It had been a while — oh, man, had it been a while. The crowning stat of every defensive back. The moment you imagine when you're in your backyard or playing on the street growing up. It's what you strive for in practice and in games. It's the big play every defensive player is looking to make. It's the thing that makes you remembered.
One by one, Jared Mayden watched his friends get theirs, but, as for him, the ball just hadn't come his way. Of course he was happy for them. You win and lose as a team; when one wins, we all win. When you're playing football — especially at defensive back — it's like being a part of a family. But, man, with every pick he had to watch someone else get, surely a little part of Mayden wondered, "When am I going to get mine?"
But an even bigger part of him knew for a fact, "It's coming." Because he knew where he had come from.
He knew what made him.
Five years into the Alabama football program with zero takeaways to his name, Mayden, a senior safety for the Crimson Tide, stood at his own 29-yard line late in the fourth quarter of a 59-24 blowout against the Ole Miss Rebels in Week 5 of the 2019 college football season. At the snap, Mayden crept close to the box, staring at the quarterback, making sure he was in the signal caller's head. But as the ball was fired through the center's legs, Mayden quickly flipped his hips showing inside leverage and dropped back into a deep zone. As he retreated, the Crimson Tide's feared front four came after the Rebels' quarterback. As he tried to escape the pocket, the rush was closing in. He saw one of his receivers going deep over the middle of the field, and in desperation he let it fly. Little did he know, Mayden had been watching his eyes the whole time, and as the ball arrived, it was undercut and fell into the arms of Mayden for what was the first interception of his collegiate career.
After the game Mayden explained that his teammates had been ragging on him a bit for not having an interception yet. Through a smile he said that [Trevon] Diggs and X [Xavier McKinney] had been hounding him, asking him when he was going to get that first one. When he finally did, he said he didn't even talk any friendly trash on the sideline with those guys. He was too happy to think about anything else other than the ball in his hand.
After the initial high of happiness, handshakes and hugs from everyone on the sideline, when Mayden finally sat back down on that bench — or even in the locker room after the game, when he had a moment to really exhale and collect himself — he likely thought about everything it took for him to get to that moment.
He probably thought about everything that made it possible.
In doing so, he likely smiled again.
As a senior, Mayden is the elder statesman in a talented Alabama secondary. The 6-foot, 205-pound defensive back from Texas was the top cornerback in the state during his recruiting cycle back in 2016. Mayden has been a versatile depth piece throughout his Crimson Tide career, getting looks at cornerback to start and now finally settling in on a home at safety. Though being able to do many different things is calling card of Mayden's, he's happy to finally have a base position where he can hone in on his skills a certain way.
“It feels good going from being a reserve player and just doing your role, trying to execute your role the best way," Mayden said. "[I’m] out there full time now so there’s more responsibility…Took some time to get used to it. Through the spring and the first couple games, I figured out how a starter is supposed to prepare and take care of yourself. Now I’m getting used to it, so now I’m just working to keep getting better.”
When you're at a school like Alabama, especially in the secondary, you're in a crowded group. You're surrounded by some of the best players in the country at your position, not just in the league you play in, but every day on the practice field. Competition is your environment you. It will either make or break you. But a competitive climate is nothing new to Mayden. As the middle of two brothers, Jared's backyard battles with James, his older brother, and Jalen, his younger brother, molded his mindset for competition.
“It was competitive growing up, especially around high school," Mayden said. "My older brother, he was going to play at Rice, and then my youngest brother plays quarterback on top of that. So it was like one-on-ones everyday in the house or on the street. We had a quarterback, a wide receiver and I was a DB. So, if somebody felt like they were the best athlete in the family or something we’d always just go up and line up outside in in the house.”
Having two brothers is one thing. Having two brothers who are athletic and play sports is another. But having two brothers who are both good enough to play college ball, too? Now, that must have made for some fun times after school and on Saturdays around the house. It was basically put-up or shut-up anytime one of the brothers was getting a little too cocky. The person who got a first-hand look at how the three boys settled the score was their mother, Katrina Salles, whom many know as simply "Momma Mayden."
“It’s a really competitive family," Salles said. "My brothers were college athletes, and my nephews were athletes. My nieces and nephews mirrored my children in age. So playing a football game in the street was nothing. For everybody to be outside, catching a football, settling the score, talking trash, but it was all in love and development. Everybody was learning, but it was definitely, definitely settled in the streets because it didn’t come in the house [laughs].”
Under Salles' roof, the Mayden brothers didn't just learn the importance of proving themselves, they learned how to do it. The roof over their heads was a harboring place for pushing yourself — both physically and mentality. It wasn't just about the doing, it was about the drive. Even at a young age, Salles' boys wanted to be the best. That was never a tough question to answer. But everyone wants to be the best. The real question is, "Who wants to put in the work to actually become the best?" And more importantly, what does that work look like?
To discover that, Jared followed in his big brother's footsteps by enrolling in the USA Football program. After all, if his brother was upping his competition level, Jared wasn't going to just sit back and not do the same himself. It was there, as a player on the program's U18 and U19 national teams, Mayden had the chance to go up against some of the most talented high school recruits in the country, and then even further than that with some international competition.
"I was only used to going up against kids from Texas," Mayden said. "Then next thing I know I was going up against Trevon Diggs and Dwayne Haskins. That was really my first time getting to go up against other guys who were good. So in that week you go through some adversity and continue to get better. And then the game playing against Canada. They had some guy who were huge. I had never seen guys who were that big before. All in all, everything about it prepared me for the spot I’m in now.”
It's a coaching cliche that "it's not about the name on the back of your jersey that matters, it's the name on the front." There's merit to part of that; there's merit to being a part of a team. But make no mistake, there's pride that goes into donning that name on the back, too. Coming from such an athletic family, Salles instilled in her boys that when you put the name "MAYDEN" on the back of your jersey, you have a responsibility on your shoulders — to those who made it before you.
“You have to earn the name on the back of your jersey," Salles said. "You have to be at your best. You have to train. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to be able to speak well. You have to be able to present yourself well. And you have to be able to make sure that you are giving your best at every single moment that you agree to compete, because someone else’s name is on you.”
With competition at home sometimes tougher than the competition he faced on the high school field, Jared stood out as a recruit. He was rated as the top cornerback from the state of Texas in 2016, and he earned a four-star rating from 24/7. When all the offers were in, Mayden had his choice of 44 different programs from whom he had received scholarships.
Jared and Momma Mayden were close (still are). Salles was not just a mom who was supporting Jared on the sidelines and letting him do his own thing. Jared recalls so many trips the two took to make on-campus visits and compete in camps around the country. Salles was also willing to play host. Jared remembers many of the in-home visits they would have with some of the most prolific coaches in the country.
But there was one visit that stood out above the rest: a visit from Nick Saban.
Mayden remembers how much it meant for Saban to come to his house. One of the most respected coaches in college football made the trip to see him and talk to him face-to-face in his environment. And he also remembered the theme of the conversation they had.
“He told me it ain’t gonna be easy," Mayden said. "He said he wouldn’t guarantee me nothing, but if I worked to try to become great and really worked at it then I could. And that’s the opportunity that presents itself when you go to the University of Alabama.”
No B.S. Jared liked it. Saban didn't come into Mayden's house just to tell him what he wanted to hear — even though he ended up doing just that. He didn't gas Mayden up and tell him about how he sees him as a future star for the Crimson Tide. He didn't promise Mayden a starting role, or any role, for that matter. He simply told Mayden, if you want to work, if you want to be pushed, and if you want the resources and the surrounding to become the best player you can become, Alabama was the path for you.
Mayden remembered that, for a long time.
Words of motivation weren't the only way in which Saban was willing to show Mayden that Alabama could be the place for him. Later on that day, he showed Jared and his whole family that, though they will be pushed hard, they'll have some fun, too, and that when a beat comes on and the dance floor is jumping, even Nick freaking Saban can't help himself sometimes.
“He did the Wobble in my house," Mayde said. "I remember that. We had a lot of people in the house and I remember that song came on and everybody started dancing. So I said, ‘Coach Saban you gotta do the Wobble with us’ and he did it. I think he did it mores to get me as a recruit. But it was funny, though. I didn’t think he was gonna do it.”
“I mean, he probably did it before," Mayden said. "It wasn’t the worst Wobble I’ve ever seen, but it wasn’t the smoothest.”
That video, as hilarious as it is for me and you to watch, held some hidden meaning to it. It showed Mayden that Saban himself practices what he preaches. You cannot get better by staying what you are, just doing what you know. In order to reach your potential, you have to take a step. You have to get uncomfortable. You have to do things you know you might not be good at right now, but the more you do them the better you might be. You have to want to be coached.
You have to be made.
“You can’t get better if you don’t want to be coached, because then you’re just going to stay where you are," Mayden said. "The reason you come [to Alabama] is to figure out how you can become great. I can’t become great thinking I’m already great. There’s always something you can be doing to get better. Sometimes you don’t even notice. Anyone who can give me advice, I’m always listening to that person.”
These days Saban and his staff aren't the only ones coaching Mayden up. As stated before, Salles isn't your average football mom. She's not just their biggest supporter but is also likely their toughest coach.
“It’s crazy," Mayden said with a laugh. "It’s crazy how much knowledge of football she has. She’s not just like a mom who says go do your own thing. She’ll actually be like, ‘you missed this tackle’ or ‘why’d you stop running your feet?’ She’s not your average football mom... She could coach defense, offense, receivers, QB coach. She could definitely do something.”
Salles doesn't disagree.
"I am the world’s best undiscovered DB, WR and QB coach," Salles said with a laugh. (But she wasn't kidding.) "I grew up in an athletic-based family. So when my dad was coaching and I was growing up, I was the little girl in Remember the Titans. I’m in the stands, I’m calling plays, I know the players, I know where they’re supposed to be, I know the gaps, I know the route tree, I know the holes, I know the drop steps. I know what they’re supposed to be doing, so if you’re not doing it I know we need to go get you some training so you can do it better or I’m going to call you out about it and say, explain to me your thought process. Because if this is the goal that you told me you wanted to do, I’m supporting you in that goal. We’re going to all be knowledgable in it so we can have these conversations.”
Those conversations are important. They're the ones that force you to look in the mirror and be honest with what you see. They make you think about what you're doing, and if you could be doing more. But they're also conversations out of love. In everything Salles and Mayden do in their relationship, it is with love as the driving force. Every talk, every long drive, every stressful moment and every decision, it's with love and support in mind. You want to be the best? I want to help you be that. Let's go make it happen.
Even with such a support group, it hasn't always been easy. Though Mayden has had the right mindset, waiting his turn at Alabama was tough. He used to be the man. He was the player no receiver wanted to go up against. He was the guy who every school wanted. But at Alabama, for most of his career, he was just a depth player.
As his hourglass of eligibility continued to run out, Mayden wondered, even with the right intentions, if he made the wrong choice.
“It would’ve been easy to leave," Mayden said. "Especially last year. I started to get frustrated because I wanted to be on the field. It would’ve been easy to leave. But I felt that every year I was getting closer to where I wanted to be. I was learning how to work a little harder. I was learned to do some of the things that make you great. Me just up and leaving… that wasn’t really something I wanted to do.”
“One thing that I say is that these children, when they reach this level of this athleticism, and are granted this level of awareness at these universities, it takes a lot," Salles said. "It takes a lot of emotion. It takes a lot of physicality. It takes a lot of academia… So when you’ve been that key player all your life, and then you get to a place where you are required, for reasons out of your control, to wait your turn, that is difficult for some athletes, and families, because its not just the athletes going through this. The families are going through this with them, so it is a lot of emotional stress. And the athlete, the family and the university are either going to grow together or grow apart... So you have to be aware of why you were there, and if those reasons haven’t changed then you have to encourage, and encourage, and encourage for them to fight through it, to be diligence, to build that strength to endure what you chose to do; the decision you made.”
Mayden wondered, but he never wanted to quit. He trusted his process. He was honest with himself and why he chose Alabama. He reminisced on his talk with Saban years ago. "It wasn't going to be easy," and it certainly hasn't been. But every year, he saw himself getting better. He saw himself getting closer.
The spot he's in now is as a starter for one of the top defenses in the country, and it's been a long journey for Mayden to get there. His number has changed, his position has changed, and his role has changed. But what hasn't changed is how he approaches the game, how he's never been afraid to work, to challenge himself, and to do what has to be done — on and off the field ... to be the best he can possibly be.
Even when explaining his favorite play he's made in his collegiate career, Mayden's answer embodies exactly who he is.
“I feel like my best play wasn’t even like a tackle or an interception or pass break up," Mayden said. "It was the second play against Duke. They ran a toss and one of the O-Lineman got up to me and I remember just knocking him over like, his feet came off the ground, and I put him on his back. I didn’t even make the play, I just did what I was supposed to do and set the edge.”
Nothing flashy, nothing crazy — just knowing his job, and making it.
That's Jared Mayden.
At the end of his college career, there are going to be players who have better stats than him, more tape than him, and even a higher profile name. But when it comes to the foundation, the want, the drive, and the desire to continually be coached, to be the best player he can be, for himself and for the team, you won't find many in the country who will beat Mayden in those areas.
“The work ethic, the wanting to be coached, the wanting to figure it out; Jared's going to be a guy that some NFL team is going to get a hold of and they’re going to fall in love because he’s that same way," Aaron Ingram senior director for USA Football National Team said. "They find out that this guy’s been schooled up by Saban in the secondary. He can play, and even wants to get better even more. I think he’s just scratching the surface for how good he could be.”
After four years of being coached by the best defensive backs coach in all of college football, on the foundation of being coached by a super mom who's been there for him since the day he first picked up a football, Mayden isn't done yet. If you ask him, he'll likely tell you the work is never over.
There's pride in the process of earning the right to have "MAYDEN" on the back of his jersey.
When you get to know him, you understand how he's Mayden Made.