Jason Taylor joins the immortals in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, and when the Dolphins great delivers his obsessively crafted enshrinement speech, he’ll have quite the story to tell.
Taylor came from humble beginnings, bouncing from home to home with no contact with his biological father. Home-schooled as a teen, he didn’t even play organized football until his junior year of high school.
When it came time for college, the big schools sized up this smallish, raw kid and passed. Five years later, NFL teams did the same time and again in the draft until Jimmy Johnson took a shot on the lanky kid from western Pennsylvania in Round 3.
We know what happened next: Six Pro Bowls, 139 1/2 career sacks, defensive player of the year recognition in 2006, and a spot on the all-decade team. He was even a finalist on Dancing With The Stars.
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That’s a world away from his college years, spent 20 minutes up the road in Akron, where his modern-day riches and popularity were a distant dream. His path to immortality is truly a movie come to life.
“You never forget that journey,” Taylor said Friday. “It’s an improbable journey. It’s an impossible journey, really, I thought. Even as I’m sitting here now as a Hall of Famer, there’s a part of me that still says it was impossible for me to get here. But it has worked out.”
Taylor added: “Miracles happen, kids, folks, everybody out there. Miracles happen because if I’m sitting here as a Hall of Famer, you can do anything in the world you want.”
Bryan Coles is a true believer in the Gospel of Taylor.
The men were best friends long before Taylor became Miami’s sack king. The teammates at the University of Akron often didn’t have two nickels to rub together as undergrads, and they had to get creative when their bellies started grumbling.
“He’s seen the ups and downs being broke, sitting behind McDonald’s after they close, so as they threw the trash away, we’d take it out to eat it because we didn’t have any money,” Taylor said. “And now, being here, in Canton. He’s been on that journey with me, and that’s what makes things like that special, when you can bring people with you and you can be a part of it.”
These kind of stories from Taylor’s hard-scrabble past were the rule, not the exception.
Here’s another one:
Taylor’s uncle was graduating from Wayne State in Detroit, so the two college buddies piled into Taylor’s rickety Chevy Nova and made the three-hour drive to the Motor City.
“He had $15 in his pocket, I had $20,” Coles said. “We didn’t have money for a hotel room, so when we got there, we changed into suits in the snow.”
Taylor and Coles figured out how much money they’d need to get up to Detroit. Getting back? They never thought that through.
“We had like a quarter-tank of gas and no money,” Taylor joked. “To this day, I don’t know how we got home.”
Added Coles: “To see where he came from and where he is now, I’m very proud of him. Times like that I spent with him, then times like two weeks ago, when were together in Bimini, are two extremes. Money hasn’t changed him. Fame hasn’t changed him.”
Coles will be among the dozens of former Zips here Saturday, when Taylor and six other NFL greats become the newest members of football’s most exclusive club. Also going in this weekend: quarterback Kurt Warner, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, running back Terrell Davis, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, kicker Morten Andersen and defensive back Kenny Easley.
Taylor speaks second Saturday night, and though he has kept tight-lipped about what he’ll say, it’s safe to assume that he’ll touch on the formative events of his life.
Like when he was a home-schooled teenager in Pittsburgh, with his biological father not in the picture and his mother Georgia — “the rock” of the Taylor family, he said — struggling to get by.
Taylor needed special dispensation to play sports at nearby Woodland Hills. Then-coach George Novak discovered Taylor one day when the teen was doing work on a driveway across the street.
Novak invited Taylor to practice that night to see what the 6-1, 160-pounder could do.
“He wasn’t real big,” Novak recalled. “He was tall and lanky. I remember leaning against the fence, telling him ‘run down there, catch the ball.’ After one route, I told him, ‘Go get your spikes. You made the team.’”
Taylor played both football and basketball in both high school and at Akron. His junior and senior football seasons with the Zips were incredible, and with every passing week, more and more NFL scouts would come check him out.
Still, many wondered how he’d fit in the pros. Two decades ago, the NFL was still a running league, and there were doubts that Taylor, at just 240 pounds, could hold up physically.
Johnson, who will introduce Taylor at Saturday’s enshrinement, saw what others missed. And Johnson was prescient. He saw a way he could utilize the rangy, athletic — albeit undersized — playmaker. Taylor became the greatest pass rusher in the Dolphins’ 51 seasons. And he carried himself as the consummate pro, winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2007.
“Jason was awesome,” said Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, one of three Dolphins players leaving camp to attend Saturday’s enshrinement. “He was the ultimate role model. When you look at a guy and the way you want your career to be, you look at him.”
All of this was a pipe dream back in January 1997, however. Then, Taylor simply hoped to be drafted by a team that would give him a shot. He was invited to participate in the Senior Bowl, an all-star showcase for fourth-year players, and did enough to turn heads.
When he returned to campus, Taylor wanted to prove to himself and his friends he was ready to make the leap to the NFL. So he took his college shoulder pads, literally held together with shoe strings, and threw them in the trash — a move rich in symbolism.
“I don’t need them any more,” Coles remembered Taylor saying. “I’m going to the NFL.”
Taylor probably hasn’t thought about those pads since.
But he will soon.
Coles, without telling his friend, jumped into the dumpster and retrieved them two decades ago. They’ve been collecting dust in his mom’s closet ever since.
“I told my wife, ‘When he’s in the Hall of Fame, I’m going to present them to him,’” Coles said.
Call it foresight, call it fate, or call it luck, time to dust off those pads. Saturday is the day not even Taylor thought would ever arrive.