Earth to Heaven: Make Room for More Sunshine (March 2022)

Don Maynard (1935-Jan. 10, 2022)

Several short years ago, UTEP coach Sean Kugler invited Don Maynard, along with his son Scot, to address the Miners during training camp at Ruidoso, N.M. The young Miners had little way of knowing they were kneeling before a walking legend, surely one of the most eccentric athletes in school history.

NFL Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard paused for this shot at UTEP’s Kidd Field, where he shone for the Texas Western Miners in the late 1950s.

The Maynard backstory: From an unlikely beginning as the son of a cotton gin hand to the pinnacle of pro football as Joe Namath’s pass receiver, Don Maynard was born in Crosbyton, Texas. By the time he finished running track and catching passes for then Texas Western, the speedy guy New York Jets teammate called “Country Don” was attending his 13th school. Hold that thought — the number 13 became a Maynard phobia, as we shall see.

A state champion hurdler, Maynard came out of Colorado City High to sign with Rice University. After one semester, he transferred to Texas Western where he caught 27 passes in three seasons of varsity ball (1955-57). Lighting up venerable old Kidd Field, Maynard led the nation with 27.6 yards per catch and intercepted 10 passes as a defensive back. Even so, he was drafted no higher than the ninth round, by the N.Y. Giants, not the Jets.

In ’58, the rookie from TWC played with the likes of Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote, as the Giants lost to the Colts in what was called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” A colorful character who kept his own counsel, Maynard fell out with a Giants’ assistant coach and found himself out of a job. Not for long.

The fleet receiver — long on self-confidence and sideburns — signed with the N.Y. Titans who became the Jets. His rookie year in that old American Football League, Maynard caught 72 balls, good for second in the league.

With Don Maynard catching and Joe Namath passing, the NFL Jets had a dynamic element to their offense. (Associated Press)

Spring 1965: Enter a rookie QB from Alabama named Joe Willie Namath, and Maynard’s career was about to take off. “Joseph, I’m going to make you a better quarterback, and you’re going to make me a great receiver,” Maynard recalled telling Namath when they first met. “We’re going to talk on every play, every route ahead of time.”

In the 1968 AFL Championship Game, Maynard caught six passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns — the game’s first and last scoring plays in a 27-23 victory over the Raiders. Shortly before the winning reception, Maynard hauled in a 52-yard, wind-altered bomb from Namath. “Greatest catch I ever made,” Don said.

At his retirement, Maynard’s 633 receptions and 11,834 yards were league records. His 88 touchdowns trailed only Hall of Famer Don Hutson, who scored 99 times. Maynard’s career average of 18.7 yards per catch trails only Paul Warfield, Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth among Hall of Famers and remains 16th all time — but first for a player with 600 receptions. His name still occupies places 2, 3, 4 and 6 on the Jets’ all-time list for single-season receiving yardage more than a half-century since the last of his five 1,000-yard seasons.

Even in his later years, the Miners’ Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard amused friends with his quirky behavior. His 2010 biography “You Can’t Catch Sunshine” is a brisk read for Miners and Jets fans.

The Jets retired his famous No. 13 jersey and elected him as a charter member of their Ring of Honor in 2010. Maynard’s biography was aptly named — “You Can’t Catch Sunlight.”
“Don was a great player. He made many of his teammates better football players,” Namath said. “Don worked with 25 different quarterbacks throughout his career, and he made most of us better football players.

“He was the man our opponents worried about, the knockout punch. Lightening in a bottle. Nitro just waiting to explode. I mean he could fly. But with the grace of a great thoroughbred. The man could flat play. He galloped through the best of the very best football players of the world.”
Maynard’s legacy — beyond his quirky nature — was to be the first to 10,000 receiving yards. His many accomplishments in some of pro football’s most memorable games are preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The records, however, do not tell half of it.

Among Miners forever, Maynard stories, including his affinity for the number 13, abound:

“We had a charter flight to Lubbock for our game with Tech. It was the first year for Tech to be in the Southwest conference. The flight was over Guadalupe Peak and being a hot September day, it was a bumpy, rough ride.

“Mo, our trainer (Ross Moore), came down the aisle telling us he was going for help. We tied with Tech and spoiled their entry in the SWC. With the experience of getting to Lubbock, Don refused to fly back but found a fan and arranged a ride back via a car to El Paso. Don’s room in Miner’s Hall was unique.

“His bed was raised with pipes raising the bed as an upper bunk, underneath the bed he had 3 large soap barrels. One barrel was for right socks, one for left socks, the third was for his briefs. On the day for his wedding a lot of us were in the TV lounge and Don came down dressed in a nice suit and tie. Someone called out ‘Don, let us see your socks!”

“He stopped and pulled up his pants leg and he flashed his black socks; then he lowered the black socks and flashed his white socks underneath. We all had a good laugh and cheered him on. Don also had a T-shirt that he had worn since high school. Would not surprise me if he also wore that same T-shirt during his pro years. Everyone enjoyed Don!”

– Bill G. Lewis, Georgetown, Texas

“Don was a teammate in 1957, my frosh year. I will never forget his last game as a Miner, in San Antonio. There must have been six inches of slush on field, fields were flat back then (no drainage). He never came out of game (playing both offense and defense). We punted 21 times on 1st down and Trinity punted 20 times, all we did was run down on punts and receive punts. With one minute left, they blocked our punt and recovered on the 1-yard line and scored, so we lost 14 -7.

“(For our only score,) Chas Ward ran the opening kickoff back for our TD. Afterwards, Don sat in shower for 30 minutes trying to warm his feet! What a memory! It was so cold!!”

Jack Meeks, Richardson, Texas

{Editor’s Note: Former Maynard classmate Marilyn Cromeans, daughter of UTEP hall of famer Ross Moore, is just getting warmed up. She shares more of Maynard’s antics in the next issue. UTEP staffers Jeff Darby and Drew Bonney contributed to this tribute.}

Golf was one of Don Maynard’s favorite pastimes. Here’s he is shown in full regalia with Hall of Fame golf coach from Midland College Delnor Poss, father of long-time UTEP football staffer Nathan Poss.

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