Carolina Panthers

From shed to NFL, David Mayo trying to find home with Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers rookie linebacker David Mayo, center, arrives for the team's rookie minicamp on Friday, May 8, 2015.
Carolina Panthers rookie linebacker David Mayo, center, arrives for the team's rookie minicamp on Friday, May 8, 2015. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Yes, David Mayo lived in a shed for a semester at junior college.

No, it was not a metaphor representing Mayo’s perseverance, nor does the Carolina Panthers’ rookie linebacker look back at the six months he slept in the 10-foot-by-15-foot structure as any sort of defining moment.

It was simply a way to save on rent in southern California, where studio apartments went for as much as $1,000 a month.

That said, Mayo thinks the living arrangement made him a better player and student because, well, who wants to hang out in a shed any more than you have to?

“I think it helped me. Not having anything else to do, I worked out longer and studied a little more,” Mayo said. “People have had worse (situations), for sure.”

Mayo’s path to the NFL included stops in such far-flung football outposts as Scappoose, Ore., Santa Monica, Calif., and San Marcos, Texas.

Now he’s in Charlotte, where he joins a potent linebacking group featuring Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and first-round pick Shaq Thompson. That crowd at linebacker begs the question: Where will Mayo fit?

Battling for his spot

It’s a question he’s been answering most of his life, from growing up the youngest of seven children in a sports-centric family in Oregon to getting overlooked by the bigger schools not once, but twice during his football career.

But Mayo, 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, battled through injuries before flourishing in his final season at Texas State, where he was the second-leading tackler in the country and was the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Mayo grew up in Scappoose, a bedroom community of 7,000 about 30 minutes outside Portland. As the youngest of seven children, including four boys, Mayo gave up a lot of years – and pounds – when the brothers would wrestle.

“I lost a lot,” he said.

But he gained toughness, even when he wasn’t trying to. Mayo remembers coming home from a Pee-Wee practice one evening when his brother Derek, in high school at the time, invited him to go out back and play football.

“I thought it was going to be something fun,” Mayo said. “We were going to throw the ball around or play two-hand touch.”

Instead, his brother pushed Mayo, still in his pads and Pee-Wee uniform, to the ground. He’d get up, and Derek would push him down again.

“It wasn’t bullying or trying to be a jerk,” Mayo said. “He was just being funny and trying to toughen me up a bit.”

Division II interest

By his senior year in 2011 at Scappoose High, where Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson also once played, Mayo averaged 10 tackles a game and ran for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns. But the only schools to show interest were Division II Western Oregon and nearby Portland State, a FCS school. Mayo figures he wasn’t big enough or fast enough for Oregon and Oregon State, where Anderson played.

“I made good plays at linebacker but probably not as many explosive plays as they were looking for,” he said.

Rather than play for a small school, Mayo decided to enroll that fall at Santa Monica, a two-year school with a history of sending players on to FBS programs.

Mayo started searching online for places to live, and found that most were out of his price range. His tuition at Santa Monica was covered by a Pell grant. And though his father and grandmother were paying his rent, Mayo didn’t want to stick them with an exorbitant bill.

After posting an ad on Craig’s List saying he’d “stay anywhere,” Mayo heard from a woman who rented rooms in her home 5 miles from campus. Both rooms were rented, but she told Mayo she had a shed in the backyard with a bed and ottoman.

The shed, made out of wood paneling and sitting on a concrete slab, wasn’t insulated. But Mayo could run an extension cord from the house to power a computer, phone and lamp, and a heater in the winter.

The owner said Mayo would have access to the kitchen and the bathroom inside the house, and she’d rent it to him for $450, including utilities.

“I would have my own place, so I was like, ‘Let’s do it. I need a place to stay,’” Mayo said.

Texas State breakthrough

Mayo bought a bike, but usually rode the bus to campus, which was only a couple of miles from the Pacific Ocean.

He went to the beach occasionally, and worked part-time at a nearby church on Sundays, setting up before the service and cleaning up afterward. According to his father, Mayo played drums in a church youth group growing up.

Mayo, who was on his high school track team, spent most of his time at Santa Monica studying and practicing.

And other than the extreme temperatures on nights when it was really hot or cold, Mayo didn’t give much thought to his unique living situation.

“For me it wasn’t as big of a deal when I was doing it,” he said. “I was basically just going down there for a mission. I was just going to go down there and do whatever I had to do to earn a Division I scholarship.”

Despite starting and making 68 tackles in 2011 during his only season at Santa Monica, Mayo again heard mostly from FCS schools like Central Connecticut State and Prairie View.

But Texas State had hired former Alabama and Texas Christian coach Dennis Franchione to take its program from FCS to FBS in 2012, a transition the Charlotte 49ers also made. With the school’s scholarship pool swelling from 63 to 85 players, Franchione and his staff recruited every junior college in the country.

And while Franchione never made an in-home visit to Mayo’s shed, he found him.

Franchione said he’s heard more about the shed in the week since Mayo was drafted than during Mayo’s three years at Texas State.

“I just wanted a football player,” Franchione said. “I liked him. He was upfront and honest. When David said it, you could take it to the bank and count on it.”

The Texas State coaches also could count on Mayo making tackles in bunches. He won a starting spot immediately and had a 13-tackle game against Nevada before tearing his meniscus and missing the second half of the 2012 season. Mayo led the Sun Belt Conference with an average of six solo tackles a game in 2013, when he missed two games with a sprained MCL.

Healthy the entire 2014 season, Mayo averaged 12.8 tackles, second nationally behind New Mexico linebacker Dakota Cox (12.9).

Mayo said a knee injury to Michael Orakpo, the younger brother of Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, gave him more opportunities to make plays. But Franchione said Mayo’s tackle total was a product of his skills and effort.

“The system is always a little part of it, coaching’s always a little part of it, but David’s worked hard for everything he’s gotten,” Franchione said. “He’s as accountable and as (good a) work ethic a guy as you could ask for. He played with a lot intensity and went into his senior year on a mission.”

Getting Panthers attention

Despite his production, Mayo was not invited to the NFL combine or any of the major showcase games. But his agent Derrick Fox, who also represents former Panthers wideout and Santa Monica product Steve Smith, was confident Mayo would be drafted.

“He’s Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and he doesn’t get a combine invite, he doesn’t get a major all-star game, and I’ve got scouts telling me they had a late-round grade on him,” Fox said.

Mayo, who with his long dirty blonde hair looks a bit like Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, had a pair of games with 20 or more tackles as a senior.

But it was Mayo’s 15-tackle game against Navy’s option attack that caught the eye of Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

“(Texas State) did some interesting things with him. They played Navy and that option of theirs and they lined him deep in the middle like a deep middle linebacker and you saw him flow one way or the other,” Rivera said. “He’s got some natural feel as far as linebacker instincts, and he looks like he has some (strongside) linebacker ability as well.”

Mayo had a tough time in pass coverage during the two-day rookie minicamp, getting beaten several times by running back Cameron Artis-Payne during 1-on-1 drills. Rivera, a former NFL linebacker, said it’s an unfair drill for linebackers because the backs get more space to roam than they would while fighting through traffic during a game.

Mayo believes with more reps, he’ll get better and faster in coverage. But he says his skill set is better suited to full-pad practices when the hitting starts.

“I think that’s more my style of football, with pads on,” he said. “Definitely, excited for that.”

At the end of minicamp, Mayo was headed back to Texas State for his last round of finals. He’s set to graduate Friday with a degree in business management.

When he returns to Charlotte, Mayo might have to find a niche on special teams initially, given the team’s depth at linebacker. That shouldn’t be an issue for a player without a sense of entitlement, a trait mentioned by both Franchione and Fox, Mayo’s agent.

“He’s one of those guys you feel good about, and proud for him and of him because he worked hard and did so much,” Franchione said. “As a coach, it just makes your heart feel really good.”

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