THE ILLUSTRIOUSFLACK has handled the likes of Hendrix, Joplin and the Beach Boys. On more thanone level Sandy Friedman (a.k.a. the Sand Man) has enjoyed close to apitch-perfect career. So when Friedman, the executive vice president for musicand sports at public-relations powerhouse Rogers & Cowan, stares intentlyat a photo of Jason and Katina Taylor on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, agreat deal is riding on what he will say next. In the publicity shot ahandsome, tuxedo-clad Jason, the Miami Dolphins' All-Pro defensive end, isposing James Bond-like while his gorgeous wife, resplendent in a flower-printdress, gets Bond-girl frisky, and it all makes the Sand Man light up likeJimi's Stratocaster at Monterey Pop. Friedman shifts his gaze to the real-lifeJason, whom he had met only five minutes earlier, then looks at the photoagain. Mindful that the Taylors will be visiting London in late October, whenthe Dolphins face the New York Giants in the first NFL regular-season gameoutside North America, Friedman foresees tabloid exposure worthy of theBeckhams.
"We sell TimMcGraw and Faith Hill as the First Couple of Country Music; that's how we wantto position you [as an NFL couple] over there," the Sand Man saysexcitedly. "The trick is getting you off the sports pages and into theother parts of the paper--and that's what this allows us to do." Friedmanslaps the photo on the conference-room table for emphasis. "They'll eatthis up on Fleet Street. They love couples! We'll make sure you're seen withall the right people in all the right places. Because what you're giving us,with the business interests and lifestyle and charitable efforts andentertainment ventures, is perfect for the business we're in."
Fiddling with apair of oversized Prada shades, Jason looks at his L.A.-based agent, GaryWichard, and nods approvingly. The two men have plotted to raise Taylor'sprofile since his days as a lukewarm NFL draft project out of Akron, and thismeeting is designed to bolster his appeal as a crossover celebrity. WhileFriedman and Wichard, who have known each other for years, ponder variousmarketing strategies, Taylor says little. A man who, in Katina's words,"gets out of bed to start his day like someone bursting out of athree-point stance," seems strangely locked in read-and-react mode. Later,he'll talk plenty--about his desire to transcend his sport; the challenge ofrepairing a marriage that nearly collapsed last year; and his frustration whenthe Dolphins used the No. 9 pick to draft wideout-return man Ted Ginn¬†Jr.instead of quarterback Brady Quinn. But now he's in L.A. to listen andlearn.
The next day, inmeetings with a big-time Hollywood producer and a high-powered agent, he'll besimilarly subdued. "In this town, it's not about me," Taylor says."All of us athletes have big egos, but I'm not so egotistical to come intoHollywood and say, 'Hey, I'm pretty damn good at football, so give me thisproject or this role.' I'm green. I've got to be coachable. Because in the end,I want to be the best. At everything."
When it comes tohis day job, Taylor, 32, can justify having a big ego. Last year, in his 10thNFL season, he took his already formidable game to new heights, earning NFLDefensive Player of the Year honors despite lining up for one of the league'smost underachieving teams. "He took over games," says coach JeffFisher, whose Tennessee Titans lost to the Dolphins 13-10 last September."I don't feel there's been a player in our league the last few years who'shad an impact on games, who people had to concern themselves with sothoroughly, the way Jason did last year."
The only personwho made more plays in 2006 than JT was LT, and with all due respect to SanDiego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, he didn't have the terrorizingeffect on opponents that Taylor had. "I've never competed against anybodyany tougher and smarter," says New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady,Taylor's good friend and, in a 21-0 Pats loss in Miami last December, theprimary target of Taylor's laser dot. "JT changes every game that he playsin."
Last season Taylorhad 13 1‚ÅÑ2 sacks, an NFL-leading 10 forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 11passes defensed, two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns), a blockedfield goal and one rules-changing comment. In a conference call withIndianapolis reporters four days before the Dolphins' season-ending loss to theColts, Taylor declared that Chargers outside linebacker and NFL sack leaderShawne Merriman shouldn't be eligible for 2006 honors because he served afour-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy; afterthe season the league and the players' association agreed that any playersuspended for violating the policy would not be eligible for that season's ProBowl.
If the 6' 6",241-pound Taylor was a tad surly in '06, he had his reasons. Miami, a trendypreseason Super Bowl pick, bombed like Poseidon, losing six of its first sevenand finishing 6-10. It was Taylor who rousted the Dolphins from their slumber,defiantly proclaiming that his 1-6 team could beat the undefeated Chicago Bearswhen they met on Nov. 5. Then Taylor seemingly willed a 31-13 upset at SoldierField, leaping to intercept a Rex Grossman pass and returning it 20 yards for aTD, and forcing a Grossman fumble on a play that put him over the 100-sack markfor his career.
From then onTaylor was tougher to contain than Lindsay Lohan on a party binge. Middlelinebacker Zach Thomas, Taylor's longtime teammate and brother-in-law,remembers a promise JT made while they stood on the field during a timeout latein Miami's 24-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 19. "I'm out ofrhythm, man," Taylor told him. "But watch--I'm going to get right backinto it and make something happen on this series." Umpire Jim Quirkoverheard the conversation. "Four plays later," Thomas recalls, "JTpicks off Brad Johnson and takes it [51 yards] to the house. On the next seriesthe [umpire] comes up to him and says, 'Man, you backed it up!' For a defensiveend to keep making big plays like that, and to do it for a bad team, it's justamazing. It's hard when guys around you aren't playing up to your level, and hepretty much won some games single-handedly."
Taylor's decidedlymatter-of-fact take: "Just 'cause s--- is going bad around you, it doesn'tmean you've got to be f----- up too. I have too much pride to let it all go tohell in a handbasket. I've got things I want to do in this league, a mark Iwant to leave, and to lose a whole year because the team's doing poorly isunacceptable."
What he doesn'tsay about his career year--and what few people realized as it played out--wasthat it almost never happened.
Sipping a caramellatte in a Hollywood café, Zach Thomas's little sister probably wishes she'dordered a decaf. That's because, in Zach's words, "everyone in my familytalks too much, including Katina, and none of us thinks before we talk."Now Katina is addressing an uncomfortable subject with a reporter, and she'sfairly sure her husband won't be thrilled about it. "It's ironic that hehad his greatest season after talking about quitting just before itstarted," she says. A look of concern crosses her face, but she continuestentatively: "He told me he was willing to give up his sport for hisfamily, to get things straightened out. My response was that quitting footballwouldn't be the answer."
This tensetelephone conversation between the Taylors occurred a little less than a yearago, as Jason was preparing for training camp and struggling with the couple'sseparation. In March '06 Katina had filed for divorce, seeking primary custodyof the couple's three children (sons Isaiah, now 4, and Mason, 3, and daughterZoe, 16 months) and claiming in court documents that the marriage was"irretrievably broken." Wichard says the relationship was strained by"the trappings of celebrity, combined with all of Jason's outside businessinterests and commitments and the challenges of raising a young family veryquickly. They both decided to refocus and reevaluate what was important tothem."
Jason met Katinaduring his second NFL season, in 1998, after she ran to embrace her brotheroutside the Miami locker room after a game. Taylor assumed his lucky teammate,already a star in only his third season, had scored a smoking-hot girlfriend,but then Thomas introduced Taylor to his kid sister and over the next severalmonths played matchmaker. "Trust me--being in football, being in thislocker room, there wouldn't have been many guys I'd have set her up with,"Thomas says. "But Jason and I were good friends, and I knew what type ofguy he was. And he was so damn shy. I tried to help."
The courtshipbegan slowly. Jason and Katina, who lived in Texas at the time, talked on thephone every day for eight months before they went on a date. "She'd callme, and she'd do all the talking," Taylor recalls. "I know she wassitting there thinking, What's the problem with this clown? I was intimidatedby her beauty."
The connectiongrew stronger after the two started dating, and they married in June 2001. Thepolished, poised, fashionable husband Katina sees now--the one she teasinglycalls "Rico Suave" and who cops to being a metrosexual (not thatthere's anything wrong with that)--bears little resemblance to the diffidentguy she fell for. "His body language was completely different," shesays. "His posture was horrible. He mumbled." Thomas remembers a speechthat Taylor gave before his rookie season at a team banquet, a public eventthat attracts hundreds of fans and sponsors: "Jimmy [Coach Jimmy Johnson]told him to get up and speak, and it was painful. At the end he mumbled, 'Thankyou,' and nobody clapped because nobody knew he was finished. The player besideme said, 'Did you understand anything he just said?' I said, 'No. I needed atranslator too.' "
Taylor was just asraw on the football field. Homeschooled through high school, he didn't playfootball until his senior year (under special dispensation for Woodland HillsHigh in Pittsburgh), after which he attended Akron. Four seasons of playing inrelative obscurity for a Mid-American Conference also-ran, plus his lankyphysique, made Taylor a dubious pro prospect. Wichard still remembers thedismay he felt when Taylor, a guest at his suburban L.A. home in 1996, steppedon a bathroom scale. "He was 229 pounds," Wichard recalls. "Andthat was after Thanksgiving dinner."
Wichard, however,had a plan. The man who helped orchestrate Brian Bosworth's transition from NFLbust to B-movie action star believed that Taylor's good looks ultimately mightlead to off-the-field opportunities. In the meantime Taylor had to develop intoa force on the field, at a time when the ideal defensive end (Reggie White andBruce Smith, for example) was a 300-pound mauler. Using dietary tricks such assodium loading, Wichard got Taylor up to 242 for the weigh-in at the SeniorBowl and insisted that his client be used at his regular position, not atlinebacker. Taylor, playing end, had two sacks and was named defensive playerof the game.
The Dolphins tookhim in the third round of the '97 draft, and in 11 starts as a rookie Taylorhad five sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He had nine sacksthe next season but only 2 1‚ÅÑ2 in '99. Yet beginning with his breakout seasonin 2000 (14 1‚ÅÑ2 sacks, first-team All-Pro) Taylor has more sacks, 891‚ÅÑ2, thanany other player in the league over that period. Taylor has returned seveninterceptions for TDs, tying former New York Giants end George Martin for thealltime lead among defensive linemen. He could wind up in the Hall of Fame.
Though he's listedat a misleading 255 pounds, Taylor, who plays about 15 pounds lighter, was atrailblazer for the league's less-is-more brigade. His success helped pave theway for undersized speed rushers such as Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney tothrive as 4-3 ends--and, yes, the 272-pound Merriman, as a 3-4 outsidelinebacker. And though Taylor gives up 60 pounds or more to most of the men whotry to block him, no one considers him a finesse player. "He's very, verygood against the run," says the Titans' Fisher. "He uses leverage andholds the point of attack, and he chases down plays too. He's one of thosesmaller ends who caused us all to rethink the position."
Adds ArizonaCardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, "Initially, I was surprised that he was asdominant as he was because of his size, but not now. A lot of his plays happenbecause he never stops running. If you're a tackle and he's rushing upfield,and it's a draw play, you might think you can push him to the side and he's outof the play. Not Jason. He'll turn, run down the back, strip the ball andrecover the fumble."
As taylor emergedas a standout on the field, he also became the unlikely successor to Dolphinslegend and fellow Pittsburgh native Dan Marino as the most influential playerin the Miami locker room. His passionate speeches have upstaged more than onecoach. Playing together for three years before Marino retired in March 2000,quarterback and defensive end became close friends. Taylor marveled at Marino'sability to schmooze, network and operate as a businessman and philanthropist.In 2004 he created the Jason Taylor Foundation to benefit various children'scharities and now stages several annual fund-raisers patterned after Marino's."I'm really proud of JT," Marino says. "He has come a long way. Ialways had faith that he'd be someone who understood hard work, who'd know thathe had it good and want to help others."
Granted, Taylor'sdrive isn't focused entirely on selfless endeavors. He spent two off-seasonstaking acting classes in Miami and L.A. and doesn't shy away from the camera;he was the first to endorse Neutrogena's line of male skin-care products inprint and TV ads. His marketing role model is his childhood idol, MichaelJordan (yet another superstar who has become a friend), and his entrepreneurialaspirations are inspired by Magic Johnson. Taylor's business ventures includean equity partnership in a South Florida chain of smoothie stores, investmentsin two companies that make health-related products and ownership of a yachtchartering company.
At the same timethat Taylor works to broaden his appeal to corporate America and theentertainment world, he speaks out on controversial team issues. After runningback Ricky Williams abruptly retired before the 2004 season, causing resentmentin the Miami locker room, Taylor leveled the strongest criticism, saying hedidn't care what the former NFL rushing champion did, and after storiessurfaced of a possible change of heart, that "Ricky just won't go away andstay away." He still refers to Williams, who returned to play for theDolphins in '05 but has since been suspended after two positive drug tests, asa quitter.
Taylor is morecharitable toward Nick Saban, the Dolphins coach who in January bolted toAlabama only two years into a five-year contract, after repeatedly denying thathe was interested in the Crimson Tide job. "I loved Nick; I thought he wasgreat," Taylor says. "He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but Iwas his kind of guy. Yeah, his decision was selfishly based, but at the end ofthe day, isn't everybody going to take the best job that's available? Find meone NFL head coach who didn't lie last year. I don't want to get too political,but we're in a war based on false pretenses. We have problems in this nationwith health care and affordable housing, and how many politicians have liedabout that? And people want to freak out because Nick Saban wouldn't coach afootball team?"
Taylor issimilarly opinionated about the Dolphins' shaky quarterback situation sinceMarino's retirement. Of Miami's much-lampooned decision not to take Quinn, theNotre Dame quarterback, in the first round of the draft, Taylor doesn't holdback. "I was sick to my stomach," he says. "On draft day I had justplayed golf with Marino and was doing a radio show in Miami [by cellphone] as Iwas driving home. Atlanta had just picked, the Dolphins were on the clock, andI said [on the air], 'Just walk up there and pick Brady Quinn--it's ano-brainer.' Right as I pulled up in my driveway, the commissioner got to thepodium and kind of paused before he read the name, like even he couldn'tbelieve it. I was like, Oh, s---, I'm going to look like an idiot." Then, aweek before the Dolphins completed a June 6 trade with Kansas City forquarterback Trent Green, who missed eight games following a severe concussionlast September and turns 37 next month, Taylor told SI, "This isoff-the-record--oh, what the hell, it's on the record: He'd better not get hit.One big hit, and he could be scrambled eggs."
Ask Taylor toexpand on his earlier comments about Merriman, who declined an interviewrequest for this story, and he obliges: "I think it was something a lot ofpeople wanted to say. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from people Irespect--players, coaches, front-office guys. The only negative words I'veheard were from Shawne and his teammates. It was never a personal thing; it wasabout the principle of steroids and cheating. Look, baseball's a joke becauseof it--the Barry Bonds home run chase and Hank Aaron talking about not beingthere to see him break the record. In our league you've got to learn to dothings the right way. If you don't learn how to do it, you shouldn't beplaying."
Reminded thatMerriman has said he accidentally ingested a banned substance in a nutritionalsupplement, Taylor responds dismissively: "Look, everybody knows how strictthe drug policy is in the NFL. There are probably 200 banned substances; thelist they give you looks like a wine list at a five-star steak house. Know whatyou put in your piehole. I'll drink some vino and smoke cigars, and every oncein a while I take a Tylenol. That's stretching it for me. I don't do Creatine,add-ons, supplements. I won't even take a multivitamin."
And steroids?Taylor laughs. "If I was on juice, oh, man," he says, "I would beillegal."
He didn't stick afish hook through his cheek or do something obscene to a large mammal, butTaylor did have a cameo in Jackass: Number Two. He looked on from the bridge as"Wee-Man" bungee-jumped over Biscayne Bay while tethered to fellow castmember Preston Lacy. Taylor has his Screen Actors Guild card. But what hereally wants to do is produce.
The day aftertheir meeting with the Sand Man, Taylor and Wichard went to the Beverly Hillsoffice of Randall Emmett, who has produced more than 50 feature films, anddiscussed the two reality TV projects on which they're collaborating. Theshows--one a sports-lifestyle program with a twist, the other involving theDolphins' cheerleaders--were conceived during a February meeting in MiamiBeach.
Though aself-described Dolphins fanatic, Emmett showed up to that first sit-down withsome trepidation. "I'd had courtesy meetings with athletes, and it was likepulling my nails out," Emmett says. "But Jason is a businessman, and hehad a very specific vision and he was able to articulate that vision. It'd bevery easy for me to put him in a movie. But this is far more interesting, andit's a long-term relationship. Mark Wahlberg is a good friend--a rapper whobecame a great actor and now produces one of the hottest TV shows in town[Entourage]--and Jason's drive is similar."
Thesports-lifestyle show was bought by Fox. Taylor was instrumental in convincingEmmett that it would be easy to lure athletes into an unsuspecting comfortzone. "All athletes love to talk about their houses, their cars, theirmoney, how they 'make it rain,' " he explains. "Hell, look at me--when[MTV's] Cribs called, I signed right up. If you give athletes a platform tobrag, and then you do your homework [on how to set them up for embarrassment],you've got your hook."
Yet as much asTaylor, in this instance, is guilty of stereotyping his fellow pros, hebristles when others' expectations of how an athlete should act are usedagainst him. Some fans have questioned his friendship with Brady, an AFC Eastrival, to which Taylor scoffs, "Dolphins fans say, 'He's got too muchrespect for Tom.' I love Tom Brady, but I'd sack my own mother onthird-and-eight." He's also sick of hearing whispers that with all hisoutside interests, his commitment to football is compromised. "People wantyou to be totally focused on football," he says, "but if you don'tremove yourself at times, it will drive you nuts, and you'll become lessefficient." And don't get Taylor started on the notion some have that hisunabashed ambition makes him something of a sellout to his roots. (He grew upin a largely underprivileged neighborhood.) "What is 'keeping itreal'?" he asks. "Keeping it real what? Real stupid? Real poor? Realuneducated? The world is constantly changing, and you've got to evolve withit."
Taylor is stillevolving on and off the field. "Nothing's ever good enough for me," hesays. "I have a hard time basking in the moment because there's thisconstant pursuit of perfection, and that's a problem sometimes. But I'm tryingto get better. I want to be a better communicator, a better listener. My wifewants to talk about details all the time; she'll tell these drawn-out stories,but I just want her to get to the point and move on. And I need to work onthat. That's the kind of guy I am--I always feel like there's something else Ihave to work on. I want to be a better father, a better husband."
This is as far asTaylor will go in discussing his marital discord: "Obviously, s--- becomespublic; the more fame you have, the more public it becomes, which doesn't help.I got my cage rattled. You work at it." Jason and Katina both say he hasmodified his lifestyle, giving up nights out with the boys (though he stillhosts semiregular cigar-and-poker nights at the couple's home in Weston)."He's changing, and he wants to," says Katina. "Everybody's a workin progress, but he's made his family a priority. He's a great husband, a greatfather. We're in a very good place, thank God for that. Because when I thinkabout where we were a year ago. . . . "
That was whenJason, in that strained phone conversation last summer, mentioned retirement toKatina. That discussion remained private until now, but last Dec. 31, justafter the Dolphins' season-ending loss to the Colts, Taylor brought up thesubject publicly, telling reporters, "Yes, I will have to think about it.There are no guarantees." He backed off a few days later--"I justwanted to see if anybody cared about me," he jokes--and now says that"barring something drastic, I'm here to play out my contract," whichlasts through the 2009 season.
Sitting in a chicrestaurant at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, Katina barely glances ather menu. "I think I'll have the rib eye," she announces, sending herhusband into laughter because a half-hour earlier, at a diner on MelroseAvenue, Katina had enjoyed a vanilla milk shake and fries. "I'm stillhungry," she says, shrugging. "Sometimes I eat like this, but I don'treally put on weight when I do."
Wearing a casualtop with spaghetti straps, Katina says she feels chilly, and the waiter offersto bring her a shawl. Moments later the Taylors get into a debate over the BushAdministration's foreign policy, with Jason playing the role of James Carvilleto Katina's Mary Matalin. Yet even as they argue, they hold hands under thetable. If the Sand Man could see this, he would smile and package it as amagical matrimonial moment, perhaps with Tim and Faith in the backgroundsinging It's Your Love.
And if you askedme why I changed
All I gotta do issay your sweet name
It's your love. .. .
But this isn't ap.r. stunt; it's just another beat in the busy life of two well-meaning peoplewho don't pretend to have it all figured out--two American kids doing the bestthey can. There's a red-eye to catch and, upon arriving home, threeattention-hungry children to satisfy. There are business meetings and a youthfootball camp to prepare for, real estate deals to consider and everything elsethat goes along with Jason's quest to get ahead--and stay out in front.
The waiterreappears, looking apologetic. "We seem to be out of shawls," he says,instead producing a large, off-white blanket that has seen better days. "Icould give you this," he says uncertainly. Katina starts to shake her headno, but Jason puts his hand on his wife's goose-bumped arm. "Give it toher, please," he says softly.
The waitercomplies. Katina feels the warmth and smiles.
Jason and Katina in the photo that sold the Sand Man.