He was the shark in the movie “Jaws”, an unstoppable quarterback eating machine. No one who saw him play will ever forget him. They will never forget how strong, how agile and fast; how nothing could stop him when he set his mind. Some said he was a genetic mistake. It was scary for a quarterback to look into his eyes, round, lifeless, charcoal black eyes, like a doll. He forced teams to use two tight-end sets, to keep an extra back in the backfield to block (H-back). He changed pass-rushing schemes and offensive line play. It has been said that one of the greatest freedoms in life is the freedom from fear. This theory does not apply in the NFL. When this guy walked down the street, people stepped aside. Hitting people “hard” was strictly a business decision for him. He thought it was a good one. So, who was the most dominant force in the NFL during the 1980’s? No, it wasn’t Joe Montana, Walter Payton, John Elway, Dan Marino, or Jerry Rice. He was the first New York Football Giant to ever make one-million dollars a year playing football. His name was Lawrence Julius Taylor. His mother called him Lonnie but his enemies called him “L.T.” Football will remember him as the “perfect storm.”
Sometimes good and evil do not live miles apart. Sometimes they get tangled up together. This may be the case for L.T., but there was no myth. L.T. was very, very real. The New York Giants had been bad for many years, but he changed all that. Taylor’s teammates starting calling him “Superman” and joked that his locker should have been a phone booth. No doubt you’ve heard a lot of stories about this guy, but today you’re going to read his.
With the second pick, in the first round of the 1981 NFL draft, Lawrence Taylor was plucked out of the University of North Carolina. Head Coach Bum Phillips of the New Orleans Saints had the first pick and took running-back George Rodgers. Taylor, a college All-American, began training camp on the Giants’ third team defense. Eventually he was moved up to the second team and before you knew it, the first team. The joke was, this all happened in about thirty minutes. Yes, he was that good, and it didn’t take his defensive coordinator, Bill Parcells, long to notice that he was different.
Interestingly, Taylor was disappointed and unimpressed with the Giants and Giants Stadium; he had wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy. Although Taylor wore #98 in college (he was projected to be a defensive lineman when recruited), he chose to wear #56 for the Giants in honor of his favorite player, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson. That should have been the first red flag that Taylor was a little “sideways” when it came to discipline. UNC later retired Taylor’s #98.
Taylor became the definition of euphoria. Joe Theisman tells a story of how, when the Redskins played the Giants, they used a chalk board to draw up their offensive sets. “We used letters to define the defensive positions,” said Joe. “We used a D for down linemen, an L for linebackers, a C for cornerbacks, and an S for safeties. But for Lawrence Taylor, we used his #56 with a circle around it.” Everybody knew where L.T. lined up on every play: the fans, referees, the offensive linemen, even the parking lot attendant. He set the bar for outside linebackers. In New York, the media capital of the world, Taylor became Babe Ruth with shoulder pads.
The 1980’s linebacker corps of the New York Giants was magnificent. Gary Reasons, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Brad Van Pelt, Brian Kelly, and Hall of Famers Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor roamed the defensive side of the ball like King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, guarding the end zone.
Most of us will remember a game played during the 1985 season on TV on Monday Night Football. The Giants were pitted against their arch rival, the Washington Redskins. Taylor claimed he in no way meant for the injury to happen. Taylor’s sack of Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann, which resulted in a compound fracture of Joe’s right leg, ended Theismann’s career. Taylor, upset at what he had done, screamed for the trainers to attend to Theismann. Joe never blamed Taylor.
Taylor produced double-digit sacks each season from 1984 through 1990. His career high (20.5) sacks occurred in the 1986 season. At 6’3” tall and weighing 237 pounds, he could he could enter the opposition’s backfield many different ways. Some historians believe that sacks became an official statistic in 1982 partly because of Lawrence Taylor. Along the way he led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins ( XXI and XXV); Taylor was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1986, and he also won a record three Defensive-Player-of-the-Year Awards (1981, 1982 and 1986). Add ten Pro Bowl selections and ten All-Pro Awards, and you have the most disruptive force at outside linebacker ever seen in NFL history. Taylor was elected in 1999, on his first ballot to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Taylor’s controversial lifestyle during and after his football career, also became headlines. He has admitted drug use as early as his second year in the league. In the City of Lights (New York) everybody wanted to touch him, shake his hand, and say “hello.” His money was no good as others made it easy for him to say “yes.” He did fail several NFL drug tests and was suspended. No doubt he led an addictive lifestyle. In his mind, he grew too big for New Jersey, too big for football, too big for marriage to one woman. Today he would tell you, “Drugs! I did it because I could.” Now he wears flip flops, smokes cigars, and copes with life by playing golf and laughter created from making jokes.
January 15, 1994, twenty years ago this week, Lawrence Taylor played in his last NFL game. Later that year he officially retired. At 34, Taylor, a troubled soul, went out of the game quickly. “I retired when Head Coach Parcells left, I just didn’t tell anyone until three years later,” said Taylor. Parcells and Taylor stayed mad at each other most of the time. Parcells would accept nothing but Taylor’s best, while Taylor felt he was unfairly being singled out. There was one thing you could count on. On Sundays at one o’clock, L.T. would be standing next to Parcells when the National Anthem played. I am reminded of Parcells’ acceptance speech into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bill said in jest, “When they put my bust in the Hall of Fame, I asked them to place me close to L.T. so I can keep an eye on that sucker.”
Besides the awards mentioned above, the other awards won by Lawrence Taylor are too numerous to list here. He is credited with 1,088 tackles, nine interceptions, and 142 sacks, including the 9.5 sacks recording during his rookie season before they were counted. Taylor also scored two touchdowns, forced 33 fumbles, and recovered eleven of those.
You can still catch him occasionally in a movie role or on television. He has appeared in Sports Illustrated on occasion and been interviewed by many different writers over the years. He also worked on the TNT Sunday Night Football telecast as an analyst and appeared in a World Wrestling Federation match, where he defeated “Bam Bam” Bigelow. While high on cocaine, he was present as his #56 was retired by the New York Giants in 1994. His first wife and kids were there at his request. His wife filed for divorce the next day. He is now married for the third time. In the last couple of years, his personal life has come under scrutiny. In 2011, he pled guilty to sexual misconduct involving an under-age girl. During his interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes, Taylor described himself as an adrenaline junkie who lived life on a thrill ride. “L. T. died a long time ago, and I don’t miss him at all. All that’s left is Lawrence Taylor.”
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.