Air Force senior cornerback Jordan Mays is at that stage in life when he’s mature enough to put teenage stubbornness behind him and openly admit his high school football coach was right.
And the timing couldn’t be better for Mays and Sean Crocker, Mays’ head coach at Apex (N.C.) Middle Creek, although Crocker is now the head coach a few miles down the road at Cary Panther Creek.
Crocker is traveling to West Point for Saturday’s Air Force-Army game at historic Michie Stadium along with two other Middle Creek assistants, Jeff Rider and Kendal Ray, who coached Mays.
If Air Force follows up its win over Navy with a victory at Army, Crocker can watch as Mays and his teammates celebrate winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
Mays, a first-year starter plagued by injuries last year, is excited Crocker, whose team has Friday off with a game on Thursday night, has a chance to see him play for the Falcons for the first time.
“Coach Crocker has been a huge influence on me,” Mays said. “I butted heads with him in high school because I thought I should be a safety. But he told me colleges would recruit me as a cornerback. Even though they played me at (backup) safety here as a freshman, now I’m starting at cornerback. I find a lot of the things Coach Crocker taught me in high school about playing corner are coming naturally to me now.”
Mays, whose father and three uncles served enlisted in the Air Force, was targeted early by Air Force and Navy as a college prospect.
“He was quiet in high school, but he was a tough kid,” said Crocker of Mays enduring academy demands. “He had football smarts and you could tell he would keep developing in college.”
Service academy teams tend to be dominated by juniors and seniors more so than civilian colleges, but Mays, a 2010 Middle Creek grad who spent a year at the Air Force Prep School, gained playing time as a freshman in 2011 in a backup role. The Falcons had a talented secondary that year, the last time Air Force won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
He didn’t play his sophomore year as he dealt with injuries and doubts that many academy athletes eventually cope with upon arrival. He had to decide if he wanted to continue his long-term commitment, which includes five years military service upon graduation.
“It was a hard decision, but it wasn’t really that hard,” Mays said. “I weighed the pros and cons, and the academies beat a regular university hands down as far as the best decision to make for the rest of your life. I talked to my parents and teammates and there was no way I could give up this opportunity.”
Once a Cadet returns for his junior, he’s financially obligated to the remainder of the academy commitment. But more frustration was awaited him in his junior year personally and for the Falcons with a 2-10 record.
That 2013 season marked the first time in head coach Troy Calhoun’s first seven seasons at Air Force that the Falcons failed to earn a bowl bid. Mays watched most of the season with a hamstring injury he pulled in the season’s second game against Utah State. He returned for the season’s seventh game against San Diego State and pulled it again.
Several Air Force veteran players have said the team dedicated itself to a strenuous off-season to bounce back in 2014. Mays joined the chorus. Ten of the 11 defensive starters are juniors are seniors.
“We have a great group of seniors this year, although we also have some young studs on the team,” said Mays, referring to sophomores such as safety Weston Steelhammer and running back Jacobi Owens. “Last season was rough and everyone realized we had to take hold of the reins of the team. We hit the weight room and the film room. We weren’t going to let a difficult season prevent us from having a great senior season.”
Air Force is 5-2 entering the game at Army (2-5). In addition to beating Navy, the Falcons upset Boise State to hand the Broncos their only loss in Mountain West Conference play. Boise State (6-2, 3-1 MW) and Colorado State (7-1, 3-1) lead the conference; Air Force is 2-2 in conference play.
Mays added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame to weigh 200 pounds. His 26 tackles are one shy of a tie for fourth on the team. He has four pass breakups to share the team lead. The weight helped with run defense and the techniques work on footwork has helped with pass coverage.
As a starter, he’s soaking up experiences he didn’t appreciate as a freshman backup and missed while on the sidelines as a sophomore and junior. He was a backup for the opening win over Nicholls State and the second game loss at Wyoming.
The Falcons lost at Wyoming when Mays posted a season-high five tackles to move into the starting lineup the following week in the win over Georgia State. His third career start against Navy was his first against one of the academy rivals.
“It was an unreal experience,” he said. “We had good games prior to Navy, but the nerves I had going into that one was unreal. I could still fill the nerves running through me in the first quarter. That’s how much the game means. It’s hard to put into words how much that game means.”
Now comes his first start against Army, but this time his old high school coach will be in the stadium.