CANTON, Ohio Jason Taylor, Miami’s sack king, delivered a stirring and often emotional message of gratitude (and some remorse) as he accepted his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame here Saturday night.
Standing just 20 miles from the University of Akron, where he played his college ball, Taylor thanked family, friends, teammates and coaches — without whom, he insisted, he would never have realized this unlikeliest of dreams.
Then the star pass rusher closed his 32-minute remarks with his one regret — and it wasn’t failing to ever win a world championship.
Taylor told the audience that he wishes he had enjoyed the ride more as a player and didn’t focus as much on the destination. If he could, Taylor added, he’d go back and better savor those fleeting moments with his many teammates and his fans.
Taylor then added: “Ease is a greater threat to growth than hardship. So keep moving, growing, learning, loving. I couldn’t have made it in these 20 miles over 20 years if I didn’t have you at my back, at my side and out in front. My football career forever ends right here, tonight. My gratitude is eternal.”
The bulk of Taylor’s speech, which was the second delivered by the seven men inducted into the Hall Saturday, was a running thank-you note to everyone who helped put him on the stage. Taylor, who choked up just four minutes into the speech and struggled to keep his composure throughout, took his audience on a journey through his remarkable life.
It began in a poor part of Pittsburgh, where his single mom, Georgia, helped inspire Taylor to escape Section 8 housing and welfare lines.
There are two ways out of poverty, she told him — college or the military. He chose a helmet over a rifle, playing high school football first in Western Pennsylvania and then collegiately at nearby Akron.
Taylor, seen by many to be too small to play in the NFL, was the ultimate long-shot who paid off. Ex-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson saw potential greatness where others missed, selecting Taylor in the third round of the 1997 draft.
“Over the years, I’ve coached thousands of players and more than a dozen [who are] in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Johnson, asked by Taylor to introduce him Saturday. “Of all those players, Jason Taylor is a special one.”
The numbers don’t lie. Taylor was a generational talent, and one of few bright spots for a largely irrelevant franchise over the past 20 years.
Taylor earned entry into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility despite never getting past the conference championship game. But his personal brilliance was undeniable — six Pro Bowls, 139 1/2 career sacks, defensive player of the year recognition in 2006 and a place on the all-decade team.
During his speech, Taylor thanked nearly too many people to count, but a few stood above the rest.
He mentioned the Dolphins’ nine other Hall of Famers, including quarterback Dan Marino — who was in attendance Saturday — and coach Don Shula, who was not.
(Marino advised Taylor on how to handle what for many is an overwhelming evening: “Understand that it’s one night, one time, that you're going to be here for the rest of your life,” Marino said Saturday. “He did a great job. It was awesome.”)
Taylor also thanked opposing quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, future Hall of Famers who he said “forced me to raise my game” during 33 all-time meetings.
And he thanked Zach Thomas, Taylor’s longtime teammate, fellow defensive cornerstone, close friend and brother-in-law for 14 years. Taylor and Thomas’ sister Katina divorced in 2015, and Thomas chose not to make the trip here for the ceremony.
“Zach Thomas, you were only in our second season in the NFL when I got to Miami but you were already the leader of your defense,” Taylor said. “Nobody prepared harder than you. You refused to be outworked. You quickly became one of my best friends, and I thank you for your leadership and guidance and the way you approached the game.”
Despite Thomas’ absence, Taylor did have sea of supporters from every stage of his life in the stands. Included in that group: More than 20 past and present members of the Dolphins organization, including CEO Tom Garfinkel, executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, general manager Chris Grier, defensive end Cameron Wake, center Mike Pouncey and snapper John Denney.