BY DAVIN WILSON
Gabe Mayfield shuffles down the long hallways of Red Onion Prison located in Pound, Virginia, and up to a large metal door. It buzzes and then creeps open as protecting the inmate from the fate waiting behind it. Three burly correctional officers — one of them wearing an Alabama Crimson Tide baseball cap, the snap-back kind — help Mayfield over to a desk where a plump guard with a buzz cut hands Mayfield a stack of papers. He points over to the Crimson Tide officer.
“Can you believe this jerk is a Crimson Tide fan?”
Mayfield smiles. “I know. And ain’t he from Clemson?”
Buzz Cut smirks. “Bandwagon.”
“That must’ve made it easier when Clemson whooped that butt last year,” Mayfield retorts, wearing a sarcastic yet jovial grin across his face.
Mayfield and Buzz Cut laugh. The Crimson Tide officer takes the jab in perfect stride, allowing a playful grin to form across his face. Mayfield signs the papers, and the officers walk him over to another large metal door of the buzzing variety. After a quick prayer and a few pats on the back amongst the three, the door buzzes open and Mayfield walks through and takes a deep breath.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Mayfield takes in the evening air a free man.
GABE ABLE MAYFIELD was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1981. His father, Jack, was a Vietnam veteran and heavy construction foreman, and his mother, Emmanuelle, was a registered nurse. Frequently involved in trouble, Mayfield ran with a group of friends who were constantly testing the waters and giving their parents gray hairs. At the same time, he was also developing a deep love for sports and the attention it brought him and made both the varsity football and baseball teams while only in ninth grade.
His high school athletic resume reads like a series of clerical errors. He hit a 550-foot homer as a freshman, mastered the knuckleball off the mound as a sophomore and turned in a .523 batting average his junior season. He was also a three-time All-State nomination at middle linebacker, where he won back-to-back Kentucky state championships and earned a spot in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl game, cementing his reputation as one of the nation’s premier high school athletes.
Jack and Emmanuelle raised Gabe and his three brothers to be fully committed to everything they did. They stressed the importance of being competitive in the classroom and on the field and it was advice all four Mayfield children heeded.
“They were always the best ones in any class,” their former teacher Mary McCormick said. “They stayed miles ahead of the rest of the kids and mastered the subject to the point they would challenge their teachers with some of the questions they asked.”
McCormick recalls Gabe getting an 89 on one of his exams his junior year, which cost him an A in her class. Gabe started repeatedly banging his hand against his head and murmuring cuss words to himself over his perceived failure.
“It creeped the kids out,” McCormick said. “Gabe was 6 foot 3 inches by the team he reached high school and towered over the other kids. They knew he was vicious on the football field so it definitely frightened them a bit.”
Mayfield’s prowess’s on the football field and in the classroom earned him several full scholarships offers by the time he was a junior. South Carolina, Clemson, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Florida all recruited him heavily, but in the end, he chose Clemson, where he went on to become a beast at the middle linebacker position. His abilities to punish opposing ball carriers and knack for creating turnovers earned him comparisons to Chuck Bednarik and Dick Butkus. In the first three games of his sophomore year, Mayfield knocked three opposing running backs out for the season, earning him the moniker Bone Crusher. He carried the same work ethic into the classroom and it led to a 3.8 GPA and Academic All-Conference and All-American honors his sophomore year.
Everything seemed like it was falling into place for Mayfield. His NFL stock was steadily rising, and he had garnered a great deal of attention from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders, who wanted a mike linebacker with both natural born ability and smarts.
“There are certain things you can’t teach,” said Raiders’ scout Mike Davis. “Mayfield had all the tangibles, but his game knowledge was out of this world. I had never seen anything like that coming from such a young man.”
But then Jack passed away suddenly in 2000 from a stroke resulting from surgical complications at 53, leaving Mayfield without his hero.
“That was the darkest moment of my life,” Mayfield said. “I was in my dorm when I got the call, and I ended up putting my hand all the way through the door. My dad was everything I wanted to be. I had even planned on becoming a construction foreman like him when my football career was over.”
“I really had a chip on my shoulder after that. I started drinking heavily, abusing drugs, and I got real violent. It was just too much to bear.”
Emmanuelle, and his three brothers tried reaching out to him, but it was too late. His grades plummeted and then during the sixth game of his sophomore season, he got pulled after missing a tackle that led to a 75-yard touchdown run.
Mayfield lost it. He walked over to the sidelines and up to the defensive coordinator and chucked a water bottle straight at his head. The defensive coordinator was knocked out cold and ended up receiving 12 stitches. Mayfield was promptly kicked off the team, and he dropped out of school soon after. For the first time since he was five-years-old, Mayfield was no longer a student-athlete.
“That sent me down my spiral even further,” Mayfield said. “I didn’t care about anything anymore. I cut off all contact with my family, my teammates and just started running around with all the wrong people. I started dealing drugs, stealing cars, whatever I could do to buck the establishment.”
Then on August 20, 2001, Mayfield and a couple of his buddies had gone out to a local bar to watch a soccer match between Arsenal and Manchester United. A group of frat brothers recognized Mayfield and started picking on him over his love of soccer. Mayfield ignored them at first, but when one of the frat bros grabbed Mayfield’s shoulder, he took the bait.
He grabbed an empty liquor bottle and went to town. When the dust had settled, all three of the brothers ended up in the hospital and one died two months later while in a medically induced coma.
“I changed the course of that man’s life,” Mayfield said. “I took him away from his family, from his friends, really from anyone who had ever loved him. It’s a moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life, and I hope it’s something God can forgive me for.”
Mayfield was arrested, charged with involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He did the first five years of his sentence at the Evans Correctional Institute in Bennettsville, South Carolina, but was eventually sent up north to Red Onion after getting into almost 40 fights in Evans.
“The guys there knew who I was,” Mayfield said. “Many of them were Clemson fans and felt like I betrayed them and the program by getting kicked off the team. Then there were those who just wanted to test a Division I football player.”
Mayfield was sent to the notorious prison in Southwestern Virginia to serve out the remainder of his sentence. The thought of spending the next 20 years in a place like Red Onion made him nervous, but little did he know, his time there would mark the beginning of his redemption.
GABE MAYFIELD’S REDEMPTION SONG is a tune most Americans will grow to hate if Mayfield has the type of success experts are predicting. America is a country where its citizens hold on tight to their religious beliefs yet many of them feel little compassion or forgiveness when it comes to their criminals.
Four years ago, Mayfield was sent to the prison’s notorious segregation unit where he spent 23 hours a day alone in his 7-by-12-foot cell after getting into a brutal fight in the cafeteria. Mayfield was eating lunch when an inmate came up behind him and cold-cocked him with a tray. A scuffle ensued and Mayfield ended it when he clocked the inmate upside the head with his tray, knocking his eye out in the process.
“I’ve gone up against guys on the football field that would gladly eat your head for breakfast,” Mayfield said. “But that day in the cafeteria was the first time in my life where I’ve been truly scared. I hated disabling the man, but I did what I had to do to protect myself.”
Forced to spend 23 hours in extreme isolation, Mayfield consumed himself with literature. He started off with Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” with particular focus on the use of energy chapter.
“Being alone for that amount of time each day, you’ve really got to find a way to channel all your emotions,” Mayfield said. “You’ve got to take the fear, the anger, the desperation and despair, the darkness and turn it into something positive. That book saved my life.”
He also started reading Henry David Thoreau and got heavily involved with Transcendentalism. A relapsed Catholic, Mayfield also started working on re-establishing his relationship with the higher powers. He got heavily involved with Buddhism, finding Zen meditation.
“Reading Thoreau and Emerson really encouraged me to find out who I was in relation to the universe,” Mayfield said. “And it was only through mediation, that I was able to slow my stream of thoughts down long enough to discover who I was in relationship to everything else.”
“It made me more aware. For the first time in my life, I really knew who I was and what my purpose was.”
Mayfield’s efforts paid handsome dividends. Within a matter of six months, he was let out of segregation and placed back into general population, where he began teaching a class on meditation to some of the prison’s most violent offenders. The guards took notice and some of them beginning writing letters to the governor to have the rest of Mayfield’s sentence commuted.
“Being able to reach some of those inmates really helped me atone for the things I’ve done,” said Mayfield. “Helping fix their lives really made me feel more at peace and that I was giving back for the life I stole.”
Meanwhile, little did Mayfield know that one of the guards had snuck the security video of the fight out of the prison and placed it on YouTube. It wasn’t too long before Mayfield started receiving calls from NFL scouts. At first, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers, then the Green Bay Packers followed by the Chicago Bears. Mayfield, though, had little interest.
“I was past all that violence,” Mayfield said. “I love football and it’s been great to me, but I felt like if I opened that door again, then I would erase all the forward progress I’d made, and I’d end up doing something worse than I’ve ever done.”
Mayfield turned down the offers and continued teaching his class. However, six months later, an offer came from the New York Mets, who had seen Mayfield’s violent swing in the video and were interested in signing him. Mayfield’s curiosity was piqued.
“I’ve always loved baseball and was pretty good at it,” Mayfield said. “Obviously, it’s a lot less violent sport, and the discipline required to be able to hit a curveball, sweeping slider and knuckleball really appealed to me.”
Mayfield accepted the offer and after the warden pulled some strings, his sentence was commuted and he was released after being in prison a day short of 10 years.
His minor-league baseball career started with the Delmarva Shorebirds — the Orioles’ Class-A affiliate located in Salisbury, Maryland. He led the league in batting average (.353) and slugging percentage (.579) and finished second in the RBI chase, driving in 75 RBI. Not bad for a man that had been removed from baseball for nearly 15 years.
Mayfield’s numbers were good enough to allow him to bypass Baltimore’s Single-A Advanced team and right to the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate in Bowie, Maryland. In his first weekend with the team, Mayfield went 12-for-12 with 11 homers, including a 570-foot blast in just his second game with the team. The rest of his season read like a series of clinical errors. He hit .420, posted 18 home runs and drove in 45 runs in his first three weeks with the team. His performance convinced the Orioles Mayfield was ready to play major league ball, and he received his call up to the majors a month later.
“I cried when I got the call,” Mayfield said. “Just thinking about everything I had gone through in my life. The highs, the soul-crushing lows. All the peaks and valleys. It was a surreal moment, and I still can’t believe to this day I’m in this position.”
Mayfield signed a three-year contract worth $900,000 as a designated hitter. So far, Mayfield has posted an impressive .310 average and recorded a team-high 56 RBI through the first two months of the season. Not too shabby for a man who was living in alone in a seven-by-12-foot cell just four years ago.
“I look back now and it was all the time I spent in segregation that got me to this point,” Mayfield said. “All that time in isolation really helped me re-focus and re-discipline not only my mind, but my body as well.”
PRODIGIES, whether a computer programmer or athlete, share a trait Boston College psychology chair Ellen Winner has named “the rage to master.” Winner, the author of “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities,” says it’s not as much about rage as it is persistence. Many prodigies are single-minded people who are obsessed with getting better and better.
It is a trait that Mayfield is taking to heart.
“Sure, I want to continually improve as a baseball player and take this thing as far as it will go, but I’m more focused now on continually improving as a person,” Mayfield said. “Baseball has really helped me regain that discipline and work ethic that made me so successful in college.”
“However, I know if I get too complacent, though, and stop improving myself, I will fall back into the same traps and rage that derailed me in the first place, so I’m just working hard on controlling my thoughts and environment.”
Many prodigies either doing whatever made them so prodigious, wreck their talents with bad decisions or grow to despise what made them so successful. Once the precociousness fades and the ranks of violinists, pianists, computer programmers or athletes grow, the rage to master fades to black and needs to be replaced by another pursuit.
Luckily for Mayfield, he has found another pursuit and it has helped him avoid becoming another prodigy who never reached his potential and stay out of the ranks of the Bobby Fischer’s of the world.
“Every day is a new challenge,” Mayfield said. “Every situation brings the opportunity to either grow or become stunted as a person. I’m determined right now to keep growing and keep working on myself until I’m put in the ground and turned to ash.”
Not bad for a guy who up until three years ago, was sentenced to 25 years in prison and lost.