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Emotional Fred Taylor retires


We paused to reflect Friday, rightfully and memorably so.

Fred Taylor, the best running back in Jaguars history and perhaps the best player in team history, returned to Jacksonville Friday morning after spending two seasons with the New England Patriots, and did what players of his stature do. He signed a one-day contract, retiring from the NFL as a member of the team with which he is most associated.

That team is the Jaguars. And for that, he said he is grateful.

Taylor's retirement came in a formal ceremony in the West Touchdown Club at EverBank Field, and as these things do, it took on more the feel of a tribute than a press conference.

Former Jaguars teammates attended, and members of the Jaguars organization did, too. Rashean Mathis, a teammate of Taylor's from 2004-08, spoke, as did Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith and Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver.

They spoke of Taylor not just as a player, but as a teammate, a friend, and a person.

They spoke of a player who not only helped build and define a franchise, but who spanned eras. He was with the Jaguars in the best of times, the early perennial playoff era, and he was with them in their toughest times. One thing you realized watching a highlight reel/tribute put together by Mike Perkins and the Jaguars' video staff was that while it's not fair to say he was involved in every memorable moment in Jaguars history, it's absolutely correct to say he provided more than his share. A lot more.

There aren't many athletes I feel fortunate to have covered, not many who combine special, memorable talent and achievement with class and perspective off the field.

I was fortunate enough to cover Taylor his first three seasons, and in that time, he not only turned in a remarkable 1998 rookie season – the game-winning run against Tampa, the over-the-shoulder touchdown reception against Baltimore, the game-opening run against Miami – he turned in one of the most-overlooked great rushing seasons in recent NFL memory.

This was 2000.

Taylor started the season recovering from a knee injury, and the Jaguars were a shell of what they had been as a 14-2 team a season before. By mid-season, Taylor was absolutely the focal point of the offense, and defenses knew it, but he turned in maybe the best season of his career. He rushed for 1,399 yards despite essentially missing the first three games, and at one point, he rushed for more than 100 yards in nine consecutive games.

It was during that season I realized Taylor was more than a very good young running back. He was a special one, an all-timer. He had a remarkable knack for one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL – i.e., break the long, game-changing, momentum-turning run. Some runners go weeks or perhaps seasons between 40-yard runs. Taylor throughout that season made the remarkable routine, and here's the thing about Taylor:

He kept doing it, long past the age many running backs don't.

Watching the highlight reel put together by the Jaguars Friday, you saw what made Taylor great. Not just the breakaway speed, not just the power, but a staggering ability to make defenders miss. Time and again Taylor would break through the line, get into a hole with a defender, juke a time or two, then leave the defender falling in the opposite direction.

He was special, and if the media and fans never quite appreciated it, those who competed against him did. To hear the comments of players and coaches discuss Taylor in recent days is to hear them talk of a player who they believe ranks among the best of his or any era.

And while that's what Taylor was, what Friday's ceremony reminded us, too – as if those who knew him ever forgot – was that there was far more to Taylor's story than what went on on the field.

This was a guy who arrived in Jacksonville in 1998 in raw form. He recalled Friday the intense shyness he had as a rookie, and that was very much the case. I can recall interviewing him that season. Usually, he sat with his face to his locker, as much away from the cameras as he could.

But I also remember interviewing him after that season, one on one, in the Jaguars' press room. Without the camera lights, he showed a different side, an engaging, intelligent, humorous, sincere side. It was a side I saw grow the next two years, and one that obviously continued to grow.

So, now, we come to Friday . . .

It's a difficult time, the retirement of a great player. It's a day athletes know is coming, but one that most dread. Taylor said he was nervous as he drove to EverBank Field Friday with his wife, Andrea. He was, he said, maybe more nervous than he ever had been before a game.

It will surprise no one who knew or followed Taylor that when the time came, he handled it with class.

But he handled it with more than that. He handled it with dignity, grace, honesty, sincerity. He talked of lessons learned, and told his teammates – publicly, in an open forum – that he wished he could have been a better leader. He said he learned things in New England playing under Bill Belichick that – had he known them when he played—perhaps could have made him a better teammate.

Taylor cried openly at the press conference, but he smiled a lot, too, and as he talked, he spoke the words any athlete feels as their careers end.

"It's amazing how time goes by," he said.

That it is. Thirteen years is an eternity for NFL running back, but that doesn't mean it's over any less quickly. Taylor is 35, and said he feels healthy considering the brutal nature of the profession he played, but he said as he worked out recently – keeping himself in shape in case maybe, just maybe, it worked out that he might play for some team this season – it also became obvious that he wasn't as young as he once was. It was obvious his body didn't recover as it once did.

And then, Taylor said, something else was obvious.

That it was time.

When that time came, he called Ryan Robinson of the Jaguars public relations staff, and so started the process that ended with Friday morning's ceremony.

In that ceremony, Taylor thanked a long list of people. One of them was my predecessor at, Vic Ketchman, with whom Taylor had a close relationship. Another was Wayne Weaver and another was Tom Coughlin. There were others, but among the last was the city of Jacksonville.

There are those who believe Taylor suffered by playing in Jacksonville, that had he played in a larger market, he might have gained more notoriety. Taylor said he looks at it the opposite way, that had he played in a larger market, the immature kid that he was might have taken a different path, and that his career – and life – might have turned out far differently.

Taylor said he always knew he would retire a Jaguar, and said again, he was grateful to have had the opportunity to play in this town, for this team, in front of these fans.

As we paused to reflect Friday, the fans, the teammates and even those fortunate enough to have covered him, it went without saying that feeling was mutual. 

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