By Brian Yauger
After Youngstown State University quarterback Nathan Mays suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the North Dakota State University Bison, it seemed he would join the list of athletes that would have their career cut short.
In the final game of the season against Illinois State University, Mays did the unthinkable. He put on his uniform, strapped on his helmet and stepped onto the field one last time.
The Penguins needed one more snap to seal their 21-3 upset victory over the sixth-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision. Mays, who was just on a knee scooter minutes prior, walked out onto the field with assistance from his offensive linemen for the final play.
He went down on one knee and the clock hit zero.
Mays, who suited up in 34 games across five seasons with the Penguins, got to do what so few had done. He ended his football career on his own terms.
At the time of the injury against the Bison, he said he was done — his career was over.
“As soon as I looked down, I saw my foot facing sideways,” Mays said. “A lot of people thought I fainted, but really I was just so angry. That kind of fell back, and I was just contemplating that I was done. I knew that I would never put pads on again; that was kind of just it for me.”
In that moment, Mays reminisced on his football career.
“A lot of sad thoughts … just in the few short moments before our trainers even got there to kind of help me out,” Mays said as he reflected, the moment gave him clarity.
“It made me kind of toughen up and realize this stuff was coming to an end quicker than I would have liked it to,” he said.
This wasn’t the first injury Mays suffered during the season. Earlier in the year against the University of Northern Iowa, he was swarmed by UNI defenders and suffered a leg injury.
He was listed as day-to-day, but with Mays in crutches on the sideline against Northern Iowa, there were plenty of doubts.
But not in Mays’ mind.
Before the game against the third-ranked South Dakota State University Jackrabbits, Mays was on the field warming up as if nothing happened.
“They had kind of geared me towards maybe taking it slow, maybe sitting that game out. But in my head, I was never going to try and sit out a game,” Mays said. “They knew that there was a lot of season left, but for me in my last season I wasn’t ready to take one snap off.”
Against the Jackrabbits, Mays threw for 176 yards and achieved a touchdown pass. He also rushed for two more.
Fast forward to senior night: the final game at Stambaugh Stadium, the final game of the season and the last time Mays would be on the YSU sideline.
Throughout the week, Mays joked with family and teammates that if the Penguins were winning, he’d go out on the field for the final play.
“I said that if we were up multiple scores at halftime that I would bring my pads out,” he said. “I wasn’t going to make it a big deal if it was going to be like a spur of the moment thing, and sure enough, we’re up 14-3 at half. So, I got my pads and asked the equipment manager for the rest of my stuff.”
With everything set in motion, Mays’ hope of taking the final snap for the Penguins season and his career came to fruition.
“With about six minutes left, [Illinois State] had the ball, and we were looking like we’re easily going to win the game, and I was kind of shocked,” Mays said. “Not shocked that we were winning, shocked that this kind of scenario was playing out picture perfect.”
Mays asked Penguins coach Bo Pelini if he could take the final snap, and he was thrilled. But Mays still had to convince the trainers, who weren’t willing to clear it right away.
“They didn’t really think it was a great idea, hobbling out there five days after surgery, or whatever it was, but sure enough I convinced them to do it,” he said. “I wasn’t really letting them tell me no.”
With 10 seconds to go on the clock, Pelini called a timeout.
Seniors Matt Jones and Myles Douglas helped Mays onto the field for their final collegiate play at Stambaugh Stadium. Ironically, a cold and dreary day with a handful of people in the crowd made the experience more meaningful to Mays.
“Honestly, the thing that kind of describes it best is how few people were at that game,” Mays said. “It was cold. It was raining. The game didn’t mean much. Then the noise of how loud those few people got for me just to recognize that moment was for me. It really hit home, and I shed a few tears.”
Mays wasn’t the only one in tears.
“I had family up there crying, but the looks that I was getting from the opposing team’s head coach and the other players showed how special it was,” he said. “People that didn’t even know me recognized what it meant. It was one of the most memorable things that I’ll have the rest of my life.”
After the kneel down, video of the play spread across the internet and was trending on Twitter.
“That night around 8 o’clock, I think, was the first time I saw anything,” he said. “It was a tweet from ESPN. When I saw that my name was on there and the full minute-and-a-half-long video was already at a hundred thousand views or something.”
A 2015 graduate of Urbana High School in Champaign County, Ohio, Mays spent his first season as a Penguin redshirted.
Injuries ended his 2017 season. In 2018, Mays was replaced by transfer quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, but he found himself back as the starter before the season was through.
This past season, Mays set career highs in all categories.
In his 10 games, Mays had a 61.3 completion percentage, threw for 2,619 yards and had a quarterback rating of 157.1.
With the season over, two questions are left: What’s next for the Penguins at quarterback, and what’s next for Mays?
As for the quarterback position, Mays thinks the team is in good hands. As a senior, Mays mentored sophomore Joe Craycraft and freshman Mark Waid, but he didn’t expect that job to come so easy.
“They’re both smart kids,” Mays said. “I didn’t really have to do as much as you might think. They’re picking things up quickly, and they’ll be just fine without me.”
As for Mays, some may think that someone as dedicated to football as he is would dive right into coaching, but as of now, that’s not the plan.
“That’s kind of in the air right now,” Mays said. “A lot of people want me to try and give coaching a try. I don’t know if I’m all in on that one. I know I’ll be sticking around the area for a little bit working. I would like to get involved in some local businesses around here.”
He will graduate with his master’s degree in professional communication in the spring and plans to “hit the ground running.”
In a season that birthed the name “Grit U,” the player that best embodies that mantra rides off into the sunset in the way he deserves.