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Carlson: Meet the man who helped mold J.T. Realmuto, Talor Gooch and countless Carl Albert athletes

Jeff Mays, center, has coached and taught at Carl Albert Middle School for more than three decades. He has molded hundreds of successful Carl Albert High School athletes, including Abby Boyer, left, and Courtney Wages, seen here at the 2017 state tennis tournament. [PHOTO PROVIDED]
Jeff Mays, center, has coached and taught at Carl Albert Middle School for more than three decades. He has molded hundreds of successful Carl Albert High School athletes, including Abby Boyer, left, and Courtney Wages, seen here at the 2017 state tennis tournament. [PHOTO PROVIDED]

Jeff Mays had a look.

It usually came after a loud clap of his hands, and once that got his kids’ attention during a tennis match or a basketball game or a football practice, the look would let them know he wanted them to do better.

Because they could.

“He was always encouraging,” said Misti Crawford, one of Mays’ athletes, “but goodness gracious, if you weren’t trying, if he knew that you could do better, he would give this clap and this look.

“He didn’t accept anything but what he knew you could do.”

And that helped set a standard on which one of Oklahoma’s greatest high school sports programs was built.

For three-plus decades, Mays has been a teacher and coach at Carl Albert Middle School, the lone feeder school for Carl Albert High. Just about every great athlete who came through Carl Albert — J.T. Realmuto, Talor Gooch, the Strickland brothers, Chad and Craig — played for Mays, and thousands more kids were impacted.

Since 1990, Carl Albert has won 40 state championships in nine sports.

Mays is the throughline.

“We’re blessed to have him,” said Shane Farley, who is head tennis coach and assistant football coach at the high school. “There’s no doubt he could have done whatever he wanted to really, but to influence as many people as he did, his legacy is gonna live on forever around here.

“He’s a legend.”

As Mays heads into semi-retirement — no more teaching PE and only middle school tennis coaching — hundreds are expected to parade by his house Saturday evening. These days of social distancing have forced a drive-by celebration, and even though Mays tried to wave everyone off because he lives in Edmond and no one wants to drive that far, folks wouldn’t hear of it.

They know how he has meant so much to so many.

He is like scores of teachers and coaches, never seeking attention but continually impacting lives. He's an unknown to the wider world but a rock star to those who know him.

Kathy Dunn saw it from her work; she recently retired as assistant superintendent in the Mid-Del School District.

But she witnessed it as a mom, too.

Her sons, Mike and Steve, played football and basketball in middle school for Mays, who was an assistant coach. They became future starting linemen for some of Carl Albert High’s state championship football teams, then went on to play in college and become leaders on the state’s high school sports scene. Mike is the athletic director and head football coach at Del City, Steve the executive director of athletics for Broken Arrow Public Schools.

Even though they might have stood out in middle school, Mays treated them like he treated every player and student.

“They played on Thursday night in junior high, and on Friday morning … it didn’t matter who scored points last night in the game, who got tackled or who just got sent into the room because they were just coming back from a suspension,” Kathy Dunn said. “None of that mattered in his classroom.

“The kids were all the same, and he treated them all with the same respect.”

When you're teaching middle schoolers trying to find their place in the world, making them feel like they belong, like they're important is endearing.

So is unbridled enthusiasm. Mays always saw the best in his middle schoolers. If he thought a kid jumped well, he’d tell them they should be playing basketball. If he saw a student cut a little time off a run, he’d want a high five.

Courtney Wages remembers how important that positive reinforcement was. She first met Mays when he convinced her older brother, a baseball player, to play tennis in middle school. Mays then talked Wages into coming to one of his summer camps.

“I would hit balls over the fence,” Wages said, “and he would just act like I was a superstar.”

Mays made tennis so much fun Wages wanted to keep playing.

“He just always made every player feel like they were meant to play tennis,” said Wages, who became a state tennis qualifier at Carl Albert and is now a senior at Wichita State. “Made you feel like a superstar, which is hard to do for middle school.”

Farley, the high school tennis coach, said, “He is so good with those kids. Now, he’s good with all kids, but those middle-school kids … he just makes those kids feel like they can climb a mountain.

“He’s just got a gift for that.”

The students have benefited, of course, learning through sports the lessons of teamwork and tenacity, commitment and integrity. But Carl Albert has profited, too, from the foundational building blocks laid by Jeff Mays. Generations of Carl Albert athletes have come to know the school's high standards through him.

They know when they wear Titan red and gray, they have a tradition of excellence to uphold.

Which brings us back to that look.

Every athlete gets it. Misti Crawford did when she was playing for Mays back in the early 90s. But it created an expectation in her. Give your all. Be accountable. Strive for excellence.

The result?

Crawford, then Crain, won a couple of state doubles titles in high school, then went on to play tennis in college. She knows she wouldn't have gotten there without Jeff Mays.

Lots of Carl Albert standouts would say the same.

Crawford recently saw a quote from Jon Gruden: "All it takes is one coach that believes in you."

“And honestly,” she said, “I feel like Coach Mays was that person for me and for a lot of people.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

***

If you go

What: Drive-by celebration for longtime Carl Albert Middle School coach Jeff Mays

When: 5:30 to 8 p.m., Saturday

Where: 2421 Tredington Way, Edmond

Organizers are requesting no gifts, but a basket for cards will be provided.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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