He has beengranted an unexpected Thursday off in the middle of January, and to revel inthis bounty, little Johnny does what any normal, carefree kid would do. Hewakes up early, gobbles down breakfast and bops over to the bowling alley. Hebowls, inhales some greasy food at a Chinese restaurant and rushes off to theMalibu Castle Golf and Games for some hacks in the batting cage, battling90-mph fastballs in his Dodger-blue helmet. He dashes home and jumps on hisbicycle for a ride through the park.
It's a beautifulday in the neighborhood, and John Taylor, 32 going on 11, intends to enjoyevery minute of it.
"Check out allmy video games," Taylor says, pointing to a collection lined up under adisplay of football mementos and opposite a fish tank filled with piranhas inhis den. "I'm in here playing all the time. This is sort of like the boys'room."
Taylor, the SanFrancisco 49ers' hyper, happy-go-lucky, heretofore private wide receiver, is achild inside a grown man's body who has found no compelling reason torelinquish the tastes and pace of his youth. An intelligent and thoughtfulsoul, a determined husband and father, a respected presence on a team ofglamorous icons, Taylor has all the markings of successful adulthood. The onlycatch: "He's Dennis the Menace," says 49er president Carmen Policy."If he were eight years old, you'd say he's 'all boy.' "
January 30, 1995
Taylor is TomHanks in Big—with much cooler wheels. As he speeds around San Mateo County inhis bright yellow '32 Chevy Coupe, setting off car alarms with its486-horsepower engine, there's a gleam in his eye that seems oblivious to theresponsibilities of manhood. That same sense of abandon has helped Taylor forgea prosperous career, one that featured the winning catch in Super Bowl XXIIIand now seems destined to include a third Super Bowl ring.
When he lines upagainst the San Diego Chargers this Sunday at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium,Taylor won't be so anonymous; this month he gave his first extended interviewsin more than five years, a step that could erase some misconceptions. "Yousee him portrayed as a mellow, low-key guy," says John's wife, Elayne."That persona is a farce. I find myself having to prepare an hour before hecomes home because once he opens that door, he blows through like ahurricane."
The hurricane isout in the open now, thanks to a combination of Elayne's prodding and John'smaturity. Five-and-a-half years ago, in the aftermath of reports about a drugsuspension he still disputes, Taylor stopped talking to journalists, relentingonly occasionally. On Jan. 15, after the 49ers' 38-28 victory over the DallasCowboys in the NFC Championship Game, Taylor made news by blabbing away—andthat was only the beginning. In the ensuing days he had a revealing discussionwith New York Times reporter Thomas George and then enthusiastically engaged ina daylong interview with SI.
"I guess I'mout of my shell," Taylor said. "It's funny because I always knew thatpeople thought that I couldn't do interviews, or maybe 1 didn't know what tosay. I would sit back, and I knew that wasn't the case, but they didn't knowthat wasn't the case. So it was kind of mysterious...kind of like the SteveCarlton thing. And it was kind of a goof."
It is funny now,listening to John Taylor speak, because his words seem so effortless. Talkingcomes easily to Taylor, as most endeavors do. The man who lines up at theopposite end of the line from Jerry Rice does so in a figurative sense as well;Rice is the hardest-working man in throw business; Taylor, the possessor oflimitless natural talent, is hardly working. "A lot of things just comenatural to him," says New York Giant receiver Mike Sherrard, Taylor'sfriend and former teammate. "I don't know what JT's not good at."
Deion Sanders maybe the best athlete on the 49ers, or on any team, but Taylor can dance on thesame floor. An avid bowler, Taylor carries a 205 average, has a high game of289 and casually bowled a 247 game while being photographed for this article.He also loves baseball—he played second base in high school—so much that in twoyears he plans to retire from the NFL and make a Michael Jordan-type run at themajor leagues by way of the San Francisco Giants. The star of the Niners'off-season basketball team, the 6'1" Taylor has been known to bank a freethrow off the backboard, catch the rebound and dunk it before opponents canreact.
Though he hasnever played the position, Taylor is the 49ers' unofficial fourth-stringquarterback, a function of his grasp of the offense and his sensational arm."He knows what everybody's supposed to do," says former teammate DwightClark, now the Niners' coordinator of football operations. "He's rightthere with the quarterback, except he throws better than most quarterbacks. Hethrows the farthest, tightest spiral on the team."
It gets moreobnoxious. "He's an awesome pool player, even better at Ping-Pong,"says Los Angeles Raider tight end Jamie Williams, another ex-teammate."Everything I've seen him do, he's good at."
Well, maybe noteverything.
Taylor, who has aneight-year-old daughter, Jonelle, from a previous relationship, prides himselfon his devotion to family, saying he prefers to stay home at night with Elayneand her nine-year-old cousin Natalie, because "there's nothing but troubleout in the streets." Taylor started dating Elayne, who is five years hissenior, early in his career. They married in May 1990. Elayne has a master'sdegree in education and has spearheaded many of the Taylors' charity projects,including a fund that supports three programs serving disadvantaged children inthe Bay Area. "Without her, I don't think I would have stayed in thisleague longer than a couple of years," John says. Their affection isunmistakable, but when Elayne is asked if anything does not come easily to herhusband, she bares some scars.
"Should I behonest?" she says. "It was a struggle for him to be really committed.This subculture of football is very different for me. And it was a struggle,especially when he was in his 20's. I really have to say he has come a long waywith his dedication and his commitment to relationships. His struggle wasgrappling with peer pressure and what's out there but yet being content andcomfortable with what he had. And I think that's where a lot of his admirationor his respect for me comes from, that 1 knew that whatever it was was a phase.I think that his heart was always there. But from seven years ago up until now,he's made great strides."
In many waysElayne has replaced the person who had been the strongest force in Taylor'slife: his mother, Alice. Alice and her husband, John, had four children, andyoung John, the carefree one, was her playful pet. "Their bond wasincredible," the elder John says. "He would tell her things that hewouldn't tell anyone else."
While growing upin Pennsauken, N.J., a modest suburb of Philadelphia, Taylor and hisneighborhood pals were reduced to playing in a cemetery. Funeral Footballproduced five NFL players—John; his younger brother Keith, a Washington Redskindefensive back; Charger linebacker David Griggs; his older brother, former NewYork Jet tight end Billy; and Houston Oiler fullback Todd McNair.
After high schoolTaylor spent a year delivering liquor, habitually making time to sample theproduct. "All I did was drink," he says, "because it was so easy toget." Taylor then went to college, first at Johnson C. Smith University inCharlotte, N.C., then at Delaware State, where he walked onto the footballteam. Drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 1986, Taylor remained fond ofcocktails. One night during training camp, Clark and Joe Montana took him to aMexican restaurant and ended up leaving him passed out in the bathroom. "Ihad 14 shots of tequila, and I was drinking pitchers of margaritas," Taylorrecalls. "I fell asleep in the toilet stall, and the cleanup crewdiscovered me."
Two years later,before the 1988 season, Taylor tested positive for cocaine and was warned bythe NFL. After a second test a few weeks later, he was suspended for 30 days.Taylor admits he used cocaine the first time, but he swears that the secondresult was erroneous. His attorneys, John Guheen and Brian McSweeney, appealedto the NFL and ultimately negotiated a settlement, one that Guheen says clearedhis client's name. But the league never went public with that information andnow declines comment on that episode. Taylor missed the season's first fourgames then returned with a bang, making the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. Hecapped the season by catching one of the most famous passes in NFL history, a10-yard spiral from Montana with 34 seconds remaining in a 20-16 Super BowlXXIII victory over Cincinnati—Taylor's last visit to Joe Robbie Stadium.
The followingsummer Taylor plummeted back to earth. On a family outing at the GreatAdventure amusement park in Jackson, N.J., Alice suffered a brain aneurysm. Shelapsed into a coma and died a few days later. John remembers the sickeningfeeling: Still nauseated from a roller-coaster ride, he ran to his mother andsaw her vomit and collapse. He still relives the vision of her coffin beinglowered into the ground.
John irrationallyblamed Alice's death on her anxiety over the disputed drug test and, byextension, on the media for reporting that he had used cocaine a second time."I would never say that's what caused her death," John says. "Butit didn't help." After a couple of interviews during training camp in 1989,he retreated into his shell.
That season Tayloremerged as a star, a player who rivaled Rice as a blocker and who surpassed allreceivers as a threat after the short catch. He could have capitalized withpublicity and endorsements, but he stayed silent, spending interview periods inthe 49er public relations office watching The Young and the Restless.
The decision tobreak his silence, Taylor says, was partially motivated by the fact that hiscareer is nearing an end. He is under contract through 1997 but says that hecan't imagine playing past '96. Whether he will be with the 49ers next fall isundetermined. Taylor, who was bothered by an arthritic right knee throughoutthe '94 season and faces off-season surgery, is scheduled to make $1.4 millionnext year and could be a salary-cap casualty. Says Policy, "If his healthis in order, there's a strong likelihood he'll be back."
Taylor is gettingready for life after football. His uncles and other family members have been inthe trucking business for decades, and Taylor recently purchased a pair of18-wheelers in preparation for launching his own enterprise. "I'll probablykeep one truck out here and drive it myself," he says.
"Oh, it wouldbe perfect," Elayne says. "He loves to drive, and he loves to listen tomusic real loud." And he loves to pull the string and toot that horn.