When they were younger, just a couple of big-talking, know-it-all football jocks, Steve Streater and Lawrence Taylor would strut across the University of North Carolina campus in caps and faded blue jeans.
They hung out in the student union game room, taking on the world in eight ball. They fished for bream at Dr. Biggers's pond on the edge of Chapel Hill. They played a mean game of cards.
"We beat everybody in the dorm," Streater says. "We just knew each other so well that we sensed the cards each other was holding."
For three years they were inseparable. Roommates with the same dream. Until April 30, 1981.
Streater, a defensive back, had just signed a free-agent contract with the Redskins. Driving home from the airport in the rain that same night, he lost control of his new sports car on a slippery road, and the crash left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Taylor, the No. 1 draft choice of the New York Giants, was attending rookie minicamp when he heard about the accident. Within hours he was at Streater's bedside.
"I looked up and saw the fear in Lawrence's face," Streater recalls. "He began beating on the walls, beating on the door, and he screamed, 'Steve, get up from there! This isn't you! Steve, you must get up!' "
Taylor was crying uncontrollably. "Have you ever seen a 6'4", 240-pound man fall apart?" Streater asks. "Lawrence Taylor, so strong, so invincible. He could do anything. He'd soar 10 feet in the air to block punts, leap over piles, tackle three people at once.
"For the first time I told Lawrence I loved him. He stopped crying, and he told me I'd pull through, that with his help, someday I'd walk again."
Later, Taylor broke down again, this time in the arms of his fiancèe, Linda Cooley. "Why couldn't I have been driving?" he cried. "Why couldn't it have been me in that car instead?"
That night Lawrence told Linda he wanted to quit football.
It's hard to imagine the New York Giants reaching Super Bowl XXI without Lawrence Taylor, the practically perfect linebacker.
"Who else is there?" asks Don Shula, the Miami Dolphins coach. "Taylor could be the best ever."
His portfolio is already bulging with every pro football honor imaginable: Pro Bowl starter in each of his six seasons; three times the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year; and this season the first defensive player in history to be the consensus MVP.
Lawrence Taylor, 27, may be the most dominant player in football today. "What makes LT so great, what makes him so aggressive, is his total disregard for his body," says Bill Belichick, the Giants defensive coordinator.
Taylor seems to get a morbid, masochistic delight out of his ferocious tackles. He has been known to wink and smile at his prey across the line, as if to warn, Ready or not, here I come!
"There's a sack, and then, there's a sack!" LT explains. "You run up behind the quarterback. He doesn't see you. You put your helmet in his back. Wrap yourself around him. Throw him to the ground...and the coach comes running out and asks, 'Are you all right?' "
And when he's not delivering the hits, he enjoys watching them. "In defensive meetings, while we're studying film, all of a sudden Lawrence will say, 'Ah, Bill. Run that play back again,' " Belichick says. "And I'll realize he's looking at some guy—20 yards away from the ball—a wide receiver who was knocked off the screen by a defensive back. I've even seen him get his thrills watching one of our own guys get dusted."
Interestingly, Taylor is somewhat uneasy with his bloodthirsty, tough-guy image. He believes his accomplishments on the field have made him a larger-than-life character.
"When people meet me, they always expect me to be bigger," he says, shaking his head. "I'm small."
Do they expect you to be mean?
"I am mean," Taylor says, glaring.
There's a pause. And a smile. This is the guy who, for Christmas, bought his teammates and the coaches paperweights that looked like Super Bowl rings.
"I am not invincible," Taylor says. "When people see me, they only see the football side. I'm not filled with anger and meanness. I have feelings. I'm mad. I'm happy. I have every type of emotion."
Linda Taylor contends that her husband perpetuates his own myth. "Lawrence has always felt he has a role to play," she says. "When I first met him, I didn't like him. I thought he was a bully. He feels he has to be this big, tough guy.
"Most people are actually afraid when they meet him. We had a New Year's Eve party this year, invited lots of people outside of football. My friends kept coming up to me all night, saying, 'Your husband's nice.' They were shocked. He really has a very sweet side."
Taylor has avoided major injury throughout his career and is a master at hiding pain. According to Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes, Taylor has had niggling injuries like turf toe, a sprained foot, pinched nerves in his neck, a sprained shoulder and a deep thigh bruise. (He suffered the latter in the NFC Championship victory over Washington, but he is expected to start in the Super Bowl.) In a 1983 game against the Eagles, he sustained a concussion. Barnes had to hide Taylor's helmet to keep him on the sideline.
"He has only had two X-rays since he has been here." Barnes says. "He has the ability to will pain away."
Well, most of the time. Visiting the dentist recently, Taylor insisted that Barnes stay next to him while he was in the chair. "He told the dentist to take the tooth out, that a root canal would be too much," Barnes says. "They had to gas him."
There are times when Taylor treats his workouts like so many trips to the dentist. He rarely takes part in the team's off-season training program. During the 1985 season, according to Giants strength coach Johnny Parker, Taylor lifted weights "only three or four times," and was fined $500 a week for several weeks for not lifting more often. "Lawrence has a role to play," Parker explains. "He wants people to think it's all natural, God-given.
"Before the season, we were running 330-yard sprints. He was gasping. Afterward, he said, 'I've always wanted to train. I just couldn't ever make myself do it.' "
This season Taylor gave in. Just a bit. He did all of the required weight training—twice a week until midseason, once a week after that—but little else.
"Lifting weights would help him more than anyone else on the Giants," Parker says. "He can lift weights for one hour and derive more strength and speed than others will in six days. Think of the dramatic impact that would have on the league.
"It isn't that Lawrence is a lazy person. He just has a short attention span. Look, I see his point. Why should he kill himself if he can already dominate people? I fight him, but I can't win. I've told him that if he doesn't start now, there will be a serious drop-off in his performance. Within two years. Maybe I'll just tell him lifting weights will help his golf game."
Clarence and Iris Taylor were married when they were teenagers. They lived in Williamsburg, Va. Three sons followed in rapid succession—Clarence Jr., now 28, Lawrence, and Kim, 26. Clarence Sr. has worked for 24 years in the Newport News shipyards, first as a truck driver and now as a dispatcher. Iris works for the Williamsburg school system as a child/family development specialist and counselor.
Lawrence became rambunctious as he grew older. To keep him out of mischief, Mrs. Taylor had him hammering nails, sweeping the floor and carrying sacks of groceries. "My sister said, 'You're going to work that poor child to death.' " she recalls. "He was always on his knees, sliding on his face, climbing trees. Every time I looked, the knees in his pants were worn out."
When he was nine, Lawrence begged to play for the Williamsburg City League football team, but his mother feared he would be hurt. Instead, he played baseball and was an all-star four summers in a row as a catcher-designated hitter.
Finally, when he was 13, Taylor got his wish to play football in a local kids league.
Then in the fall of Lawrence's sophomore year at Lafayette High, Mel Jones, the assistant football coach, noticed Taylor "standing outside the commons...with that baby face...doing nothing."
"Son, are you playing football?" Jones asked Taylor.
"Yes, sir, for the city league," Taylor replied. "We play games in places like Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and each member gets a trophy."
"Son, I have some trophies at home. What size do you want?" Jones said. "I've never seen a young man yet get a college scholarship playing city league."
A few weeks later, Jones pestered Taylor again. "Get off my back," Taylor moaned. "I'll play for you."
By the middle of his junior year, Taylor, who was 6 feet, 185 pounds, started at offensive and defensive end. In practice, Jones put him against the team's best linemen, kids who outweighed him by almost 30 pounds, and they easily pushed him around.
"He'd say to me, I don't know if I can handle this,' " says Jones, who would merely pat Taylor on the back and send him in for more punishment.
Though Taylor improved as a senior, for a time the University of Richmond was the only school seriously interested in him. Jones even had to try to persuade a recruiter from Norfolk State to say hello to Taylor. Jones said the recruiter wouldn't do it.
Taylor was determined to go to college. The Friday night discussions with his parents had made an impression. Mrs. Taylor would ask her sons what they wanted in life, and on a pad of paper she would calculate how far they could go on a minimum wage.
"Can you get what you want from this?" she would ask. "A nice house? A nice car? Clothes? Put money in the bank?"
"No," Lawrence would answer, fearful of working next to his father in the shipyards. "I need to go to college."
The idea was reinforced in similar discussions with his Williamsburg buddies while sitting on the railroad ties of the Mooretown Bridge. "We talked about everything from women to God," says Dylan Pritchett.
Adds Eric Stone, another of Taylor's boyhood friends, "We talked about who would get married first, how our kids would play together, how we'd be successful but never grow apart."
The North Carolina recruiters came across Taylor on film late in the spring and thought he was worth a scholarship. For the first three years at Chapel Hill he played on special teams and bounced from noseguard to inside linebacker to outside linebacker. He had a reputation as an undisciplined player and an irresponsible student. Some of that changed, thanks to linebacker coach Mel Foels, who joined the Tar Heels prior to Taylor's senior season. "I was told he'd just as soon fight you as play for you," Foels recalls.
Foels, now an assistant coach at Tennessee, hounded Taylor. Be on time for meetings. Go to class. Take charge. Apparently his strategy worked. Taylor was a consensus All-America that year and the second player taken in the 1981 NFL draft.
Streater visits the Taylors' six-bedroom home in Upper Saddle River, N.J., a couple of times each year. His physical condition is not a problem; LT takes him everywhere. Sometimes he picks up his friend and carries him through restaurants. Two years ago he bought him a $3,000 motorized scooter.
"Lawrence made me feel life again," Streater says. "He made me laugh. He never gave up on me."
Streater is now the director of Students Against Driving Drunk in the North Carolina state department of administration. Although he will probably never walk again, his comeback showed Taylor that a life could be turned around, with a little help. "I know I couldn't have come through it as well," Taylor said.
Last March, Taylor found out he also needed help, and he entered a rehabilitation program for substance abuse. Almost nothing is known about the extent of his problem because Taylor and the Giants adamantly refuse to talk about it. Bill Parcells, the Giants coach, dismissed the subject curtly last spring: "I don't think he has to answer questions. Do you think the public has the right to know?"
A few weeks later The Washington Post reported that Taylor had been a close friend of, and had vacationed with, Vincent Ravo, a New Jersey bar manager who served 10 months in the Leesburg, N.J., state prison after being convicted of receiving stolen property. The Post also reported that Parcells was upset that Taylor and other Giants players frequented Ravo's bar. The NFL says it is concerned about the associations of its players, but Giants general manager George Young, asked about the Taylor-Ravo friendship, says, "What can we do—tell them who their friends can be?"
LT is sitting in the den now, playing with his children. Linda says Lawrence loves to toss them into the air, like footballs. T.J., 5, thrives on this roughhousing. Tanisha, 2, is too much of a lady for the tough stuff. The commotion hasn't kept Paula, 3 months, from falling asleep in Linda's lap. As a newborn, Paula was so tiny her dad was afraid to hold her.
"He made me put her in his arms," Linda says, "and he would yell at me, tell me not to let go until he was sure he wouldn't drop her."
Linda says she hopes her husband has slowed down, that he will take advantage of his second chance.
"Lawrence is so much more of a homebody this year," she says. "Last year, he'd come in after we were finished, take his food into the den and watch TV by himself. He thought all he had to do was pay the bills, that that was all he needed to contribute to the family.
"He had gotten out there. He was real wild.... He didn't realize his responsibilities at home. He thought he could drink and stay out with the boys.... He now knows he can't be in the streets all the time. Those extra two or three hours of sleep a night have helped him. He used to just give money away; he never got it back. I think he has finally learned to say no.
"He's happier than I've ever seen him. I couldn't imagine he'd want anything else. Except to win the Super Bowl."