By Eric S. Bartelt, Pointer View Assistant EditorMarch 27, 2009
For cadets to be successful, they need mentors who can guide them through their 47-month journey at the U.S. Military Academy.
Since October 2006, one mentor has demonstrated loyalty to the cadets on the military side and in the boxing room and has been the epitome of one of the Army's seven core values-selfless service.
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mays has spent 19 years in the Army. During the early part of his career, he fought with the boxing teams at Fort Polk, La.; Germany, where he was the U.S. Army Europe 156-pound champion in 1992; and with the All-Army Boxing team in 1993.
Many years later, Mays, a signal support systems specialist (communications), deployed to Iraq twice and now uses all of that knowledge and experience to guide cadets in their military growth and physical prowess in the ring.
The 41-year-old Waynesboro, Miss., native, who spent his youth idolizing Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, is now the idol of cadets who want to learn from him.
"I have a lot of boxing skills that I want to impart to (the cadets), and they are so ready and eager to learn," Mays said. "I want to pass it on to them so that they can either pass it on to their kids or pass it on to their Soldiers once they leave here."
As a child, Mays, a light middleweight during his Army boxing career, hung a coin sack to a tree in his backyard, put a pair of socks on his hands and worked out with his younger brother on his boxing skills. To Mays, boxing was a way out for him, and it was the thing that drew him to the Army in the first place.
"I stopped by a recruiter's office one day, and we got to talking about the Army," Mays said. "I told him I didn't want to do that, so he asked me, 'what I liked to do,' and I said, 'I like to box.' He told me I could join the Army and box, so I was, 'OK, where do I sign if you're going to pay me to fight.'"
Mays is now in his third year as an assistant coach with the Army boxing team, and it should be no coincidence that Army's best year in boxing was last season as they earned their first national championship. Mays' experience added to Army head boxing coach Ray Barone's deft knowledge of boxing was a combination that set forth the championship to come.
"The credibility that he brings to the cadets is extremely important," Barone said. "He's working with them, and he's telling them to try this and that. He's got a solid foundation. We talk and work together, we're in sync, we're saying the same things to the cadets and it's important to have another person on the team to do that because it's hard to spread yourself among (the 60 team members)."
Barone sees Mays as a phenomenal mentor for the cadets, a man who has a solid rapport and reputation with them. The cadets are thrilled to have him showing them the ropes inside and outside the ring.
"Master Sgt. Mays brings a lot of experience to the table. He's fun, easygoing and has a great personality," Cow Ryle Stous, a team captain and 165-pound national champion last year, said. "He has great experience as an All-Army boxer and does a lot of work behind the scenes giving advice to people. He's got expert knowledge that we could use more of on the team."
Stous said he respects Mays' opinion on boxing and commends him for being helpful in improving his leadership skills as well.
"He's dedicated to our individual development and thinks of us on an individual level," Stous said. "He knows our strengths and weaknesses inside and outside the ring and gives advice to help us out."
Mays has dedicated himself selflessly to the team for three years, but his most selfless act came when he decided to hold off on an invitation to coach for the All-Army Boxing team to continue boxing the West Point team as it heads toward the national championships.
The nationals will be held April 2-4 at the University of Maryland, and that's also when All-Army will be preparing for their championships. Mays chose loyalty to his cadet team over a dream job.
"He's demonstrating selfless service to an extreme," Barone said. "He has an opportunity to coach All-Army (as an assistant), but it happens while we're at nationals and he made the decision and said, 'Look, I've been with the team for more than two years. My loyalty is to the cadets and West Point and what we're doing here."
Mays said he doesn't have a problem with it because he made a commitment to the West Point team, and it's a sacrifice he's willing to make for the cadets.
"I asked these kids to go in there and put it on the line every time they get into the ring," Mays, whose goals are to one day coach with the All-Army team and coach at the 2012 Olympics, said. "So I can expect no less from myself and make that sacrifice for them."
While his job as coach has been fulfilling, he's had just as much of an influence as a source of military knowledge for the cadets as Company A-3's tactical noncommissioned officer. He sees it as a very important job because, "America has trusted their sons and daughters to me, and I take that as a big responsibility-to make sure they are prepared to go out and lead."
He sees the job as fulfilling because, as a father of five children, some of whom are interested in joining the Army someday, Mays foresees a day when cadets he's teaching may end up as his children's company commanders or battalion commanders.
"I try to impart as much knowledge of leadership and different leadership styles to them as possible so that my child may say to me some day, 'Dad, I got Capt. Chapman as my company commander, and he's great,'" Mays said. "I want to one day trust my cadet to take my child into combat."
Mays brings a lot to the table as a boxing coach and a TAC NCO, but he's also knowledgeable enough to have been inducted into the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club in 2001 while at Fort Stewart, Ga.
The Sergeant Audie Murphy Club membership goes to those noncommissioned officers whose leadership, achievements and performance merit special attention. It is a means of recognizing those NCOs who have contributed significantly to the development of a professional NCO Corps and a combat ready Army.
"With the Audie Murphy board, there are some things you have to say verbatim, but it's a true test of your leadership abilities because you are asked situational questions," Mays said. "The main thing the board looks for is that you're leading Soldiers in accordance with the Army Regulation and Field Manual policies.
"Studying and going to the Sergeant Audie Murphy board made me a much better Soldier and NCO," he added. "It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do, and it was definitely one of the toughest mental things I ever had to do."
West Point didn't have a Sergeant Audie Murphy Club before Mays' arrival, but it does now because of his persistence. It currently has seven members, although none of the members received club status at West Point.
"My concern was we didn't have a Sergeant Audie Murphy Club because as NCOs here everything is sort of geared toward the cadets and officers," Mays said. "I wanted to help NCOs get promoted and set themselves apart from their peers in the Army who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, going to college or going to Audie Murphy boards on other posts."
In the end, Mays' Army career has taken him full circle in terms of his experiences in boxing. However, he didn't avoid the stress and strain of deployments along the way as he served in Iraq during the initial ground war (September 2003-August 2004) and then again from January 2005 to January 2006, a total of 23 months in the region.
Those experiences taught him to be more vigilant and to know when to count his lucky stars after his HMMWV narrowly missed a roadside bomb detonation by 15 feet during his second deployment. It also rekindled his passion for boxing after giving it up competitively many years before.
Army will be looking for a second consecutive national championship in April, and Mays is excited about the team's chances. It will take a lot for them to repeat, but he knows from experience that anything can happen.
"I don't know if words can quite explain (Winning last year's championship), but it was magic," Mays explained. "The previous year, due to a technicality, we ended up in third place and had we won one more fight, we would have won the national championship. To see the look in those kids' faces when we lost the national championship by one fight, it was heartbreaking to me.
"I came back and re-evaluated myself and said, 'OK, what did I do wrong as coach and is there anything I can do better to help us get the national championship,' and I told them we would win it next year and we did," he added. "With our talent and an outstanding work ethic, there's a good chance we could win again this year."