Roping life's bull

Taylor lassos energy to lead UT running backs

The orange nameplate on the office door says "Trooper Taylor." The keys that often dangle from your doorknob say even more.

You never remember locking the door in the small town of Cuero, Texas, where you were born and raised. Sixteen siblings. Two bedrooms. Eight brothers in one room, eight sisters in the other.

You lean back in a chair, relaxing in your sock feet as you reflect on life’s twists and turns. Hired eight months ago as running backs coach at the University of Tennessee, you moved into an office with a desk, television, and a couch, where you frequently spend the night.

At age 34, you’re the youngest coach on UT’s staff by more than six years. Nearby, there are pictures of your wife, Evi; 8-year-old son, Blaise; and 6-year-old daughter, Starr.

You were Blaise’s age when you started roping and riding in rodeos in Cuero. You run your fingers across a two-inch scar on your leg.

It’s where a bull hooked you with its horns, tore into your flesh and sent you flipping into a cloud of dust when you were 14 years old. Scared the daylights out of you, but you knew that was the risk that went with it.

"You’re going to have to decide between riding bulls and football,’’ your grandfather counseled that day 20 years ago.

The teenage grandson thought about that for a moment.

"Bulls keep going after you when they blow the whistle, but football players stop,’’ you reasoned.

Get the doctor

So it was that a career path was chosen. Not that football is without danger. Taylor has had his share of injuries, and not all occurred while he was playing.

With his white cap turned backward, he sometimes chest-bumps players with such force they stumble as if hit by a linebacker. Chicago Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher knows how it is. It was the same way when he played at New Mexico, and Taylor was a young assistant coach for the Lobos.

Urlacher spotted Taylor during ESPN’s telecast of UT’s season-opening 42-17 victory against Nevada-Las Vegas. He phoned UT’s football office to say it’s good to see some things never change.

Urlacher has heard the legendary stories.

The one about Taylor accidentally catching his hand in a player’s facemask and suffering a compound fracture of a finger while congratulating the guy for scoring. That happened when he was an assistant coach at New Mexico.

The one about Taylor excitedly running down the sideline as a Tulane assistant, trying to keep up with a defensive player who was returning a fumble. He broke his ankle. The following week he was back on the sidelines in a cast.

The one about Taylor separating his shoulder when he put a little too much oomph into giving a player a high-five.

Does this guy ever run out of energy? Does he ever slow down?

Taped to the cabinet behind him is a sign that says, "Recruiting is like shaving. It shows if you don’t do it every day."

He reaches under his desk, pulls out a gray blanket, and points to the couch.

"I spend a lot of nights over there during the season,’’ he says.

All in the family

With two bedrooms for 16 children, you slept anywhere as a kid - couch, bed, floor. Got up in the morning, and put on cowboy boots and jeans to start a new day in that small Texas town, 135 miles southwest of Houston.

"Went to work when I was 10, cutting the grass and trimming shrubs at a cabinet company,’’ Taylor says. "I made a little money helping with the rodeos, but mostly that was for fun. Every check I got went to Mama to help raise us."

The worst day came in seventh grade. Taylor’s dad died of a heart attack. He was 42. Your mother tells you not to worry, that everything will be fine.

Gloria Taylor took out a Bible and read Romans 8:28 to try to ease the grief. Two decades later, you can still recite that verse, word for word - "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to (His) purpose."

Romans 8:28 is written in orange marker at the top of the white board in your office at Tennessee. You realize now, more than ever, that it was her guidance and discipline that kept the family together.

"If any of us got in trouble, Mama would put out 16 chairs with one in the middle,’’ Taylor says.

"The son or daughter she thought did something bad would come to that chair in the middle and get spanked. Then, one by one, the rest of us would get a spanking from her, too - from the 18-year-old all the way down to the youngest."

Taylor uses the same philosophy in coaching UT’s running backs. If one gets in trouble, all must pay with extra pre-dawn running at 5:30.

He scolds them one minute, hugs them the next.

It’s a juggling act. Four veteran backs - Cedric Houston, Gerald Riggs, Corey Larkins and Jabari Davis - but there’s only one football to share among them. Last season, Tennessee finished ninth in the SEC and 70th in the nation with 1,800 yards, 138 per game. This year, their goal as a unit is 3,000 yards.

When they walk into Taylor’s office, this is how he writes their names on the board: "Cedric Taylor, Gerald Taylor, Corey Taylor and Jabari Taylor."

It wouldn’t work if another coach tried that. The players would laugh it off as the corniest thing since those television Taylors - Andy and Opie from Mayberry.

However, the personality of the newest member of the UT staff somehow makes it work. He wants to be more than their coach. He says he wants to be like the mentors he had growing up, the coaches who taught him "everything from how to shave to how to change the oil in his car."

Every Sunday night, he meets with the freshmen. It’s a time when they can vent and share frustrations, concerns and goals. Seldom do they leave the room without smiling at least once. He has a one-liner for every occasion. "Trooper-isms," that’s the term his friends use.

Taylor works hard to make the rapport with his players look easy. He did post-graduate work in educational psychology. His wife is a social worker. They could write a book on group dynamics.

She ran track at Baylor; he played football there. They met in the stadium. A week after she graduated in 1993, they were married on the 50-yard line.

Night of the waterbed

The girl hooked you with her looks and charm. The bull hooked you with its horns. The game hooked you with its excitement and camaraderie.

Your football playing days at Baylor are over, but you’re still a kid at heart.

The other UT assistant coaches busted out laughing the day you switched the shoes in the lockers of head coach Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. Receivers coach Pat Washington knows how you are. He was at Baylor when you got your first job working for him as a graduate assistant in 1992.

One day, Washington bought a waterbed. He handed you a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. In no time, the waterbed was assembled - well, sort of. Eight screws were left over. You tossed them in the trash.

At 2 a.m., the phone rang in your apartment. The voice at the other end was Washington’s. Guess whose waterbed collapsed in the middle of the night?

Three years later, Washington was hired by Tennessee. Before he could get all of his boxes packed, you already had your nameplate on his desk.

"Hey, Buzzard,’’ Washington teased you. "You don’t even let the body cool off before you move in.’’

When you’re one of 16 children, you learn to stake out your territory. Sometimes you have to be like those bulls. Keep going past the whistle.

Better than a clown

All that energy, where do you get it?

Maybe it’s a sugar high. In your first few months at Tennessee, you made so many trips to the vending machine that a football secretary jokingly set out a jar in the UT football offices with a handwritten sign asking for donations for "Trooper’s Candy Fund."

They all tease you about living at warp speed. You go to birthday parties with your children and the kids flock around you. Other parents ask your wife, "Can we rent out Trooper next year? He’s better than a clown."

Everybody seems to have a story about you.

"I met him when we played against each other in college,’’ Georgia Tech running backs coach Curtis Modkins says. "I was returning kicks and I saw a little ole bow-legged No. 2 for Baylor jumping up and down, and I thought, ‘Man, who is this dude?’ ’’

No. 2’s enthusiasm turned out to be infectious. They became best friends. In 1998, they worked together on the coaching staff at New Mexico.

"Anybody who rides a bull can’t be all there - you know what I’m saying?’’ Modkins says with a chuckle.

"I don’t call him Trooper. I call him the Cuero Cowboy. I tell him he fell off one of those bulls and hit his head and something happened. It’s like those people who get hit by lightning and they have super strength. I think he might have gotten kicked by one of those bulls, and that’s why he has so much energy."

Ride ’em, Cowboy

Sometimes, that energy is manifested by chest-bumps and high-fives. Other times, it churns unseen in the pit of your stomach.

On the outside, you’re the Cuero Cowboy. "He likes to watch westerns, and Clint Eastwood is his man,’’ Evi says.

On the inside, you worry about the welfare and feelings of your players. You’re still young enough to remember the emotions you felt as a player.

At Baylor, you found a niche as a kick returner and ranked fifth in all-time kick return yardage. Along the way, you suffered a severe knee injury that required reconstructive surgery. Another scar to go with the one from the rodeo.

"Why did this happen to me?" you remember asking yourself. "I’m trying to do things right. I’ve never drank alcohol in my life, never did any drugs. I have friends doing drugs and they stay healthy and they get drafted. Why me?’ "

You hasten to add that you’re no Mr. Goody Two-Shoes, that you curse too much and have faults like everyone else.

It’s hard to change. You live on the edge, going full throttle.

Grant Teaff knows. When he coached at Baylor, he went to Cuero to recruit another blue-chip running back. He ended up signing you because of your gung-ho attitude.

That attitude was never more evident than in the final game of your college career. After blowing out your knee and being sidelined all season, you wouldn’t relent until you talked your way onto the field against Texas.

"They had the ball on our 38 on fourth-and-4, and I’ll be danged if Trooper didn’t make the tackle that saved the game and we beat Texas 21-20,’’ recalls Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.

"When I introduce him, I always say, ‘Meet Trooper Taylor, a man who never met a word he didn’t like.’ He’s the same now as he was when I recruited him."

Didn’t stop talking back then, and didn’t stop several years later when the Baylor coaches and their wives were on vacation in Mexico. A mechanical bull in the nightspot got the conversation going at the table.

"Everybody was betting who could stay on the longest,’’ Evi says, laughing. "Some of the coaches didn’t believe Trooper was a bullrider."

You show ’em, Cuero Cowboy. You plant your feet in the stirrups and the mechanical bull starts bucking. You go and go until they finally flip the switch to turn it off.

Early on, you learned that life is like a rodeo - you hang on tight through the ups and downs. Sometimes the bull hooks you. Sometimes you rope the bull.

Gary Lundy may be reached at 865-342-6274.

© 2004 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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