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|01-04-2008, 12:55 AM||#1|
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Taylor Jaguars' man for all seasons
Taylor Jaguars' man for all seasons
Even Parker knows Taylor is the main man
Friday, January 04, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There was nothing extraordinary about the congratulatory text message that Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor received on the night of Dec. 20 as he was leaving the team Christmas party.
Nothing except that it came from Willie Parker as Parker lay on the training table in the Steelers' locker room in St. Louis, his right leg broken and his season ruined only moments earlier on the unforgiving turf of the Edward Jones Dome.
"Willie had told the NFL Network broadcasters even before he got hurt that he was going to give up his Pro Bowl spot for me because he thought I deserved it," Taylor recalled this week. "Then, that night, he called to say how happy he was that I was going to get to go in his place."
If an opposing player thinks highly enough of Taylor to take a moment at the lowest point of his career to remember him, you might guess what Taylor means to his own guys.
"Fred is the Jaguars," defensive end Paul Spicer said.
Think Jerome Bettis.
Taylor is a respected figure around the NFL, a proud member of the exclusive 10,000-yard rushing club and a likely future Hall of Famer. He has overcome plenty -- whispers early in his career that he was a first-round draft bust, the horrible label "Fragile Freddie" after a long string of injuries forced him to miss 24 games in his first four seasons and fan pleas as recently as early this season that he step aside for hotshot teammate Maurice Jones-Drew.
He got married, settled down, became a father again, stopped clubbing and started training more. He set aside his ego and willingly shared time with Jones-Drew, even though he had enough left to finish this season with five consecutive 100-yard games. He became the Jaguars' inspirational leader, as in "Let's win this thing for Fred." Now, in his 10th NFL season, he has his team in position to take a run at that elusive Super Bowl, but the Jaguars must win three tough road games to get there, starting against the Steelers at Heinz Field tomorrow night.
Jerome Bettis, indeed.
You know how his story ended.
So does Taylor.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I've definitely thought about that," Taylor said, quietly.
This already has been a good week for Taylor. Team officials presented him with an autographed jersey from Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who signed it "To the man!" Not long ago, the great Brown went on television and called Taylor "a thing of beauty" and said he was his favorite NFL back.
You can count the Steelers among Taylor's admirers. It's not just Parker, who became a close friend through former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress -- the godfather of one of Taylor's sons -- and trains with Taylor in South Florida in the offseason. Safety Troy Polamalu called Taylor the best back he has played against before the two teams met Dec. 16 at Heinz Field. Coach Mike Tomlin called Taylor "spectacular" after he ran for 147 yards that day -- a stadium record for an opposing back -- to lead the Jaguars to a 29-22 victory.
There's no doubt the Jaguars are counting on Taylor and Jones-Drew to ease the pressure on quarterback David Garrard, who will make his first postseason start. They combined for 216 of the Jaguars' 224 rushing yards Dec. 16. Taylor said he expects the Steelers' defense to be more stout this time. He claimed he didn't watch tape of that first game because "you can get complacent ... I think past reflection is for old men."
Taylor is 31, ancient for an NFL running back. Few would have guessed he would last this long after those early injuries.
"There's nothing anyone can do or say to steal my joy," Taylor said of those tough times. "I love competing and I love playing football. I figure eventually they'll love me, anyway."
They certainly love Taylor this season. His strong finish helped him to his seventh 1,000-yard year and, thanks to Parker's injury, his first Pro Bowl. Hang out in the Jaguars' locker room and you quickly get the idea his teammates feel better for him than they would for themselves.
"I consider it a blessing just to be able to play with Fred Taylor," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said.
Taylor wasn't always such a good teammate. He said marriage and fatherhood changed his priorities, helping him to miss just eight games in the past six seasons. He also said he matured in a hurry after his former agent, Tank Black, went to prison after allegedly bilking several NFL players out of millions, more than $3 million from Taylor.
"I learned to take care of my own stuff, take responsibility," Taylor said.
Said Spicer: "Fred's changed a lot. When I got here [in 2000], he was a man. Now, he's a grown man."
It really is a wonderful story.
Just like the Bettis story in 2005.
You aren't rooting for the same happy ending, of course. But they sure are down here.
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