John Taylor: The Evolution of a Player, the Growth of a Man

It was the end of the 1988 NFL season, and the San Francisco 49ers were doing battle with the Cincinnati Bengals at Super Bowl XXIII. In a matchup that was evenly tight throughout the whole game. San Francisco got the ball on their own eight-yard line with 3:10 left on the clock. By the time there was less than a minute left in the game, the team had driven 92 yards down the field. With 34 seconds left to go, the ball left QB Joe Montana’s hands and landed in those of John TaylorTaylor just scored the game-winning touchdown for his team.

Taylor was never considered a “number one” guy in football. He wasn’t a first-round draft pick, he wasn’t the top receiver on the depth charts, he might not have even been in college football, let alone the pros. Yet, Taylor — who spent all nine of his NFL seasons with the 49ers as a wide receiver and a punt returner— left his mark on the game with more than just the famous Super Bowl reception.

Before the Game

Taylor was one of four children, and he was a bigger baseball fan than a football one. In fact, when he graduated from high school in Pennsauken, New Jersey, he weighed just 115 lbs. Instead of accepting a college baseball scholarship, he went to work at a liquor warehouse. But about a year later, he started college at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. He tried out for the football team as a walk-on, but failed.

That could have been the end of his venture in football, but he tried out as a walk-on again the next year at a new school — Delaware State. This time around, he made the cut. He totaled 42 touchdowns during his college career, 15 of them coming in his senior season with 13 receiving touchdowns, both records for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).

Taylor also holds the MEAC records for most receiving yards in a game (223) and longest reception (97 yards). Selected to the All-MEAC team in 1984 and 1985, as well as the 1985 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, he is known as one of the best to come into the NFL from the conference.

Struggles and Celebration in the NFL

While his family watched the events of the 1986 NFL Draft unfold, Taylor slept upstairs peacefully unaware he had been selected by the 49ers in the third round. This pick is ranked by ESPN as the 25th Greatest NFL Draft Steal of All-Time; but he just as easily could have been a bust. He was nearly cut after his first training camp.

And then came the drug trouble — right before that Super Bowl-winning 1988 season.

“Drugs were all around me growing up at home, at college and even once I got here,” Taylor said in a January 1995 interview with the New York Times. “I cannot believe it when people say they haven’t done this or there is no way they will do that. When you’re young, you’re dumb. I came here in 1986 and two years later I made a mistake. I used cocaine.

“I failed a drug test in training camp. I was warned and I got the message. And then they took two more tests before the first game of the season, one for the 49ers and one for the league. The one here came out negative and the one by the league was positive. I asked for a new test but the league said no. I was suspended, out of the box for 30 days. And then the league came back long after it was all over and said they had made a mistake. I would miss the first game, against New Orleans. I would miss four games in all but I promised myself I was not going to be another young black man that became a miserable statistic.I promised myself I would come back better, stronger.”

And come back stronger he did. With 14 receptions in 1988, Taylor had a total of 325 receiving yards and two touchdowns, with his longest reception of the season being a 73-yard touchdown. He also led the league in punt return yards that season with 556, and proved to be a beneficial counterpart to Hall of Fame WR Jerry Rice.

Elected to the All-Pro team that year and selected to take part in the Pro Bowl, the 49ers marched into Super Bowl XXIII, and while Rice was named the game’s MVP, Taylor had quite the accomplishments of his own that game. In addition to making the game-winning catch, Taylor made history by setting the Super Bowl records for most punt return yards (56), highest punt return average (18.7 yards per return) and longest punt return in Super Bowl history (a 45-yard return). The longest punt return record would be broken at Super Bowl 50 when the Denver BroncosJames Norwood had a 61-yard return.

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The next season, riding the momentum of the Super Bowl win, Taylor would go on to be known as one of the top receivers in the league despite not being his team’s No. 1. He became the first NFL player to have two touchdowns on 90+ yard receptions in a single game during a Monday Night Football matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. He had 1,077 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 1989, going on to another All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection. He not only capped off that year with another Super Bowl ring to cap it off, but Taylor was also named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s.

He had another 1,000+ receiving yards season in 1991, and narrowly missed a third in 1993. Finally, right before his retirement following the 1995 season, the 49ers won another Super Bowl, making Taylor a three-time champion.

Media and Family

During his playing days, while he had attention for what he did on the field, Taylor barely said a word to the media. It was a vow he made himself.

“The press had written that I was suspended for drugs and alcohol when I had not even been asked about it and when they didn’t even know the full story,” Taylor said. “Nobody bothered to dig and find out. They just wrote what they thought. Sure, it hurt me, but it hurt my family even more. Especially my mom. And less than a year later, she died. I blamed myself for it. I shouldn’t have had her out there in that sun. I blamed them for it. She went to her grave never knowing the full truth. I promised myself I would never forgive them for that.”

Taylor said the relationship he had with his mom was one of, if not the absolute, strongest that has ever influenced him. But one day in the summer of 1989, Taylor’s world was rocked to its core.

“For the Fourth of July weekend in 1989, me and Elaine [Taylor’s wife] packed and got ready to go to my family’s home,” he said. “I had put a suit in the suitcase, and I remember thinking after leaving, now why did I do that? I won’t need a suit. This isn’t a business trip, this is strictly for fun with my family. We got there and most of the family on the Fourth went to Great Adventure. We were having a great time.

“Then, my mom said she didn’t feel good. She said her head was hurting. My mom had diabetes and we thought she just needed insulin. It turned out she had a brain aneurysm and the vessel had busted. We called first aide. She was rushed to the hospital and did not come out of a coma for four days. Then she died. I think of my mom all of the time. I wish I could talk to her. But I’ve learned: Life in general is a script, and when you fulfill that script, the Lord calls you home.”

Taylor said he eventually realized the media were not to blame for his mother’s death; doctors informed him his mother’s aneurysm had gone undetected, so it could have struck at any time possible. But Taylor did not bother to change his relationship with the media, invoking the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But in time, Taylor grew maturely and spiritually, all thanks to the loved ones around him.

“My dad, his name is John, too, he has always been there for me, for all of us, working two jobs including at the post office and giving us everything we needed,” Taylor said. “He even bought each one of us cars when we got to high school. I seek his advice. I love my dad.

“I love my wife. She has a master’s degree in education. We talked on the phone for three months before we actually met and we married in 1990. I’ve leaned on her shoulders. She’s been there. I thank God. If it wasn’t for her…I don’t know what traps I might have fallen into.”

Elaine admitted though the John Taylor she got to know wasn’t the John Taylor she expected to meet.

“When I finally did meet him, I was expecting the TV version of a football player, the gold chains and the glitz and glamour,” she said. “I’m a down-home girl. And I found out he was the same way, a down-home guy. I’m five years older than John. There was a maturity difference. I was goal-oriented from the start. He was kind of haphazard, kind of happy to be a 49er and that was it. He was your typical young man in his 20s searching.”

After the Game

After Taylor hung up his cleats, he created a product transportation company called J.T. Taylor Trucking Inc. in 1998. Starting with five drivers, he downsized and became a driver, too.

“I knew trucking before I knew football,” Taylor told ESPN. “My grandfather and all of my uncles drove, so I grew up around it.”

Looking back at his life’s journey from before and during football to the end of his playing days, Taylor said he is happy with the man he evolved into.

“I feel good about myself,” he said. “And if you feel good about yourself and you’re doing your job the best you can and you have people, family, that you love and that love you, what more is there and what more can you ask for? I’ve learned to stand for something. And not to fall for anything.”
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