If KJ Maye were the quitting type, he could have given up when he got expelled from middle school, or when he broke his ankle in high school, or when he suffered a sports hernia as a college sophomore. Or, most recently, when he felt lost in the Gophers' plans a football season ago.
But the too-small high school quarterback from Mobile, Ala., never stopped believing he would be an impact player. The senior has worked tirelessly to become one of the most productive Gophers receivers in recent history. Midway through his junior year, however, he'd barely seen a pass thrown his way.
"I'm like, 'Dang, what are they going to do?' " he said. " 'Do they have any plans for me? What's my role? What's my purpose?' "
It's easy to see now. Maye has blossomed into the Gophers' best receiver since Eric Decker. Maye's 60 receptions are the most for the team since Decker had 84 in 2008.
Maye could be headed into his final college game Saturday, when Minnesota faces Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium. The 5-6 Gophers need a victory to clinch a bowl berth, and Maye is on a mission to make it happen.
His parents, Kelvin and Tammie, will be on the field before the game to see their son honored on Senior Day. They reflected this week on all KJ had been through to reach this point.
"Oh man, we're extremely proud," Kelvin said. "If it becomes a tearful situation, it would be more tears of joy."
All five members of Maye's family have played Division I sports.
Kelvin was a wide receiver for Tennessee Tech in the late 1980s. Tammie played basketball at Jackson State before transferring to Spring Hills College, where she was an All-America.
Maye's older brother, Terrelle, was a running back at Marshall, and his younger brother, Kameron, is a wide receiver at Georgia Southern.
"We didn't pressure them into playing sports," Tammie said. "We wanted them to find their own way."
Maye had several friends who found trouble growing up in Mobile, a metro area of about 400,000 people on the Gulf Coast. His one big mistake came in eighth grade, when he was expelled for bringing pain pills to school. Maye said the principal assumed his intent was to sell them.
For the final two months of the semester, Maye had to attend an alternative school. His mother remembers him waking each day before 5 a.m. to take the long bus ride across town.
"We all endured that with him," Tammie said. "We sat him down and had a meeting. Then we talked as a family. Everybody learns from the other's challenges."
Maye said the alternative school reminded him of scenes he'd seen from prisons, with bathroom monitors and single-file lines to and from lunch.
"I learned at an early age, there's real consequences, not just a little slap on the wrist or a little spanking," he said. "That's why I haven't done anything stupid out of school to get myself in trouble. No bar fights or stealing stuff or any type of thing that you see college athletes doing a lot these days."
Finding his way
Maye knew discipline by the time he got to Murphy High School, which has produced such NFL players as Keith McCants, Jerrel Wilson and Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Maye was the starting quarterback in Murphy's wing-T offense as a sophomore. But he broke an ankle during training camp before his junior year and had to miss much of that season.
"He rehabbed so hard," Kelvin Maye said. "I don't think he realized he was rehabbing more than his body; he was rehabbing his mind. I think that's when he really fell in love with working out. Tammie calls him the bionic man now."
At 5-10, 190 pounds, Maye was recruited more as an athlete than a quarterback. He had offers from Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette, but the Gophers convinced him to come north.
"You saw the explosion, the quickness with the ball on his hands, and then I got a chance to go watch him play point guard and saw his leadership on the basketball court," Gophers receivers coach Brian Anderson said. "He played defense. He got guys lined up right. He would get on them."
When Maye was a freshman, the coaches started using him as a slot receiver, as well as a running back. He was actually ahead of David Cobb, the team's future rushing record-breaker, on the team's tailback depth chart that year.
Maye showed big potential the next spring, but he suffered a sports hernia early in his sophomore season. Looking back, Maye said he probably should have sat out and taken a medical redshirt. He finished with only seven receptions.
"My pride was in the way," he said. "I knew I was hurt, but I wanted to contribute more, and my body wasn't working with me. That's when I got real down."
He had surgery after the season and expected to have a breakout junior year. Six games into it, he'd caught only three passes.
"I was like 'Dang, this is my junior year. I'm almost done, and I haven't really reached what I wanted to do,' " Maye said. "That was my low point."
"I called back home. I was like, 'Dad, I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do. I'm always the last one out of the weight room, always the last one off the field. I just don't know what else to do.' "
Kelvin drew upon his own experience, as well as things he saw teammates go through in college.
His advice: "Just stay patient. Keep your head right. Don't check out on me because when your opportunity comes and you check out mentally, it'll embarrass you. And then what? Then you're going to be more down on yourself."
Setting, attacking goals
Maye scored his first career touchdown the next game against Purdue, diving over a defender on a highlight-reel play. He caught three passes for 75 yards against Missouri in the Citrus Bowl, then spent the offseason working on timing routes with quarterback Mitch Leidner.
On paper, Maye wrote down his personal goals for his senior year: 60 catches for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. Perhaps it seemed far-fetched for a player who'd never caught more than 16 passes in a season.
But here he is with 60 receptions for 661 yards. He has five touchdowns, counting a rushing score against Nebraska. He's played some of his best games of late, having collected more than 100 receiving yards against Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa.
"When I talk to [NFL] scouts about him, I tell them, 'He's a sweater Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,' " Anderson said. "No matter what we're doing tempo-wise, it's all about juice. And I think the younger guys see that, but they've got to learn how to do it."
Maye is finishing a sociology degree and has thought about someday starting an organization to help prisoners with their re-entry into society. He'll wait to see how far football takes him. He's a likely pick for the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile.
Maye hopes to get drafted next spring or sign with an NFL team as a free agent. For now, he's just focused on Wisconsin, and the Gophers' chance to win Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2003.
"I have a lot to be thankful for — obviously, finishing up school, being able to get my degree, making it through this season healthy, overcoming a lot of stuff in my four years," Maye said. "So it's just been a blessing to be able to be in this position."