Custom Taylor A perfect fit in Jacksonville's retooled attack, rookie running back Fred Taylor came out cutting and left New England in tatters in an AFC wild-card game

January 11, 1999

Every fall and winter the sugarcane fields in southeast Florida
are set ablaze to burn off the plants' prickly leaves so the
cane can be harvested. In the poverty-stricken town of Belle
Glade, near the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, the thick,
black smoke mixes with the already soupy air, forcing the town's
older folks indoors while children wait at the edge of the
fields with pointy sticks for rabbits and various rodents to be
driven out by the fire. Besides being known for its sugarcane,
suffocating humidity and high crime rate, Belle Glade also has
one of the nation's highest per capita incidences of AIDS. For
22 years this was home for Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running
back Fred Taylor.

Since he was in the seventh grade, Taylor had promised to move
his grandmother, Rosetta Lusane--who raised him after he was
born to Rosetta's 15-year-old daughter, Sharon--out of her tiny
duplex apartment and into a house of her own. Last July, after
the Jaguars had chosen him ninth overall in the draft, Taylor
made good on that pledge, garnering a six-year, $15.7 million
contract (including a $5 million signing bonus) and then closing
on a three-bedroom colonial in West Palm Beach. "Three bathrooms
and lots of air conditioning," says Lusane, who while living
with Sharon and Fred supported them and several other
grandchildren by working at a radish-packing plant. "Since Fred
was a little boy, he always seemed to be striving to make a
better life for himself. He's had setbacks, but what's kept him
going was that he didn't want to end up another nobody, back in
Belle Glade, standing on the corner."

With his No. 1 goal taken care of, Taylor enjoyed a debut pro
season--1,385 yards rushing plus 44 catches for 421 more
yards--which, in other years, might have won him top rookie
honors. Instead, shortly after Taylor ran for 162 yards in
Jacksonville's 25-10 AFC wild-card playoff win over the New
England Patriots on Sunday, it was announced that Minnesota
Vikings sensational wideout Randy Moss was the runaway pick as
NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Taylor's teammates beg to
differ. "Fred Taylor is the NFL rookie of the year," says
Jacksonville right guard Ben Coleman.

"Taking care of my family, that's the thing I live for, that's
what I was put on this earth to do, not just play football,"
says Taylor, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards at Florida,
including 1,292 in his senior year. "Randy has been through so
much that people doubted him. I think everyone just expected me
to be this good."

Not quite everyone. After failing to trade up in the draft to
snag Penn State running back Curtis Enis (who was taken fifth,
by the Chicago Bears), the Jaguars, who seemed set at running
back with James Stewart, were widely criticized in the Florida
media for choosing Taylor. He was described as a fumble-prone
back (he had 26 drops in 38 games with the Gators) who also had
been suspended for one game as a sophomore for sharing a pizza
ordered with a stolen credit card, and suspended for three games
as a junior for using a book bag that he said he didn't know was
stolen (in neither case was he charged with a crime). But coach
Tom Coughlin had a plan. Last year Jacksonville was run out of
the playoffs in a wild-card matchup with the Denver Broncos, who
controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes by bulldozing the
Jaguars for 310 yards on the ground and holding them to only 50
rushing yards in a 42-17 blowout. Coughlin called the loss
"demoralizing" and committed himself to bolstering the team's
running game. In the process he restructured the ground attack
to include Denver's seal-blocking schemes and the deep handoffs
that allow the Broncos' Terrell Davis to pick his own holes.
That system was a perfect fit for the six-foot, 231-pound
Taylor, who has 4.35 speed, a knack for slipping through cracks
at the line and the kind of power that leaves defensive backs
spinning in thin air like weather vanes.

Taylor entered the lineup in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens
after Stewart suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament
that ended his season. On his first carry Taylor ripped off a
52-yard touchdown run. He went on to break seven more runs of 30
yards or longer during the regular season (including a 70-yarder
that beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 15), score 17 more
touchdowns, set 22 team records and get named AFC Rookie of the
Month in September and December. After each big run he returns
to the huddle and thanks his linemen with a smile so full of
gold it looks as if he's sucking on a Krugerrand.

"What I really want in the next few years is to be considered
with the league's elite backs, Terrell and Barry [Sanders]," says
Taylor, who has fumbled only three times in 308 touches this
year. "I wouldn't have said that at the beginning of the season,
but now it's not such a bold statement."

On Sunday against New England, Taylor's rushes spoke eloquently.
Midway through the second quarter he sliced his way to a 46-yard
pickup that set up the second of Mike Hollis's four field goals.
Later in the half, behind a crushing block by left tackle Tony
Boselli, Taylor scampered 13 yards for the score that put
Jacksonville up 12-0.

"You fall asleep for one second playing against someone like Fred
Taylor, and, boom, he kills you," Jaguars defensive tackle John
Jurkovic said after the game. "That kind of threat puts constant
tension on a defense. It's like Chinese water torture. The whole
game it's just drip, drip, drip--then, bam, he's gone."

With Taylor, Jacksonville rushed for 25.5 more yards per game
than in 1997. Controlling the clock with an improved ground
attack has helped keep the Jaguars' injury-depleted defense, the
lowest-ranked unit in the playoffs, off the field. Furthermore,
with starting quarterback Mark Brunell rusty from sitting out the
final three weeks of the regular season with a sprained left
ankle--in the first quarter against the Patriots he overthrew
wide-open receivers in the end zone on consecutive plays--it was
up to Taylor to carry the offense. "I really don't feel extra
pressure," Taylor says. "Someone told me, 'Treat this game like
it was Tennessee, treat the next one like it's Florida State, and
treat the one after that like the SEC championship, and, before
you know it, you'll be in the bowl game you want.'"

The next step for the Jaguars is a Sunday date against the New
York Jets at the Meadowlands, but Taylor has extra incentive to
carry Jacksonville all the way to the Super Bowl. Lusane has
never seen him play in person because, she says, watching
everyone trying to cream her boy is too nerve-racking. But last
Sunday night Lusane pledged to make the 60-mile trip from West
Palm Beach to Miami on Jan. 31 if the Jaguars reach the NFL
championship game.

The kind of success that once seemed unreachable from Belle Glade
may now be just a short trip from his grandmother's new
doorstep.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES ROUGH RIDE Patriots defenders, including cornerback Steve Israel, couldn't get a handle on the powerful yet shifty Taylor. [Steve Israel attempting to tackle Fred Taylor]

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