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'Just Win': West Michigan native recounts National Championship run in '97 with Wolverines

Dr. Eric Mayes, graduate of Portage Northern HS, was co-captain of Michigan football team in 1997
Posted at 9:04 AM, Dec 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-29 09:04:31-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Michigan has a shot at competing for a national championship in football this year. The last time that happened came in 1997.

Dr. Eric Mayes, a West Michigan native, was co-captain of that team. Even though it happened almost a quarter of a century, Mayes said he'll never forget that season, and that team.

They won against all odds, and his own road to glory was no different.

“It was a long grueling fight, from unknown, to Eric Mayes, captain of the best defense I say to play college football," Mayes told FOX 17.

Everyone loves to hear a good underdog story. Mayes' loves to tell his own.

“That experience is a part of me," he said. "I always find myself looking back at it, just to celebrate it for what it was, when I get the chance to.”

It's a story that should've never happened. Then again, that's what makes it great.

Mayes was born in Benton Harbor. After a short stop in South Bend, Indiana for a few years, his family returned to West Michigan.

Mayes attended Portage Northern High School to play football for the Huskies.

“Portage Northern was a great place for me to grow," Mayes said. "I learned a lot, developed great relationships and friendships I have now.”

Undersized and under-recruited, though, Mayes gave up on football. Instead, he turned his attention to academics, traveling south to a small HBCU called Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

However, something didn't feel quite right.

“I was homesick," Mayes said. "I had never been to a state the hadn’t touched Michigan. I spent very little time away from my family and friends.”

So, Mayes transferred to the University of Michigan. Still, he was only focused on enrolling as a student.

Mayes said he was perfectly content watching football games from the stands. That was until late September 1994. The Colorado Buffaloes came to town and everything changed.

“Kordell Stewart rolled out and threw the Hail Mary to Westbrook in the corner of the end zone, and Michigan lost as the clock ran out — silenced the stadium," Mayes said. "It was at that moment I felt like I could help Michigan.”

Mayes walked onto the team in the spring. Before the 1997 season, he became co-captain, leading a squad that entered the season with low expectations.

“Folks were saying the M in Michigan stood for mediocre," Mayes said. "We were also playing what folks said was the toughest schedule in the country.”

The team ignored all that noise, and instead, wrote its own narrative.

“We ended up coming up with one goal, and that was, ‘Just Win,'" Mayed said.

“Our Coach Lloyd had us look at our season like climbing Mt. Everest and he gave every guy a pick," he added. "The pick was to symbolize us taking a step, making progress week by week, up the mountain until we reached the summit.”

Unfortunately, Mayes' climb was cut short. Just four games in, he tore his left ACL, sidelining him for the rest of his final season.

It was a devastating blow, but beating the odds became a part of his identity, and in turn, the team's identity as well.

“We used to say, before we ran out on the stadium, ‘God help them because they got to play Michigan today,'” Mayes said.

The Wolverines went on to win every single game that season, beating Ohio State to take the Big Ten, and later Washington State in the Rose Bowl.

That pushed them to the top of the final AP Poll, cementing their spot as national champions.

“It was wonderful," Mayes said. "It was a great experience. It brought a lot of the Michigan faithful together. It allowed people to brag about what so many people — Michigan fans had hoped Michigan football would be.”

From overlooked, to overwhelmed, to overjoyed, Mayes' path is one of pure passion and perseverance. Those are both part of the identity of the 2021 Michigan Wolverines football team.

Mayes has a simple message for them ahead of Friday's Orange Bowl against Georgia:

“To finish," he said. "It’s all out there, it’s still all in front of you. Now there are some hurdles, there definitely are some hurdles, but those hurdles are just great opportunities.”

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