Where Have You Gone, Lawrence Taylor?
I love football history. I love reading about it, writing about it, and learning about it. I have a whole slew of players from the Eagles that I would have loved to see play—Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Eric Allen, Randall Cunningham, and Seth Joyner.
But if there was one player throughout NFL history that I could watch, it would be an outside linebacker for the New York Giants.
The legend of Lawrence Taylor began in the 1970s, when the 15-year-old catcher switched from baseball to football. Taylor is one of four future NFL players to attend Lafayette High School in Virginia. He attended the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship.
At UNC, Lawrence Taylor, who had been recruited as a defensive end, switched to linebacker. He became one of the most dominant players in the country.
His assistant coach, Bobby Cale, recalls, "As a freshman playing on special teams, he'd jump a good six or seven feet in the air to block a punt, then land on the back of his neck. He was reckless, just reckless."
LT tallied 16 sacks in his final season, earning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors. His jersey number has since been retired by UNC, and he is widely considered to be one of the greatest players in college football history.
A poll was taken before the draft and 26 of the 28 general managers in the NFL announced that they would draft LT if they had the first overall pick. However, the New Orleans Saints, who had the first pick, were one of the two teams not interested in Taylor.
Instead they selected running back George Rogers, and LT was drafted with the second pick by the New York Giants.
Although he had a clean slate entering the NFL draft, Taylor caused some controversy from the day he was drafted.
Before the draft, LT had made it clear that he was asking for a salary of $250,000 per year, an absolutely insurmountable figure for a rookie. Taylor's teammates were furious and several threatened to leave the team if Taylor received his money.
Almost immediately after training camp began, Taylor had developed a reputation. His teammates began calling him Superman and teams around the league began hearing about the "rookie from UNC."
He was so feared that his own quarterback, Phil Simms, could hardly wait for the regular season to begin so Taylor would stop hitting him in practice.
Taylor's rookie season was one of the most memorable by a defensive player in NFL history. He earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, as well as Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Giants won six more games than the previous season, including an upset win in the playoffs.
Taylor's second season was even better than his first. He again captured Defensive Player of the Year honors, giving him one of the most prestigious honors for the second consecutive season.
For the next eight seasons, Taylor became the most dominating defensive player in the history of the National Football League.
Seven times, Taylor posted double-digit sack totals, including a career high of 20.5 in 1986.
He earned a Pro Bowl selection every single season, giving him 10 in a row after the 1990 season.
Taylor was named First-Team All-Pro from 1983-1986, and 1988-1989, as well as his first two seasons. His eight First-Team All-Pro selections are an NFL record for a linebacker.
His 1986 season will go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, seasons ever by a defensive player. Taylor posted 20.5 sacks, an all-time single season record for a linebacker, and the fifth highest single season total in NFL history.
Taylor not only won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award for the third time in his career, he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. He became just the second defensive player to capture the award, and the first to do so unanimously.
Taylor missed four games in the 1987 season due to the player's strike, but still led the team with 12 sacks, in just 12 games.
Taylor's first brush with controversy came during the 1988 season. He was suspended for 30 days for violating the league's substance abuse policy for the second time.
Taylor missed the first four games of the season, instead undergoing rehab for his cocaine addiction. He returned in typical dominating fashion, posting 15.5 sacks in the season's final 12 games.
One of Taylor's most memorable games came near the season's end, when he recorded seven tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles in a game with playoff implications.
Even more incredibly, Taylor played through a torn pectoral muscle so serious that he was forced to wear a shoulder harness for the remainder of the season. Giants' head coach Bill Parcells called the game "the greatest game I ever saw."
Taylor continued playing through pain during the 1989 season. He played the final five games of the season with a fractured tibia. He still managed to post 15 sacks and lead the Giants to a 12-win season. He was also named defensive co-captain, an honor he shared with teammate Carl Banks.
Taylor said that "playing in pain was simply a matter of tricking yourself into believing that you aren't hurt."
Taylor's controversy continued into the 1990 season. He held out of training camp until three days before the start of the season, arguing for a larger contract. He still turned in a great season, posting 10.5 sacks and leading the Giants to a 13-3 record, including a 10-0 start.
In the postseason, the Giants annihilated the Bears, 31-3, and squeaked by the 49ers, 15-13, to face the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. The Giants came away with a 20-19 victory, thanks to a missed 47-yard field goal by Scott Norwood on the final play of the game.
The 1991 season was the most disappointing of Taylor's career, to date. He ended his record-setting streak of 10 consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. He missed two games due to injury, for only the second time in his career. And he had to adjust to a new head coach, as the two-time Super Bowl champion Bill Parcells was replaced with Ray Handley.
Taylor suffered through two more disappointing seasons, as he ruptured his Achilles tendon in early November of 1992, costing him the final seven games of the season. The Giants were 5-4 when Taylor played, and 1-6 without him. Taylor considered retiring after the 1992 season, but expressed his desire to play for new head coach, Dan Reeves.
Taylor was determined to end his final season without an injury, and he managed to play in all 16 games during the 1993 campaign. He posted only six sacks and was no longer the same player he had been through the entire decade of the 1980's. The Giants did, however, lead the entire NFL in total defense.
In the postseason, the Giants defeated the Vikings, 17-10, before the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers throttled the Giants, 44-3.
Taylor retired after the game, saying, "I think it's time for me to retire. I've done everything I can do. I've been to Super Bowls. I've been to the playoffs. I've done things that other people haven't been able to do in this game before. After 13 years, it's time for me to go."
Throughout his career, Taylor's on-field success was almost overshadowed by his off-field antics. Only after his career was over did Taylor admit that he had been using drugs as early as 1982, his second season in the National Football League.
Taylor had originally failed a drug test for cocaine in 1987, but the NFL didn't reveal this information, as was policy, until he failed his second test the following year.
Taylor gave up drugs in 1988, because a third failed drug test would have ended his career.
However, he began using drugs again immediately after his retirement. He was arrested twice over the next five years for trying to buy cocaine from undercover police officers. Taylor admitted that "things had gotten so bad that my house was almost like a crack house."
Taylor's story has a happy ending though. He has lived a clean lifestyle since 1998 and is currently pursuing a career as an actor.
His impact on the game is what Taylor should be remembered for. It could be argued that no player, certainly no defensive player, has ever changed the game as much as LT.
Taylor is credited with changing the position of outside linebacker from "read and react" to an attacking, aggressive position.
As he recalls, "A linebacker was just a linebacker. He would cover a little, stop the run, stop the pass. I would make so many mistakes in the pass coverage. I would supposed to be covering here, and I wouldn't. My answer to everything was just to rush the quarterback. See what happens."
Taylor also is credited with being the first to chop the ball out of the quarterback's hands upon impact. His theory was simple: "If you're going to take down the quarterback, why not take the ball also?" Taylor forced 34 fumbles over his career, the majority of them taken from quarterbacks.
Taylor was so dominant as a linebacker that future Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins literally invented new offensive formations to contain LT.
Gibbs invented the two-tight end offense and the position of h-back to account for Taylor's blitzing. Instead of having a running back try to block the blitzing Taylor, Gibbs utilized offensive linemen, usually the left tackle, to contain Taylor.
Taylor was fearless, reckless, and intimidating. He was probably the most intense player to ever play in the National Football League.
"What makes LT so great, what makes him so aggressive, is his total disregard for his body," says Bill Belichick, the Giants' defensive coordinator during Taylor's tenure.
From sending prostitutes to the hotel rooms of his opponents' the night before a game in an attempt to tire them out, to submitting his teammates' urine to pass drug tests, to playing through unbelievable injuries to help the Giants win football games, Lawrence Taylor is truly one of a kind.
"I live my life on the fast lane. I always have and I always will," says Taylor.
The comparisons to Lawrence Taylor still exist. Nearly every great defensive player in college football is compared to the Giants' legend.
Ray Lewis. Brian Urlacher. Julius Peppers.
In reality, we will probably never again see one like No. 56.
The greatest defensive player in NFL history.
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