BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The ball was snapped, and the receivers, unfettered by pads and unworried about being hit, scattered quickly into the secondary like mice in a world without cats.
Over and over, Joe Mays was right behind them yesterday, casting a low, thick shadow of things to come on the tight ends and running backs who were his responsibility. He wanted to hit them, to separate them from the football with one of those cartoon tackles in which the helmet and the shoes of the unfortunate player pop off at the same time. But he wasn't allowed to hit them yet. No, not yet. That happens for the first time in training camp on Saturday.
Joe Mays is waiting.
"You just want to show the team that drafted you why they drafted you," the 23-year-old Mays said.
The Eagles didn't draft the linebacker because his resumé came from an impressive college program. Mays played for Division I-AA North Dakota State. They didn't draft him because he made the eyes bug out on the guys who carry around the tape measures and stopwatches at the NFL combine. He's 5-foot-11 and 246 pounds, and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds, which is merely acceptable.
"I've got enough speed to get where I'm going," Mays said.
The Eagles didn't take Mays in the sixth round with the 200th pick of the draft because he has great tools, but because he does great things with those he has. When Mays' speed gets him where he's going, someone always ends up on the ground.
"He's one of those guys who, when you turn on the film, he's making plays all over the place. A very explosive hitter," coach Andy Reid said. "He's a football player. I don't care what the level is. If you put on the film and see a guy dominating, you better look at him closely. That's what he did - he dominated."
In the short term at least, if Mays makes the roster, he seems likely to be slotted as a special-teams player, a solid blocker on returns and a wedge-buster on coverage teams. By stature and ability, he's similar to former Eagles linebacker Keith Adams, who regularly sent opposing special-teams players weaving back to the wrong sideline.
"I'm just trying to make the team. They've got a lot of good linebackers here," Mays said. "I'm trying to get in where I fit in, whether it's special teams or defense."
Mays knows about finding where you belong in life. He grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. His older brother was shot and killed when Mays was in high school. The pursuit of a better environment took Mays to Fargo, N.D., where he became North Dakota State's career leader in solo tackles.
"There was so much going on in Chicago, all the violence. You see friends getting killed, and you just don't want to be involved in all that," Mays said. "You want to get away from it and become a better person. I went to North Dakota and grew as a man."
His brother's birthday was last week, and that was the sad reminder that it always is. But Mays is finding peace with his own family now. He and his wife, LaToyia, have a daughter, Joi, and are expecting a son in September. Mays moved the family to Philadelphia right after the draft and hardly missed a day at the NovaCare Complex, arriving promptly at 7:30 each morning to begin his workouts.
"Those are the important things for me - family and work," Mays said.
Draft picks always have an edge over undrafted players when the final roster spots are filled, but only if they live up to the team's expectations in training camp. What the Eagles saw Mays do on film against college opponents is what they want to see on the fields at Lehigh.
"They drafted you for a reason - because you can play. You just want to come out and show that," Mays said. "Everybody makes mistakes, but if you show that you learn quickly and can play with the big boys, you can make it."
That should serve as a fair warning to the receivers and running backs once the pace quickens and their collision-insurance policy is canceled. There's this kid out there who wants to make the team, and he's not fooling around.
"I don't think his forte is seven on seven," Reid said dryly yesterday, referring to the noncontact drills that continue today and Friday. "I would think he's looking forward to when we put pads on."
Reid smiled, and it just might be that the coach is looking forward to that, too.