- Shelley Smith, SportsCenter correspondent
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Ever since January when Pete Carroll took the Seattle Seahawks job, Taylor Mays said he had been thinking he would only have to drive a few miles over a few bridges from Seattle to Renton, Wash., to meet the press after being drafted into the NFL.
It all made sense. He was from Seattle. Carroll had recruited him out of Seattle to USC, where the All-America safety had spent the past four years. Carroll had convinced him to stay last season, even though most scouts predicted he'd be at least a top-15 pick.
So when pick after pick was announced and his name wasn't being called, Mays sat in front of the television, stunned, and he started to blame Carroll for his plight.
"He is someone I've trusted for a long time, been very close to," Mays said Friday. "I put my future in his hands when he told me to come back to school. I just feel like we weren't on the same page for what I needed to do to get drafted where I wanted to be drafted."
Mays says all year he had continually asked Carroll what he needed to do to get better, what deficiencies he needed to correct to prove to scouts that he was the brightest, fastest, most physical safety in the country; to maintain the lofty status he had achieved the year before.
"[Pete] kept saying, 'Taylor, you'll be fine. You're fine,' " Mays said. "Obviously that wasn't the case."
Mays had been nearly bouncing off the walls Tuesday as he boarded his flight from Los Angeles to Seattle. The USC senior was headed home to be with his parents and younger brother to watch himself get drafted into the NFL. His entire future waiting on that announcement, only one thing was on his mind.
"Don't let me forget this," he said to the flight attendant as she hung up the plastic garment bag in the closet. In the bag was the brand-new custom-tailored charcoal suit that he was planning on wearing when he would make his media debut amid all the pomp and circumstance afforded first-round picks in the NFL.
"Otherwise I'll have to wear my jersey," he said and laughed.
He wasn't laughing later.
"It was really, really hard," he said of sliding down the board.
Carroll had even invited Mays to drop by the Seahawks facility Wednesday, which Mays did until rattled Seahawks personnel informed Carroll that the deadline for pre-draft visits had passed. "Oops," Carroll said. "Great to see you, you have to go."
Except for that, it had all been shaping up very nicely: Carroll to the Seahawks; Mays to the Seahawks. It all had nice symmetry.
But then, as Carroll tells it, the first round began and when it came for the Seahawks to make their 14th pick, a slot where Mays thought he might be selected, Seattle saw that Texas safety Earl Thomas was still on the board. Just about everybody had rated Thomas the second-best safety in the draft (behind Tennessee's Eric Berry, who went fifth overall to Kansas City) and the defensive secondary-desperate Seahawks couldn't believe their good fortune.
Thomas is a versatile, athletic safety who can also play corner, and someone who they thought would fit in perfectly behind last year's top pick, linebacker Aaron Curry. And so Carroll voted with his head and not his heart and took Thomas and passed on Mays.
Even Mays would say later he couldn't argue with the pick.
"Earl is a very, very good player," he said. "I knew he'd go higher than me."
But then, a lot of teams passed. And just like that, his first-round probability became an improbability. Mays' world continued to spin. By the time he was picked 49th overall by the San Francisco 49ers, it hit a frenzied level. He had given up a possible top-10 slot, was hurt in the Trojans' game against Ohio State -- causing him to miss his chance to play his senior year against Washington at Husky Stadium in his hometown of Seattle, a game the Trojans lost -- and suffered through a miserable season.
There are those who believed Carroll forced Mays into a defensive scheme his senior year that was convenient for the young, sometimes inept Trojans defense. The scheme didn't showcase Mays' talents.
"He played too far off the ball, he was responsible for too much ground, he was expected to make up for the mistakes of others," wrote the bloggers.
Mays refused to buy into the criticism, saying he was doing what Carroll told him to do. It was a story he stuck to all season, because, he says, he believed and trusted that Carroll was doing the best thing for him and for the team.
In hindsight, he says, he realizes the scheme probably didn't prepare him for the draft, and the fact that he wasn't a defensive playmaker because of it is likely what hurt him most. Still, he ran a blistering 40 at the combine (4.23 to 4.43 depending on whose watch you were watching) and was, by just about everybody's standards, still an incredible athlete.
Obviously it wasn't enough.
"I wish I would have known why I wouldn't be taken in the first round," he said Friday, "At least have been shown what I needed work on. Here's my head coach, the person I trust most, telling me I had nothing to worry about and then I'm worrying about it [when it's too late] because I'm not getting picked."
Mays said it hurts that had he chosen differently a year ago, he would probably be many million dollars richer and could have avoided the heartache he just went through. Still, he believes he is a better player than he was a year ago -- smarter, more physical, more mature. Which makes it all the more baffling why Carroll had assured him "I was fine," when it came to the draft.
"I put my future in his hands," Mays kept saying.
Told of Mays' comments, Carroll looked wounded. He said before the draft it would be emotionally draining to have to pass on one of the many players, not just USC players, whom he has gotten to know well. He looked down and softly said about Mays, "He's hurting."
Later, he said: "We really were looking forward to picking Taylor. We thought we would get the chance to do that in the first round. But we were surprised when Earl Thomas showed up, we really coveted him as an all-around cover guy who could play safety or corner. And so when we made the pick, we felt fortunate to get Earl, but we were really hoping that we were gonna get a chance to get [Taylor], but unfortunately we didn't."
Mays is heading to San Francisco on Saturday morning to meet the media in his new charcoal suit. Before the draft he had said that, even though he would love to play for Carroll and the Seahawks, he had been impressed with coach Mike Singletary, the history of the 49ers organization and the "killer way they play defense." In one moment he had said he'd love to stay home, but in the next he hinted that, like most young adults trying to find their way, that the allure of a new city was compelling as well.
On Friday, when he was done venting, Mays said he was moving on, moving to the next opportunity, the next challenge.
"I look forward to playing 16 games for Coach Singletary more than I look forward to playing Coach Carroll twice a year," Mays told a group of Bay Area writers via conference call on Friday.
Oh, by the way, the season opener for the 49ers: at Seattle.
Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.
10mMichael C. Wright