receptions for 253 yards, both school records, and three touchdowns.
He would go on to catch 146 passes for 2,683 yards and 25 touchdowns over the next two seasons, earning D2Football
.com all-America recognition in both. He followed Kellar to California University of Pennsylvania for his senior year when Kellar became assistant head coach there.
“In three years I can count on one hand how many times he was not going 200 miles per hour in a drill,” Kellar said. “. . . He brings that competitive, fiery attitude to practice every single day, and to me that’s what separates him.”
Last fall, Mayo caught 79 passes for 1,359 yards and 16 touchdowns, a career high, earning first-team all-America honors. He is the 16th player in Division II history to surpass 4,000 career receiving yards with 4,378. He earned an invite to the East-West Shrine game, and NFL teams have taken an interest in him. The New England Patriots sent a position coach to work him out recently.
These are not opportunities many would have predicted for a kid who never earned star status at a high school not known for winning. In the Mayo household, though, it comes as no surprise. There, it has always been about mind over anything else.
“All you got to do,” he said, “is believe.”