There was a time when Taylor Mays was a one-man horror show. Wide receivers ducked hits, cut off routes, and pretended to get tied up at the line in bump-and-run coverage.
There was a time when Taylor Mays roamed the USC defensive backfield with the aura of Ronnie Lott. Tight ends pulled up short, feigned injury, and avoided the middle like it was the plague.
There was a time when Taylor Mays was the most punishing hit-man in college football.
Those days are gone.
Taylor Mays is nothing more than an above-average safety with a world of talent, playing for an upper-middle class program, who spends his Saturdays delivering more embarrassing cheap shots than game-breaking big hits.
Mays has become the modern-day image of USC football. They are still wildly talented, as is Mays; they are still well coached, as is Mays; they are still highly regarded around the country, as is Mays.
But the luster is gone. The shine is off. That new car smell has dissolved into the odor of potential mediocrity with losses to a feeble Washington team and a ramped up Oregon squad of mighty, mighty Ducks.
Nothing was more sad than watching Mays deliver yet another cheap, immature hit against a defenseless player Halloween night at Oregon.
To watch Mays lay a heavy shoulder into the back of the head of a sliding Jeremiah Masoli during the second half of the Ducks blowout victory over the Trojans smacked of belligerence.
That followed a play against Oregon State on Oct. 24 when Mays violently, and needlessly, ripped the helmet of James Rodgers off his head after he had caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of an eventual USC win.
And that followed a play against Notre Dame on Oct. 17 when Mays was the third man in on an easy tackle against Irish receiver Robby Parris.
Mays came in late, locked his arms around the head of a defenseless (and down) Parris, bent him backward, and tore the golden dome from its foundation with reckless (and again, needless) abandon.
Masoli was fine. Rodgers was shaken. Parris left with injuries to his neck, hip, and knee.
None of those three plays were needed. None of those actions impacted the play. None of those plays proved the manliness of Mays.
In fact, each play was cheap, thoughtless, and disrespectful. If Mays truly had respect for the game and his opponents, he would understand that the players he competes against every Saturday are equals who are playing for pride, their school, and (just maybe) a professional future.
An unwritten, yet widely understood rule of the game of football is that you respect your opponent. You pour your heart, soul, and body into all the preparation it takes to compete at the highest level.
But at the end of four quarters both sets of warriors shake hands and move on to the next battle.
You never try to injure your opponent. You never try to end his career.
Taylor Mays was once a young man of determination, competitive fire, and honor. His actions of late mirror the precipitous decline of the Trojans from top-five contender to mid-teens pretender.
Mays, like many of his USC teammates, is a wildly talented player. At 6’3, 235-pound and with 4.5ish speed, he strikes an imposing physical figure in the Southern Cal defensive backfield. With 53 tackles and nine pass deflections in 2008, he was a legit first team All-American.
In 2009, he continues to put up impressive numbers with 57 tackles and an interception in the first eight games of a 6-2 season.
But something has been lost. He looks a step slower, fails to deliver the timely blows, and even struggles to make the big hit when the opportunity arrives.
To watch Notre Dame's Golden Tate catch a pass in traffic, accept a full-on Mays shoulder, and bounce off unaffected into the end zone while Mays crumpled to the ground was something most Trojan fans have never seen.
There was a day when college football feared Taylor Mays for all the right reasons. Now they fear him for the torrid disrespect he shows towards the receivers of college football.
There was a day when college football respected Taylor Mays for all the right reasons. Now they only respect him for what he once was and what he might be when the NFL comes calling.
The legend of Taylor Mays has dissolved into a memory of what once was and the prospect of what might be.
It's a sad decline for such a special player.