A day with JT: A long car ride with Jason Taylor leads to Hall of Fame talk
Jason Taylor is only 42 years old but he has already completed his life’s signature work.
He played 15 NFL seasons at heights that have put him in the conversation for a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And two weeks out from that conversation — a meeting in which 48 national selectors will decide which of 18 finalists, including Taylor, deserve induction into the Hall — Taylor is about to have a busy day.
Taylor retired five years ago and is enjoying his days after football. Yes, some include too much golf and some, he admits, are punctuated by hours of boredom.
“Having three kids it’s hard to be bored,” Taylor says. “But sometimes, I am. Sometimes before I go to bed I’ll look at the next day’s schedule and think, ‘I don’t have anything to do tomorrow. The kids get out of school at 3 and I’ll probably go to the basketball court with the boys at 3:30. But what do I do between 6:30 when I wake up and 3?”
This isn’t one of those boring days.
This day, which Taylor invited the Miami Herald to share, includes a morning charity event in Parkland, an afternoon autograph signing at a Dunkin Donuts in Loxahatchee, and a bar mitzvah that evening.
And in between Taylor will pose for an endless amount of photos with kids and adults alike, share time with former teammate Zach Thomas and former Dolphins running back Mercury Morris, schmooze a park ranger to get out of a parking ticket, and, yes, candidly discuss his career, his children, and life after football.
We meet Taylor at his house in Plantation and almost immediately climb into his Land Rover where he announces we’ll be visiting his foundation’s first-ever Whiffle Blast tournament — a 30-team wiffle ball tournament that eventually will raise $30,000 to help fight pediatric cancer and medical emergencies.
The Jason Taylor Foundation was founded 12 years ago and annually raises between $750,000 and $1 million for kids in the form of scholarships, clothes, medical equipment or donations to the Holtz Children’s Hospital.
The day’s tournament is a new fund-raising event. But the way it works isn’t new. Taylor shows up and all other activity seems to stop. Kids, moms and dads crowd around and everyone wants some attention.
And Taylor gives it to them.
“It’s cool to be able to make somebody’s day and smile, make a kid feel good and make mom and dad happy,” Taylor says. “And listen, there’s times when you’re having a bad day or you’re irritated about something. But it takes five seconds to make somebody’s day. It takes one second to ruin somebody’s idea of who you are.”
When he arrived at the park, Taylor parked inside orange cones that set aside some parking spaces from all the others. He comes back to his car as a park ranger is writing a ticket.
And that’s one of those moments when it’s good to be Jason Taylor. Taylor schmoozes the official and then gets in the car.
“He told me he’s a Buffalo Bills fan,” Taylor says. “But he tore up the ticket.”
The ride to Loxahatchee takes about an hour. And Taylor spends part of it talking of his greatest career regret.
“I tell my kids, I tell the kids I coach, if I could go back and do it over, I’d enjoy the process more,” he says. “I never enjoyed the process because I was so focused on the destination, on winning a championship. So you kind of miss the journey sometimes.
“The good times, the crappy times, the locker room times, the bonding times of sitting around. Even the grind. I’d enjoy it more. I think maybe I missed the boat a bit on the process.
“Little stupid stuff that you take for granted every day during your career. And then it’s over. I miss those times.”
Taylor has three children — two boys, Isaiah (14) and Mason (12), and a girl, Zoe (11) — and their importance to Taylor is obvious.
“Zoey is my angel,” he says. “She’s my heart.”
But Taylor’s bond and kinship with the boys is special. It is in them that he sees the possibility of more football in his future.
“Whatever they want to do is great,” Taylor says. “If they want to go be a hot air balloon pilot I will do everything I can to get them the best training to help them be the best they can be.”
But if football becomes a calling for the boys, and there are signs that’s already happening, Taylor will be thrilled.
“You see some of these football families, the Matthews family, who have been fortunate enough to do it,” Taylor says, “That would be great … And they have the bug. They love football.
“They work out twice a week with [former Dolphins running back] Terry Kirby. Isaiah is going to high school next year, so he’s trying to get his body right to be ready for it. I go with them, too. I don’t even know if I’ve told them, but I freakin’ love it.
“I’m taking my boys to work out together. As a father, you look at those times and it’s the best. It means nothing to them because they’re just working out, but me, I’m looking in the mirror watching them work out and I have a smile on my face.”
Taylor would love football to become a family business despite the fact the sport offered significant challenges for him, with his trade to the Washington Redskins perhaps the greatest of those.
“That was miserable,” Taylor says. “I enjoyed New York. We had a good time, a good season. We had a good time. Washington was hell.”
Taylor was traded to the Redskins in 2008. And everything went wrong. The team lost. The Dolphins won, making it to the playoffs for the first time since the 2000 season.
And, oh yes, Taylor almost lost a leg after he was kicked in the shin in practice.
“I came within an hour of having to get my leg amputated,” he says. “I had compartment syndrome, which is basically internal bleeding in your lower leg. Cavities in your leg basically fill up with blood and start pressing on your nerves.
“I was swelling up overnight and figured it was like any other leg injury after a contusion and it would go away in the morning. But it kept getting worse and worse. And it kept swelling, so I finally called someone at like 2 o’clock in the morning and told the trainer, ‘Man I can’t sleep.’ ”
Taylor was taken to the hospital and tests showed the blood pressure in his leg was in triple figures when it typically should be between 15-25.
“It’s going up and so they say we have to do surgery,” Taylor says. “I said, ‘I’m not having surgery. I have to call my wife, I haven’t talked to my agent. Let me talk to somebody.’ So we called Dr. [James] Andrews, who was the team doctor in Washington, and I figured he’s going to do it. He answers the phone at like 3:15 in the morning and they talk to him, tell him the test results, and put me on the phone.
“I tell him, ‘Doc, can we get a plane, I’ll fly down and you can do the surgery.’ He said, ‘Jason, you need to understand how serious this is and get off the phone. If you fly down here, I’ll do the surgery, but when you get here, I’ll be cutting your leg off.”
Taylor had the surgery. And then two more because he got a staph infection that required serious attention.
“I had nine inches of nerve damage, so I played with drop foot the rest of the year,” Taylor says. “I would be walking around the house and my foot would land inside and I’d roll and tumble and fall. At work they put like an air cast on it and taped it so I could just kind of club-foot it. It was a mess.”
When Taylor pulls up to the Dunkin Donuts in West Palm Beach it becomes clear why he can get between $15,000 to $150,000 for his appearances. A throng of people, many dressed in Miami Dolphins colors and jerseys, are lined up out the door and around the store.
Five hundred tickets were distributed for the event, but there might be twice that many people here today. It’s the reason the two-hour event goes an hour longer than expected.
During that time, Taylor, Thomas and Morris mostly sit at a table and meet and greet fans. They sign autographs, take pictures and mess with each other.
Thomas and Taylor recall their days together. Thomas talks about times he would tell Taylor to lose the coin toss on purpose because then-coach Dave Wannstedt always wanted to put the offense on the field first and Thomas wanted the defense on the field first to set a tone for the game.
The conversation soon turns to Thomas’s theory that one side of the coin weighs more than the other and that’s the side that should always be called because it will more often land on the bottom.
“These two,” Morris says shaking his head, “should know a coin toss is always a 50-50 proposition.”
Three hours and hundreds of autographs later, Taylor is done. He stayed at the doughnut shop an hour longer than his contract stipulated, but signed for everyone.
“I wasn’t going to leave people standing out in the sun for three hours and walk out,” Taylor says. “Mercury Morris takes forever, talks to everybody, draws his autograph. I told him, ‘People are going to be standing outside for four hours at the rate you’re going.’
“He said, ‘What are you saying, I should stop writing 17-0?’ ”
“I told him, ‘Well, I don’t write 1-15!’ He laughed.”
The trip home is going to take an hour so Taylor fills the time discussing, well, everything. Between bites of some donuts which serve as his lunch, he talks about his former coaches, interaction with other players, memories of seasons past, and how he managed his many injuries.
His favorite coaches?
“Jimmy Johnson was amazing because he drafted me and we worked so hard with him, competed so hard in practice,” Taylor said. “He set the groundwork for me. I really enjoyed playing for Nick [Saban]. I liked Dave a lot. Dave was a great guy. Not a great coach, but a great guy. Nick and Dom Capers football-wise made your mind grow. And I also liked playing for Rex [Ryan]. He’s fun to play for, he had a different way of treating athletes.
“Under some administrations in Miami there was too much baby-sitting. They treated you like kids and didn’t allow guys to grow. I always felt that coaches that don’t allow guys to grow can’t be [peeved] off if guys don’t grow, don’t become professionals, men, and better players. You didn’t let them.”
Notice Cam Cameron is not among Taylor’s list of favorite coaches?
“Cam was an idiot,” Taylor says. “I have no idea how he got the job. I’ve never been around a more incompetent head coach than Cam Cameron. I’m talking youth football, college. It was unbelievable.
“Everything we did, he had to have a problem with. That was his way of being the biggest voice in the room. If I talked or Zach talked in a team meeting or after practice, he would always need to have the last word.
“It was the weirdest thing. We’d all look at each other because he would repeat something one of the players already said. That dude lost me first day of training camp. Even at minicamp, I’m wondering what are we doing?”
Cameron lasted one season. He was fired after the 2007 Dolphins finished 1-15, and that remains the worst season in Dolphins history — something that didn’t surprise Taylor.
“So every year in training camp Zach and I would sit down at the beginning of camp,” he says. “It would be lunch or dinner and it would always naturally flow into, ‘All right, whaddya got? Whaddya think?’
“It was after a few days in pads when you’d start to see the pajama warriors disappear a little bit. So we’d be eating and eventually we’d make a prediction on the season. Most years, we’re going to be 10-6 or 8-8 or whatever.
“We both sat down in that lunch room in 2007 and it went to that conversation. And this is a week into camp and we started talking about it and Zach says, “Dude, you know we’re [screwed].’ I’m sitting there and I think about it and say, “Yeah bro, it’s going to be a long season.’ That’s a bad feeling when you’re going to work and you realize we don’t stack up. We need a miracle to win some of these games.”
Taylor never played in playoff game for the Dolphins after the 2001 season because the Dolphins suffered a drought until 2008. And that drought was fed by the team’s failure to replace quarterback Dan Marino.
“Pat White?” Taylor asks at the end of a long list of failed Dolphins quarterbacks. “The guy almost got freaking killed! Pat White? He was built like my son, my 12-year-old son. When he got hit against Pittsburgh, I thought he was dead. Nobody has ever accused Ike Taylor of being a big hitter. I saw him that offseason and said to him, ‘The one time you put a hit on somebody, you’ve ended my quarterback’s career.’
“John Beck? Who drafted John Beck? Josh Heupel, you could read the words on the ball as it was in the air. We had Cade McNown and the dude couldn’t hit a pop pass. His first practice, he came out and throws a ball that everybody busts out laughing. I figured, it’s his first practice, he’s nervous. Twenty minutes into the team period everybody’s going, ‘What in the hell? Is this for real? Is this a real quarterback?’ And he’d walk back to the huddle rubbing and adjusting his arm like his shoulder was hurt. His shoulder wasn’t bad, he was bad.”
The quarterback story Taylor is most recognized for was his take on Trent Green when the Dolphins traded for him prior to the ’07 season.
“Whoever I was talking to at the time, I told them, ‘Yeah, he’s won some games in this league but he’s one hit away from being scrambled eggs,’ ” Taylor says. “It’s probably a little harsh. I got a call from Trent the next day. And to his credit, he wanted to talk about it. His message was, ‘Hey, I’m sure this was taken out of context. Some people are asking me about it. I’d love to talk to you about it if you get a chance give me a shout.’
“So I called him and told him, ‘Listen bro, I wasn’t calling you scrambled eggs. But I did say those words. I wasn’t trying to take a shot at you. But I was just being cautiously optimistic about the idea we’re going to the Super Bowl.’ But, guess what? Scrambled eggs.”
Green, you’ll recall, had been forced from the Kansas City lineup after eight games in 2006 because of a concussion. He lasted into the fifth game with the Dolphins before he was knocked out at Houston. He didn’t play again the remainder of the season because of that concussion.
Taylor didn’t suffer severe head injuries. His most significant injures happened to his legs and feet.
He played the 2005 season with ruptured plantar fascia ligaments in both feet.
“I never told anyone until I retired that the first one I tore when I was playing wide receiver on offense down at the goal line,” Taylor says. “And I heard it pop. But I knew I couldn’t go back to the sideline and tell anyone I got hurt playing offense. So I had to wait when we went back out for defense and act like it happened on defense or else they’d never let me play on offense again.
“Two weeks later I tore the other one.”
Taylor played every game in 2005. How?
“I got shots,” he says. “I took Lidocaine shots on both feet every week. I got shoes that were a size bigger and had special insoles that the Dolphins had made that were $2,000 or something like that. And I took shots all the way through. I had to do shots every week.
“What they do is put shots in your feet in nerve areas. The feet have like a gazillion nerves. So the docs would move my foot around and stick the needle in and turn to get up under the heel. And they’d sprits it. And they did that in a couple of places. Pull the needle out. Wait fifteen minutes. You walk around a little bit, tell them where I feel it. They’d put the needle in. Sprits it.
“They had to keep putting the needle in different times because if they went too far, you would go completely numb. So it was a balance of getting rid of 98 percent of the pain and living with the discomfort.”
Except doctors don’t always get it right.
“One time we played the Saints in New Orleans after Katrina,” Taylor says. “That week they went too far and I had complete dead foot. I couldn’t feel my foot at all. You could have taken a sledgehammer to my foot and I would have felt nothing. It was ridiculous.”
Taylor was ridiculous in 2006. He had 13.5 sacks. He had two interception returns for touchdowns. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
And he did it with a herniated disc.
“I was getting epidurals every other week,” he says. “I didn’t practice a whole lot. I got like six epidurals that season. My wife would take me on Tuesday to get the shot. I’d lay around Wednesday and not practice. Not practice on Thursday. Then I’d move around a little at practice Friday and then go to the game. On Monday you felt like you got hit by a school bus. And then I’d start the process over again. And hopefully the epidural would last two weeks.”
The irony of Taylor needing so many shots during the ’05 and ’06 seasons?
“I’m scared of needles,” he says. “I’m the biggest wuss in the world. Every needle I’d get at work for 15 years, I’d bite a towel. I couldn’t do it. That’s one thing I don’t miss about playing in the NFL”