Three months. Two national championships. One family.
It is going to be hard for Mark and Aimée Maye’s testosterone-heavy brood to ever top what has happened in the first half of 2017 – an NCAA basketball championship for Luke at North Carolina and an NCAA baseball championship for Cole at Florida.
The family’s ride over the past three months has been extraordinary, joyous and at one point monumentally scary -- Luke’s car-flipping, landing-on-the-hood, ‘I-totaled-the-car-Dad’ wreck on Interstate 85 at 70 mph last month that he somehow walked away from with hardly a scratch (more on that later).
The Mayes have traveled all over America, watching, playing and praying for each other – from Huntersville to Chapel Hill, from Memphis to Phoenix, from Gainesville, Fla., to Omaha, Neb.
Cole flew to the NCAA title game in Arizona to support Luke in the middle of his season as a surprise. Luke flew to the College World Series in Omaha two weeks ago to support Cole.
“We were just so happy for each other,” Cole said.
“And now,” Luke said, referring to the two national titles, “we’ve got something on every other family.”
Finally, this week, life slowed down enough for all the Mayes to make it to one place at one time over the Fourth of July holiday.
They drove to Linville, N.C., in the shadow of gorgeous Grandfather Mountain, to visit the boys’ maternal grandmother, Margaret Sockwell, and to reminisce about the past few months. I joined them there for a few hours, talking to the two title-winning brothers in their first joint interview since the two championships.
Luke, only 15 months older than Cole, made one of the biggest shots in UNC basketball history to beat Kentucky in an Elite Eight game for the ages in March. He scored a career-high 17 points in that game, including the 18-foot buzzer-beater that immediately drew comparisons to Michael Jordan’s shot to beat Georgetown in the 1982 national championship. Then Luke showed up the next morning for his 8 a.m. class, drawing a standing ovation from his classmates. He will likely start at power forward for the Tar Heels next season as a junior.
Cole graduated a semester early from Hough High in Cornelius in December 2016, skipping his senior prom and what would have been his final high school baseball season to join a loaded Florida squad that ended up winning the first national championship in school history. Cole played sparingly, pitching in only five of Florida’s 71 games and only in relief, but the experience should prepare him for a much bigger role over the next few years.
The resemblance between Luke and Cole is striking enough that Cole is frequently mistaken for Luke nowadays.
“Since I’ve been back for the summer there have been a lot of congratulations around town,” Cole said. “And a couple of mix-ups like, ‘Good job this year in basketball!’ ”
It didn’t used to be that way. Luke, 20, is the oldest and tallest of the four Maye brothers and a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward for North Carolina. But Cole, 19, has shot up to 6-7 and 220 and is a lefty pitcher for Florida.
“I’ve sort of caught up to him in height,” Cole said.
“Plus he’s sort of caught up to me in hair,” Luke said. “Cole used to never like facial hair. Now he’s kind of embraced it a little bit.”
The third and fourth Maye brothers are athletes, too. Beau is a rising 10th grader at Hough and has fractionally surpassed Luke in height. Although his athletic career has been postponed several times because of a series of injuries, Beau plans to play high school basketball again this season and possibly football before his prep career is over. Drake, a rising ninth grader at Hough and slightly smaller than the three giants who are his older brothers, hopes to play football, basketball and baseball during his high school career.
The brothers have benefited from a remarkably athletic bloodline on both sides of the family, starting with two grandfathers who were heavily involved in sports. Mark Maye, their father, was a starting quarterback at North Carolina (as well as a Morehead Scholar) in the mid-1980s and before that was a three-sport star at Independence. He likely would have been a starting NFL quarterback had injuries not short-circuited his career.
Aimée Sockwell Maye was a star basketball player at West Charlotte and the Mecklenburg County girls’ player of the year as a high school senior. She decided not to play college basketball but could have. The two met at Chapel Hill and have produced a family of extremely polite, extremely large young men who have torched athletic courts and all-you-can-eat buffets all over the state of North Carolina. The Mayes are sort of like North Carolina’s version of the Gronkowski brothers, if you take out the beer kegs and replace them with sweet tea.
Surviving the wreck
The past three months have gone about as well as the Mayes could imagine, as North Carolina’s basketball team and Florida baseball squad survived one close call after another until they earned the ultimate celebration. But all of that could have changed in a few seconds at 1:15 p.m. on June 8th.
Luke, who was in summer school at North Carolina, was driving home alone from Chapel Hill to Huntersville in a 2014 Ford Expedition on Interstate 85. He planned to see his youngest brother Drake’s middle school graduation that night and then to give the fifth-grade graduation speech to his old elementary school in Huntersville the next morning.
At that point, near Lexington, N.C., and mile marker 95, Interstate 85 South is a three-lane divided highway. Luke was in the middle lane. He was planning to get over into the far right lane – where there was an 18-wheeler he didn’t see.
“I was merging to the right,” Luke said in his first public comments about the accident. “I didn’t look in my rear-view mirror and I hit the tractor trailer on the front left bumper. And he kind of spun me out.”
What happened next usually only happens in a “Fast and Furious” movie. Luke’s car began to flip – at least two times, maybe more. His front airbag didn’t deploy, but his side airbag did. His seat belt held him in place, but the car came to rest on its roof. One of the doors flew open during the flips.
“So I just unbuckled,” Luke said, “and crawled out.”
The tractor trailer, which sustained minimal damage, pulled over just down the road. The driver – a professional trucker who lives in the Charlotte area and saw Luke’s car doing 360s right in front of him -- came back to check on Luke.
“He was very apologetic,” Luke said, “but it wasn’t really his fault.”
In the ensuing report by the state highway patrol, Luke was cited for an unsafe lane change and also an expired vehicle registration. The report says no alcohol was involved in the crash and that Luke was traveling 70 mph and the truck 62 mph at the time of impact.
The highway patrolman who filed the crash report estimated that while inside his car that Luke, after impact, had spun and flipped for more than the length of a football field – 381 feet. Unsurprisingly, Luke’s car was totaled.
Luke called his parents after the wreck, and Mark Maye came to pick him up. Luke declined medical attention because, he said, “I felt perfectly normal.”
He still made it to his brother’s graduation that night and also gave his speech the next morning. The Mayes know how lucky Luke was and have counted their blessings every day since.
“I had a little scratch on my knee,” Luke said, “but besides that, I was fine.”
‘How fortunate they are’
As you might expect, the Maye brothers are very competitive with each other. In Linville on Monday, they played 18 holes on a par-3 golf course, with Cole beating Luke.
“I shot high on the front nine,” Luke explained. “Granted, I just came out of a three-hour car ride. He was only in a two-hour car ride, and he had 30 minutes to warm up.”
“I took no practice swings, buddy,” Cole countered.
“You walked around,” Luke said.
The friendly joshing obscures the fact that all four of the brothers seem to honestly celebrate each others’ accomplishments.
“The most important thing for me is how they pull so hard for each other,” Aimée Maye said. “I love that as a mom.”
Father Mark Maye wonders if the brothers even quite comprehend what they have done. He never came close to a national championship in college – very few college athletes do. In 2042, Luke and Cole Maye will likely each attend separate 25th reunions in Chapel Hill and Gainesville of their 2017 championship teams.
“It’s really hard to do,” Mark Maye said of winning national titles. “I think as it goes along, they’ll realize even more how fortunate they are to be a part of that. It’s with you the rest of your life.”
Luke and Cole Maye believe their teams will have a decent chance of repeating in 2018. Luke, who was famously supposed to walk on at UNC before actually getting a full scholarship just before his freshman year began, will be an essential part of a Tar Heels squad that lost three post players and team MVP Justin Jackson.
However, the current UNC players have twice beaten a squad of UNC basketball alumni (including several current NBA players) this summer in games at coach Roy Williams’ camp, Maye said. It was “the first time in 3-4 years,” Maye believes, that the current players were able to beat their older brethren.
In one of those games, played to 70 points, the current Tar Heels were leading 68-58 when Maye drilled another game-winner – this time a 3-pointer from the top of the key that made the campers in attendance scream in jubilation and made its way onto social media.
“Nothing but net,” Luke smiled.
Chance of a repeat?
Luke said in those two summertime victories that the Tar Heels often went small on the court, with Theo Pinson playing power forward and Maye playing center. Point guard Joel Berry will be the Tar Heels’ acknowledged star this season and an All-American candidate, but Maye will contribute heavily and will have a chance to be among the ACC leaders in rebounding.
“I think it’ll be a really good year for us,” Luke said. “We have a lot of guys who really want to get back (to the national title game) and show people that we don’t need to fail at something (as the 2016 team did against Villanova) in order to get back as well.”
Cole Maye leaves this week to play baseball in Charlottesville, Va., along with a number of other current college players in a summer wooden-bat league. He said he’s not sure whether Florida will use him as a starter or a reliever in the 2018 season.
“I think a lot depends on how well I do in the coming months and in the fall,” Cole said, “and what I make of my time off.”
Like Cole, Luke only played sparingly as a freshman – and not at all in the Tar Heels’ championship-game loss to Villanova in 2016 -- but he made a big leap before his sophomore year after telling the UNC coaching staff that no one was ever going to outwork him. Cole appears to have a similar work ethic. On Monday, he was so anxious to throw a baseball after our interview that he enlisted his father to have a catch in the twilight. He still believes he made the right decision to skip the second half of his high school senior year to participate in Florida’s run.
“That high school senior year of baseball would have been a lot of fun for me,” Cole said. “There were a lot of other things I missed out on -- like prom, spring break and everything. But I definitely think I made the right decision, and I’m happy I came.”
The ride continues for the Mayes, who now consider the national championship race tied 1-1 inside the family.
But this is no civil war. Each brother says he would be fine if the other ultimately held a 2-1 title edge at the end of their collegiate careers.
Because it’s not about bragging rights, the Mayes say.
It’s about family.