CARY — There are corn mazes. And then there are corn monuments.
Michael Phillips would like to show you the difference.
In June, he planted some seeds. In August, he began cutting. Last month, he unveiled his memorial: Kay Yow meticulously rendered in a swath of tall stalks and bumpy pathways.
He didn't know of a better way to honor a legend.
Yow, who lived in Cary, led N.C. State's women's basketball team to more than 700 wins during a career that spanned more than three decades. She died in January after more than 20 years with cancer. She coached up until a month before her death.
"It got my heart and respect immediately," said Phillips, 21.
It gave him a way to raise cancer awareness, help the family farm and stave off competition from another corn maze a mile away.
Phillips opened his maze to the public Sept. 4, charging a $10 admission, a portion of which goes to a cancer fund in Yow's name.
Since then, thousands of people have gotten lost in the maze, entering by Yow's ear, taking 20 to 30 minutes to navigate her hair, necklace and lapels, before triumphantly exiting her right shoulder. "You can walk through her face and go down to the breast cancer symbol and everything," Phillips said.
Phillips got the idea in March, after Yow passed.
At the time, Phillips himself was taking a circuitous route through life.
He was studying business at Campbell University. But he worried that college was too expensive. The farm, now sandwiched among budding subdivisions, has been in the family for four generations.
It was struggling, and they needed him.
What followed were months of research and preparation, and at least one corn-maze convention. His father green-lighted the idea.
Phillips put $2,000 toward the maze, raising the rest through a sponsorship from Modern Woodmen Fraternal Financial, a local life insurance firm.
Phillips Googled a picture of Yow and sent it to The Maize, a Utah company that specializes in corn-maze design. For about $7,000, the company made a computer mock-up and sent three agri-artists to Phillips Family Farm, which is off N.C. 55 and Morrisville-Carpenter Road.
In a day, a four-acre likeness of Yow, and the logo of Woodmen Fraternal, appeared to passengers flying to and from Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The Maize has done more than 1,200 custom corn mazes in five countries. It did John Wayne in Iowa, the American Idol symbol in Nebraska and Oprah in Arizona. Brett Herbst, who founded The Maize in 1996, said the Yow maze was among his favorites. "There's a bigger, higher purpose behind it," he said.
It's the first time Phillips Family Farm has ever done a corn maze.
It's the first time it has ever had to.
"You can't make a living off the land anymore," Phillips said.
But his shift to agritainment could help.
As Cary has grown, so too has its population, and the appetite for corn-fed fun. "Location is critical," said Gary Bullen, an agritourism expert in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at N.C. State. "You have to be in the population center, people with enough disposable income, sufficient number of families with children.
"The Cary area is the perfect location for that."
So perfect that the market can support two corn mazes a mile apart.
Off Morrisville-Carpenter Road, David Farrell has styled a more traditional, cross-style maze at Green Acres.
The fourth-generation farmer lives in the house his great grandfather built in 1900. He grows soybeans and raises commercial beef there.
The seven-acre maze is also his first. "This is just one more way we're trying to keep this place going," Farrell said.
Despite not having a face rendered into his corn, he says he's doing just as well.
"Attendance spiked this weekend," he said. "We probably couldn't have gotten five more cars into our parking lot."
Phillips acknowledges that his tribute may be a competitive advantage. But he knew using Yow's image would honor her memory, increase cancer awareness and funnel money to her cancer fund.
And then there are the people who are just touched by the image, found in the unlikeliest of places.
"People come up and say, 'Hey, I'm a two-time survivor of breast cancer,' " Phillips said. "I've gotten e-mails from people who've flown over it, saying they really appreciate it."
email@example.com or 919-460-2608