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A special moment

Posted Jun 7, 2012

Former Jaguars RB Fred Taylor finds the right words, the right tone, yet again

He spent the morning looking for the right words.

This was Thursday morning at EverBank Field, a day Fred Taylor never imagined 14 years ago. That’s because when he first arrived in Jacksonville in April 1998, he was so young, so unprepared for what was happening and so unconfident that being remembered as an all-time great not only wasn’t a goal, it wasn’t even something to consider.

Want to know how a guy can change? Want to know about maturing?

How a team and a city can mold a person?

You saw it all at EverBank Thursday, and while the day was long expected, that made it no less memorable when the Jaguars officially announced the team’s all-time leading rusher would be the second player inducted into the Pride of the Jaguars.

“God is great, there’s no doubt about it,” Taylor said, adding, “This is a special moment.”

And if you didn’t know how special Taylor was to the Jaguars – i.e., if you didn’t follow the team from 1998-2008 – there were people Thursday there to tell you.

Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith talked of physical skills, rare gifts and commitment, and of Taylor being a leader on and off the field. Former left tackle Tony Boselli, who blocked for Taylor from 1998-2001 and is the only other player in the Pride, talked of Taylor’s growth as a player and a person.

“There couldn’t be a better guy up there with me,” Boselli said.

Jaguars center Brad Meester, who played with Taylor from 2000-2008, talked about a running back who long had been one of the league’s best but who still worked every day, every week, ever year.  The example set a tone, Meester said, and it was a tone set with rare humility and honesty.

“When I think of Fred Taylor, I think of grace,” Smith said.

That’s how we all think of Taylor, those of us fortunate enough to cover him, and judging by emails received, those fans who were fortunate to watch him, who are proud to call him their own.

That wasn’t how Taylor thought of himself. At least not early in his career.

Early on, Taylor said he was immature, shy. He lacked confidence. He was, in truth, in the NFL for one reason: he was such an incredible, rare talent that he couldn’t not be in the NFL.

Taylor told a story late in the press conference I’d never heard before. I asked him about his Pro Day at Florida in the spring of 1998, an event I covered for the Florida Times-Union. Pro Days are attended by professional scouts and coaches not easily wowed. After Taylor ran the 40-yard dash, a buzz went through the crowd, laughter and murmuring that they had seen something special.

Special, as in 4.29 seconds.

Here’s what the scouts didn’t know. While many players spend the time before the draft working out and preparing for the Pro Day and combine, Taylor didn’t.

“From the time the season was over in college until my Pro Day, I didn’t do a thing,” Taylor said. “I didn’t train at all.”

Mainly, he said, he was in “party mode” – pool parties, barbeques, cookouts.

“I was excited to have a credit line,” Taylor said. “I was driving a Mercedes-Benz. I was young. I wasn’t training. I had done maybe 10 20-yard starts.”

And the 4.29?

“That was the easy part,” he said. “If I had trained, I would have run faster. That’s my time of record for the NFL. I had run as fast as 4.22. ”

Taylor said he actually went to a speed camp for a few days during that period. He went to see Tom Shaw, then and now a renowned speed trainer used by NFL players such as Deion Sanders.

“Why are you even here?” Shaw told him. “You remind me of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson combined.”

Taylor said that’s an exact quote, that he was with Shaw for two days, “at best,” then he packed and went home. But he also said Tom Coughlin, then the Jaguars head coach, knew he wasn’t in shape when he arrived in Jacksonville, and set about changing it immediately.

“He tried to run my tongue out,” he said, smiling.

Boselli on Thursday talked of Taylor barely saying two words in the 1998 offseason and training camp. Taylor said he had his head down, that he lacked confidence, and his main idea was playing three seasons and going back home to Belle Glade, Fla. Taylor said he didn’t know why he lacked confidence, being as he was the No. 9 overall selection in the 1998 NFL Draft, and having been a big-time recruit. For whatever reason, he said, he just never thought he was as good as people believed.

But here’s the thing about Taylor:

Was he quiet early? Did he lack confidence?  Maybe, but there was something else, too, something that made him special. When Taylor first arrived in Jacksonville, Dan Edwards – the team’s Senior Vice-President of Communications – advised him on dealing with the media. “Just be honest,” Taylor said Edwards told him.

Taylor listened to the advice. He was shy as a rookie and young player, but he worked hard to answer questions honestly, and got better at it, more confident, eventually becoming so good that it’s rare to hear a local or national media-type who has dealt with Taylor speak poorly of him.

Edwards gets some credit for that, but you don’t come across as humble, honest and sincere as Taylor does based on what advisers tell you. It has to be the real thing, and you have to be as honest in bad times as you are in good.

With Taylor as much as any athlete I’ve covered, what you see is what’s real.

He stayed true to that throughout. His career, while remembered as one of the greatest in franchise history, wasn’t easy and wasn’t storybook. Early in his career, he lost millions because of a dishonest agent, Tank Black. He missed more games early in his career than he would have liked, enough that some people called him “Fragile Fred.”

During the 2002 season, he played just two games because of a groin that essentially was torn off the bone. Coughlin kept him on the injury report as questionable, something Taylor resented at the time. Fans and media referred to him as Fragile Fred.

He was hurt by it, but he and Coughlin have since discussed it, and he said now he’s glad it happened, that it helped him grow.

“I’m glad all of that happened,” Taylor said. “It’s a piece of me, it’s just my fabric. That’s my story. That’s what makes it special. The NFL is a revolving door; it’s a young man’s game. There are going to be a million more young guys play after me. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be able to share those experiences.

“That’s the reality of it. You learn from those things.”

Not that Coughlin’s approach took immediately. Major life changes don’t always come overnight, but Taylor said at some point, he learned from one mistake, then another. He worked out better, ate better, approached his career better, approached life better. An immature, unconfident player became a leader; a rookie became a veteran.

“As a rookie you don’t know what to expect, you just put your head down and do as you see the vets are doing and continue to move forward,” he said. “Eventually you figure it out. In those moments, you say ‘this isn’t so bad,’ and you start to grow. That’s what life is.”

Taylor on Thursday also spoke of his grandmother, his teammates who stood behind him and encouraged him not to quit, the town, the community. He talked about God, and about people who believed him when he doubted himself.”

In trying to put being in the Pride in perspective, he said, “I’m thankful that in the midst of those adversities, this is the outcome, to be engraved in history forever.”

He smiled.

“Forever is a long time,” he added.

Taylor throughout Thursday’s press conference was typically humble, saying several times he wished he could do a better job expressing how much all the people had meant to him, and how much the moment meant. He said had learned of the honor only days before, and said he wasn’t as prepared to discuss it as he might have liked.

“It takes more than a couple of days to want to be perfect and say the right things,” he said.

In reality, though, the day was typical Taylor, really. He may not have known what to say, but once again he did and said all the right things in just the right way.

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