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Shiloh Baptist Church stands beside a gravel road that winds through the rapeseed fields north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan, deep in the Canadian heartland. A one-room log structure, it was erected in the early 1900s by black immigrants from the U.S. Out back, tiger lilies grow among the rows and rows of white crosses that mark the graves of the settlers.
Inside, a framed photograph of Mattie Mayes in a flowered skirt and lace-collared shirt hangs where the altar used to be. She was a midwife, a spiritual leader and educator of the Shiloh people. Her husband, Joe Mayes, was the minister of the church. Their great-grandson, Rueben Mayes, is a running back for the New Orleans Saints. He is imbued with their relentless spirit.
"Their ideals were always held up to me," says Mayes. "I was taught that because I was black, I'd have two strikes against me before I even got up to bat. But I was also taught that I was a Mayes, and being a Mayes means always doing your best."
Last season being a Mayes meant being Rookie of the Year in the NFL and leading all first-year players in rushing with 1,353 yards. The league's fourth-leading ground-gainer, he would have played in the Pro Bowl had he not undergone Achilles-tendon surgery in late December. Not bad for someone who was only the 13th running back taken in the draft and the second chosen by New Orleans. (The Saints drafted LSU's Dalton Hilliard in the second round, Mayes in the third.)
"Rueben had a big impact on the club before he even gained a single yard," says Saints general manager Jim Finks. "After he was drafted, he moved to New Orleans and practiced with the team—without a contract. Finding a draft choice who will do that these days is almost unheard of. That made a big impression."
Mayes may be Canada's most popular homegrown athlete—after Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, of course. Mayes certainly is the best known Canadian-born pro football player to compete in the U.S. since Bronko Nagurski starred for the Bears in the '30s. Last February, Mayes's hometown of North Battleford held Rueben Mayes Day, complete with posters, banners, plaques and a testimonial from Mayor Glenn Hornick, who personally sold many of the more than 1,000 tickets.
"Every Sunday all of North Battleford is tuned to the Saints game," Hornick says. "I probably shouldn't say this, but our local cable station pirates signals. We've seen almost every pro game Rueben has played."
Situated 85 miles northwest of Saskatoon on the Yellowhead Route, North Battleford is primarily a service center for the surrounding agricultural community. A towering statue of a Mountie stands before the chamber of commerce building, a few doors down from the bingo parlor. Of the 15,000 residents, fewer than 20 are black.
Mayes mentions his upbringing every chance he gets. "I don't care how successful I am," he says. "I will always be the guy wearing jeans and a baseball cap, the one driving a Jeep. I'll always be the kid from North Battleford."
In other words, it looks as though he'll always be a guy with small-town wants and small-town values. A devout Christian who doesn't smoke, drink or have anything to do with drugs. A man with a strong work ethic who sets lofty goals and realizes them.