When I first heard of Fred Taylor, he was a prized recruit coming out of South Florida to the University of Florida. He really was just a kid. Raised by his grandmother in a house with dirt floors in a tough neighborhood, he was about as wide-eyed and impressionable as any freshman in college history. Not college football history, college history.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Fred told me after his first game at Florida Field. “Running out of that tunnel, I couldn’t believe how many people were there. I couldn’t catch my breath. I’ve never seen that many people in my whole life.”
We have a good laugh about that occasionally. Fred’s able to laugh at some of those things now. That wasn’t always the case. While at Florida he got himself into trouble a couple of times. Nothing really major, if I remember correctly. But I do remember that Steve Spurrier looked him in the eye one day and said, “You’ll be out of here the next time,” and Fred paid attention and straightened up.
He was a hot commodity coming out of college. A strong and fast tailback who had moves and power. At over six feet and 230lbs. many teams coveted Taylor. Tom Coughlin originally wanted Curtis Ennis out of Penn State but when he traded Rob Johnson to Buffalo for their first pick, the ninth overall, Taylor was the obvious selection.
“Hey Sam,” Fred said at his initial press conference as a rookie, flashing a smile that revealed several gold teeth. We did several interviews that year that I sent to other stations in the state and to a couple of the networks. He was a hot topic. But his grandmother didn’t like the way he looked with those gold teeth. I saw him in training camp the following year without the teeth and mentioned how he looked good. “My grandmother didn’t like those teeth,” Taylor admitted somewhat embarrassingly. “So I changed them out. No big deal.”
I didn’t think anything of it at the time but I should have known that a pattern was developing. Off the field, Fred was getting a reputation as a very “sociable” player part of a group of young players not afraid to have a good time. He made news when his agent, Tank Black, made off with $5 million of Fred’s signing bonus and Taylor admitted he wasn’t paying much attention. Reportedly, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver made it right and gave Fred a little fatherly advice.
When Taylor stepped out of line off the field, Head Coach Tom Coughlin also gave him some advice. “Keep this up,” Coughlin told Fred, “and you’ll be out of the league soon.”
“I admit I wasn’t taking care of myself. My nutrition, not getting enough rest and just wasn’t acting right. But I’ve changed that and I’m on the right path.” That was Fred just a few days ago, admitting that he’s had several revelations in his career.
“I also got married, had kids and that really changed my life.” He’s right about that. Taylor is close to his family and closer to his faith. “God is a good God,” Taylor said during the End Zone on Monday night. “He didn’t lose faith in me and neither did my teammates.”
You might have noticed that Taylor now wears a captains “C” on his jersey in games. “That’s an honor I bestowed on him a couple of weeks ago,” Head Coach Jack Del Rio said explaining his change in philosophy. “He’s earned it. He’s done things here on the field and in the organization that has shown he’s a leader.” Del Rio usually likes to name his captains game to game, but Taylor is an exception.
“I’m doing the same things as before. I’m not a rah-rah guy but I’m willing to show my teammates how to do things right,” he said when I asked him about the “C” after the win over San Diego. That’s a statement I never thought I’d hear from Fred.
“I didn’t think I’d still be in the league,” Taylor told me when I asked him if he thought he’d gain 10,000 yards in his career.
Taylor’s gone from a mumbler in interviews to an eloquent spokesman for himself and his teammates. He’s unbelievably popular, a testament to his likeability that seems to come through. I was disappointed when he didn’t stick around for 10 minutes to sign autographs but other than that he’s turned into quite a solid guy.
I’ve seen enough guys go the other way, from easy-going to unlikable. It’s nice to see somebody go in the other direction. Especially somebody who’s as easy to like as Fred.