By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Jason Taylor doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back, but when he does it’s mostly to reflect upon and appreciate the ways in which his NFL career molded and shaped him as an overall person.
Like many kids, Taylor had a sports idol that he wanted desperately to emulate. That person was NBA icon, Michael Jordan. For Taylor, a native of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, the most exciting thing about receiving a football scholarship to The University of Akron was that they agreed to let him also play basketball. But, as he continued to excel in football, his NBA dreams faded.
In 1997, the Miami Dolphins selected Taylor, a defensive end, in the third round of the NFL Draft. He went on to a 15-year career (13 with the Dolphins and a year each with the Washington Redskins and New York Jets). Along the way, Taylor racked up accomplishment after accomplishment, including being a six-time Pro Bowl selection, the NFL’s 2002 sack leader, 2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and winning the 2007 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award and is a member of the Miami Dolphins Honor Roll.
When Taylor retired following the 2011 NFL season, the Pro Football Hall of Fame talk had already begun.
“I blocked most of it out,” he said of the initial chatter. “Players who say they don’t read or hear things, most are full of it. But I never got caught up in much of it. You kind of chuckle at it at first and say, ‘Someone got a little carried away.’ Then you start compiling numbers, and statistics are adding up so, you might give a little less of a chuckle, but it never added any pressure. Sure, I wanted to be in the Hall of Fame, but my focus everyday was to win that day, win that week. At the end of the day when they emptied my bucket out, if it added up to a Hall-of-Famer so be it.”
It did. Taylor got the news at this year’s Super Bowl that he had been selected for Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in his first year of eligibility. As the reality sunk in, Taylor also had the opportunity to look back at the ways his NFL career changed his life.
“The NFL changed my life in all the superficial ways, financially, moving to a city (Miami) that I fell in love with,” he said. “But, deep down, football gave me structure, discipline and an outlet for my insanely competitive nature. It taught me how to deal with adversity.
“I had a bit of a tough upbringing, which prepared me for football, and football showed me it wasn’t all bad. It taught me how to do things moving forward. Football’s an amazing game because you can have immensely talented guys but you have to swallow that and do something for somebody else.
“For marquee players, it teaches you an altruistic view of life. There’s only so many plays you can make so, sometimes you have to sacrifice for someone else.”
For Taylor, that altruistic view, combined with his awareness of his ability to use his own marquee status to help others, translated into him starting the Jason Taylor Foundation, which is education-based, and offers several programs for children.
“We do a lot of feel good programs, you give to put a smile on a face,” Taylor said. “But we also try to take a very detailed view of the education side of things and prepare kids for their opportunities. I want to teach you to feed yourself and take care of yourself so, when that opportunity comes you’re prepared to handle the things that come along with that. Getting through a college program, a job interview, without someone having to hold your hand. You can’t do everything through text and Snapchat.”
And it’s made an impact. Taylor has seen many of the children who first came through one of the foundation’s reading rooms in the sixth or seventh grade go on to complete their college educations. Not only have several come back as volunteers, but two are now paid employees of the foundation.
One of their programs, BluApple Poetry has provided a unique twist and has proved to be successful beyond Taylor’s expectations. The idea came from an organization in Chicago, and Taylor described how it started and has grown.
“We have this reading room in Miramar. It’s a true education center,” Taylor said. “During Black History Month one of the projects was for the kids to go home and write something about themselves. This one girl, Autumn, wrote a poem about things she’d never told anyone before, and how the reading room was changing her life and saving her life. She stood up and read this poem and our director was like, ‘Holy cow, she’s onto something here.’
“We started this program with 10 to 12 kids and it’s now 25 to 30 kids. They started preforming at different places and people wanted the program. We have it now in 60 schools in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties. We’re also in Gainesville. We have a yearly competition where everyone comes down to South Florida. It’s a March Madness format of competitions and they battle it out. It sucks having to eliminate kids. We crown an individual and team winner. Then we fly them to Chicago and they do a seminar with a group out [there].
This program has proved to be a teaching tool in a variety of ways, including real-life, experiential education.
“The cool thing was, in the finals, we had the rich kids and poor kids,” Taylor said. “Throughout the day they’re hanging out together, and having lunch and dinner together. A couple of years ago I got a little carried away and sent all four finalists to Chicago. But they were on the road in Chicago for five days, they all stayed together in dorms, and were really crossing boundaries in a lot of ways. It grows them more than we could ever do is sitting in the classroom.”
It’s not lost on Taylor that he comes from a similar background that many of the children he now deals with come from, and that makes his current ability to help all the more rewarding.
My mom always instilled in me the want, the need, the obligation the passion to give back,” Taylor said. “Even when we were broke, we would stand on line to get the handouts and then go behind the line to help.
“There’s nothing better than changing a kid’s life. I didn’t see a way out. Every day was the same picture. But people went out of their way to help me. Having that power to impact somebody’s life like that is really powerful. It’s a big responsibility. It’s incumbent on all of us who have some notoriety to help.”
That notoriety is going to reach another level when Taylor receives his gold jacket.
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.