Taylor Gabriel's Long Road from Grieving Teen to Falcons X-Factor

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterJanuary 13, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 27: Taylor Gabriel #18 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after the game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on November 27, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

ATLANTA — Nobody recognizes Taylor Gabriel here in his new city. The acrobatic catches off an invisible trampoline. The zero-to-60-in-a-blink acceleration. The piles of twisted ankles left in his dust. None of this imagery has stuck. 

When the Falcons' pyrotechnic wide receiver goes out for dinner, nobody asks him for an autograph, a photo, a handshake. Not that you can blame locals. This kid resembles a Starbucks barista, not the next Antonio Brown. This kid from Abilene Christian is only 5'8", 165 pounds.

Gabriel cringes.

Uh, it is 165, right?

"170, man!" Gabriel says. "170 solid. You know what I mean?"

OK, 165 is the official weight listed by the team, but if you insist, we'll take your word for it.

Everyone in town will know who Gabriel is very soon. He's the one making an effective offense electric. He's the perfect complement to Julio Jones, a 6'3", 220-pound freak show. His 16.5 yards per reception ranks seventh in the league. All year, the Falcons have unleashed Gabriel in every way imaginable—from the slot, out wide, on go routes, stop routes, screens, reverses, wherever, however.

The 13-3 Cowboys are led by two wunderkind rookies who should both generate MVP votes.

The Packers, as always, go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them.

The Seahawks hope to, somehow, rediscover their street-fighter swag.

The Falcons? Their pick-your-poison offense is now hell to defend thanks to a player who practically fell from the sky, a player who has "out-of-body" experiences each Sunday.

At his locker, we watch a few highlights together on a cellphone. He ohhs and ahhs as if hardly recognizing the player on the screen himself.

The video playing is a highlight from Week 9 in Tampa Bay. A white streak wearing No. 18 burns Brent Grimes on an out route, leaps three-plus feet off the ground and hauls in a pass from Matt Ryan for a 26-yarder.

Uh…how?

"I don't know, man! I have no idea. Matt threw a good ball, and it was something I just had to come down with."

He watches himself look back to snarl at the 10-year vet.

"Brent Grimes is the man," he says. "Pro Bowl."

Now it's Week 10 in Philadelphia. Leodis McKelvin should've charged Gabriel with harassment. With one tap-tap-tap stutter step eight yards into his route, Gabriel nearly paralyzed the poor nine-year vet. McKelvin's knees buckled, and Ryan delivered the easiest 76-yard touchdown of his life.

No way did Gabriel expect McKelvin to bite. This wasn't any secret the Falcons investigated on film.

"No, no, not at all dude," Gabriel says. "And it ended up working."

Gabriel watches the replay. The camera zooms in on McKelvin biting, and he can't stop laughing.

"Heh, heh, heh, heh! Oh man. That one felt good. I like that one."

The Rise of Taylor Gabriel makes no sense. He defies convention. A dude cut by the stinking Browns is embarrassing proud cornerbacks. He's proved everyone who ever doubted him wrong. But where did all this magic come from? These out-of-body experiences? It's all traced to one horrific day Gabriel will never forget.

The day a brain aneurism killed his mother. Gabriel was only 15.

Mom never doubted him so he never doubted himself.

Every game since that day, from high school to college to the pros, he has felt closer to her.

"Before I touch the field," Gabriel says, "I always say a prayer. I take a kiss and put it on my heart and point up to her to say, 'Mom, I did it. I proved the critics wrong."


The morning of Oct. 6, 2006, Gabriel rolled out of bed and got dressed at a snail's pace. The soundtrack of Mom lambasting him served as his wake-up call.

"That morning," Gabriel thinks back, "I actually got a whupping, man."

His grades were slipping. So Kimberly Gabriel let her son have it.

She handed him $2 for food and was blunt.

"She told me she wouldn't always be around to wake me up in the morning," Gabriel says. "She said I needed to grow up."

Gabriel pauses.

"It's crazy, dude."

Crazy because two hours after Mom dropped her son and daughter off at school, she died. There were no warnings. No pre-existing health conditions. Nothing at all to soften the blow—this was a haymaker. Gabriel was in the cafeteria at school when his dad arrived to tell him that his mom, his world, suffered a brain aneurism.

"It was an out-of-body experience," Gabriel says. "You don't believe it. But it is something that can happen to anyone any time.

"It shook my whole world."

He immediately thought of his little sister, Chloe. He thought of his older brother.

He stopped caring about football…school…everything.

Kimberly's car had drifted into the shoulder of the road. When a person found her, dead, a best friend at the top of her recent calls was alerted. That best friend alerted her husband, Calvin, and Calvin's eyes filled with tears. He drove to John D. Horn High School to pick up his kids.

Thinking back to that initial conversation, Dad goes silent.

"It was a lot of 'Why?' and 'How could this happen?' and 'Why did this happen?' and 'Was Mama sick?'" says Dad. "And, no, she wasn't sick. It was just one of those crazy things. Nobody expects that they'll have an aneurism. And that was the hardest thing for all of us to accept. It's not like somebody was sick or a plane fell out of the sky."

So the family, he says, "huddled up." He took two weeks off work, and they spent every waking (and sleeping) second together. Dad, son, daughter all slept in the same bed. They ate breakfast together, cried together, asked "Why?" together, tried their damndest to heal together. Calvin healed by simply looking into Taylor's eyes each morning.

Those eyes—warm, innocent—comforted him. Gave him a reason to live.

He became the mother and father, learning how to cook and clean.

He "clinged" to his kids. His kids "clinged" to him.

Eventually, Dad went back to work as an IBM software engineer and Gabriel went back to school. But football? Forget it. Gabriel was finished with football. He quit the team for about a month, missing at least three games with zero intentions to return.

"I didn't want to do anything anymore," Gabriel says.

So this was Taylor Gabriel's life: Go to school, go home, lay on his bed, do…nothing.

"Not watching TV. Not eating. Not doing anything."

He needed to lock himself away because reminders of Mom were everywhere. Kimberly Gabriel had such a distinctive, high-pitched voice. Any time he heard a female's soft voice, it reminded him of Mom. She was a local celebrity who sang gospel and R&B—so many songs on the radio made him miss Mom, too.

Dad was worried.

He had no clue just how much this death affected his son.

"Because when you lose someone like that," he says, choked up, "those moments are always around. It could be a song that you hear that reminds you of her, and you cry. Of course time helps. He went through his phase: 'Everything I'm going to do, I'll do for Mom.' And then: 'I have to remember her.' It just took him a while. It took a while for all of the kids.

"I was always concerned about him.

"You're always looking for any type of behavior change. And if I did, I addressed it honestly and openly."

One behavior change was obvious.

Gabriel wouldn't leave that bedroom.


Whenever Gabriel had a bad game, Mom didn't kiss him on the forehead. No sir. Kimberly Gabriel didn't coddle her son, didn't console her son.

"She was the Mom," Gabriel laughs, "who said, 'You need to get your s--t together. She was the enforcer."

Mom was tough because she knew her son could take it. He was wired the same way.

Like a pit bull.

She remembered the scene through their kitchen window when Gabriel was only 7 years old. He was playing a pickup game on a mud-slopped yard with his brother, who was six years older, and neighborhood friends. Gabriel zigged. He zagged. 

Courtesy of Calvin Gabriel

He was untouchable against kids twice his size. So out of frustration, one kid balled up a mud ball—packed it extra tight—and hurled a fastball at Gabriel.

The mud ball struck him right in the eye.

"Boom!" Calvin says. "He went down! We're like 'No!' We're ready to run out there."

What happened next told both parents their pint-sized son was special.

He didn't stay down and cry. He popped up and started throwing haymakers. And when they eventually got to the doctor's office—after spraying water in that eye—they learned that Taylor had a cut on his cornea. Oh well. He was back on the same field two days later.

So as he missed game…after game…after game…years later after his mom's death, it finally hit him. He needed to return to the field. That's how he was raised. That's what Mom would've wanted.

Gabriel convinced himself that playing football was a way to reunite with Mom.

"When I'm out on that field," he explains, "I feel like I feel her. She's out there with me, so I feel like that pushed me. And I never wanted to not feel that sensation of her being with me there on that field. So when I'm on that field, I feel closer to her."

His first game back, against North Mesquite, Gabriel took a screen pass 60-plus yards to the house.

Friends and family in the crowd cheered, screamed, cried. Gabriel hasn't looked back since.

Kimberly Gabriel was the one always telling her son that his size didn't matter. In Texas high school football, it sure didn't. Gabriel caught 90 passes for 1,354 yards and 13 touchdowns his senior year.

Unfortunately, his SAT scores were a different story. Life was "football-football-football," Dad admits. So by the time Gabriel got his scores up, it was too late in the game. Letters of intent were signed on a Monday, his new SAT scores returned on a Tuesday and Calvin Gabriel says his son didn't want to wait. He signed with Division-II Abilene Christian rather than waiting for D-I schools to warm up.

Of course Dad wanted him to hold out, but Gabriel was restless.

"If you want to play D-II," Dad told him, "you need to be the best there is.'"

Gabriel came close. His final year at Abilene Christian, Gabriel averaged 96.5 yards and nearly a touchdown per game. When he got his shot at a D-I opponent, New Mexico State, he had 15 grabs for 188 yards. When he played against future NFL star Janoris Jenkins as a sophomore, he had 135 yards with two scores. At his pro day, Gabriel ran a scorching (wind-aided) 4.27 in the 40-yard dash.

And then he entered the NFL at a perfect moment.

The 5'8" receiver is no longer shunned.

The 5'8" receiver is a weapon.


So much energy for so many years has been wasted on what receivers like the 5'8", 165-pound…OK, Taylor…170-pound Gabriel cannot do. They cannot win jump balls. They cannot box out cornerbacks. They cannot go on certain roller coasters at Six Flags. They can, however, do many things 6'4" wide receivers only dream of.

Everyone in this Falcons locker room realizes this.

For starters, good luck jamming Gabriel at the line.

What'd seem like the easiest antidote—smash Gabriel like a bug on the sidewalk—is actually close to impossible. The surface area at a defensive back's disposal these first five free yards against Gabriel is so small, so compact, so elusive that so many miss.

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 27: Taylor Gabriel #18 of the Atlanta Falcons runs after a catch for a touchdown during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on November 27, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Imag
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

"It's terrible," Falcons safety Ricardo Allen explains. "You don't have much! It's hard to jam Julio, yeah. But he has more body frame than Gabe does. So a guy like him, most people are going to say, 'I'm not going to take my chance of missing him at the line because if I miss him he's fast enough to outrun a lot of people.' A lot of people try to play him soft and off, and that doesn't work."

Just ask Leodis McKelvin.

Play off Gabriel and he'll embarrass you with one crossover.

"If you're smart," Allen continues, "you're probably going to double-team him, but then you leave somebody like Julio open. You leave somebody like Mohamed Sanu open. … Do you want to put your second-best on Taylor? Or do you want to put your second-best on Sanu? We just have so many mismatches."

Which is why, ladies and gents, the Falcons have the most dangerous offense in the NFL. They've created a juggernaut that averaged 33.8 points per game (first in the NFL by more than four points) and 415.8 yards (second) with a D-II shrimp the Browns—the Browns!—decided was not talented enough to play in the NFL.

Allen is convinced Gabriel would be a No. 1 wideout on other teams because, as Jalen Collins echoes a few lockers down, Gabriel "plays big."

"He's so explosive, it's crazy to see," Collins says. "As fast as he is, if you lose at the line, you don't really have a great chance of making a play. You don't know what to do with him. He's such a weapon."

"I mean, he definitely runs 4.2," Sanu adds. "No wind or wind-aided, he's fast."

It's not the straight-line speed that distinguishes Gabriel, though. It's how quickly he starts a route and how quickly he stops one.

That's another short-guy advantage.

As Nathan Young, Gabriel's offensive coordinator at Abilene Christian, says, Gabriel reaches top speed in five steps. He saw this translate to the NFL when Gabriel sent him four separate clips of himself toasting All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden.

"That's extremely rare," Young says. "I don't know if it's the short legs and the turnover, I don't know. Everybody's in 'Oh crap' mode as soon as he gets off the line. And then, he just plays with them after that."

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 27: Taylor Gabriel #18 of the Atlanta Falcons runs after a catch for a touchdown during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on November 27, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Imag
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

He then toys with your fear. Knowing corners live in fear of getting beat deep, he stops on a dime. He feasts on underneath routes. And at full acceleration, 5'9" vet Eric Weems notes that Gabriel's long stride is downright bizarre for a man of his stature.

Gabriel figured he wasn't going to grow another inch so he might as well kick ass in every other way. He emerged from his bedroom, wiped away the tears and molded himself into Antonio Brown Lite through a sheer force of will.

Friends didn't outright ridicule his size. No, the jabs were more subliminal. More "sarcastic," says Kendrick Holloway, his position coach at Abilene Christian. They'd pepper him with indirect hints that he should, you know, consider a career outside of football.

"And he told me," Holloway says, "that he made a promise to his mom, that he'd do everything in his power to get to this level."

So when Abilene Christian broke practice at 6:15 p.m., Gabriel finished his homework (he graduated with a degree in business), ate and returned to the facility. When Holloway left his office at 10 p.m., he'd see Gabriel cycling through cone drills on a sand pit next to the track.

Sometimes, teammate Charcandrick West was with him. Many more times, Gabriel was alone.

It was a lot tougher to cut and change direction in the sand, so Gabriel loved it. When he then transitioned to a field, it was like a baseball slugger removing a 15-pound weight from his bat.

And, oh, he's country strong.

Gabriel can bench 365 pounds with ease.

He's singularly focused, oblivious to all noise around him. On NFL draft weekend, Gabriel wasn't glued to the TV. He celebrated his sister's "Sweet 16" birthday party, a moment he knew Mom would've cherished. Undrafted free agency passed without a phone call before the Browns flew him in for rookie minicamp.

Gabriel was a tryout camp body who lasted all of one brief one-on-one drill.

After straining his hamstring, Gabriel's tryout was over.

So he begged—yes begged—from the bottom of his heart, for then-general manager Ray Farmer to give him a shot.

Farmer obliged, and Gabriel made it to training camp.

Farmer was fired two years later, and Gabriel was cut.

Granted, he's stubborn. Very stubborn. At Abilene Christian, coaches were often shouting at Gabriel to pick up the intensity during Friday run-throughs. He treated them like walkthroughs, saving his body.

But Young also knows Gabriel's attitude was once much, much worse. He heard all of the "pain-in-the-butt" stories from back before his mom's death.

When Gabriel lost his mother, he changed.

And he's still changing.

"He was the guy who had the talent but wasn't willing to work at it," Young says. "And he was just stubborn. ... But I think what happened with that is he promised his mom he'd go to college and graduate—which he has done. He's graduated. I think that put a deeper drive in him. I don't know if it was a 'life is short' deal, but I do know it affected him in a positive way, which is pretty incredible.

"A lot of people would just go in the tank. I don't know where I'd go if that happened to me. I'd probably go in the tank. He took it. Ran with it.

"And he changed the course of his life."

This is no exaggeration.

Who knows where Gabriel would be otherwise?

"It's devastating when that happens in your life," Gabriel says, "but you can make it a positive, instead of a negative thing. That's what I did."


In his bedroom, nowadays, Taylor Gabriel cannot sleep.

If he can doze off at a decent hour, Gabriel usually wakes up around 3 or 4 a.m. and has trouble slipping back into sleep. He couldn't sleep that month after Mom died, either, but this is different. He's not sad, not even stressed. He's motivated to the point of insomnia.

"Greatness motivates me," he says. "And if greatness motivates you, you shouldn't be able to sleep at night.

"I feel like somebody's outworking me, somebody's trying to take my spot."

So he wakes up and envisions cradling a game-winning catch over his shoulder. He'll do a "distraction drill" with his girlfriend. Anything that convinces him he's staying a step ahead.

His playoff debut awaits. The Falcons will play the Seahawks on Saturday.

In time, he learned it is impossible to separate family from football. To compartmentalize.

He cannot take the field, still, without thinking of the mother he lost. The entire Gabriel family never got over her death—who could?—but they all found ways to cope. So many of their family traditions lived on. Every Christmas, the three kids still get pajamas to wear during presents, cocoa and breakfast.

Each birthday, they still prank call each other. One year, it's "Philip Tenner from the IRS!" Two years ago, Herbert, the creepy old man on Family Guy, called Gabriel.

Gabriel loathes that character.

Dad busts into laughter reliving his crank call.

"I call and say," Calvin begins, then clearing his throat to imitate Herbert's high-pitched voice, "Hey, Taylor, uh, Happy Birthday, Taaaaylor…' And he calls back saying 'Uh-uh, I don't like that one!' We do it all the time. We do all that crazy stuff."

Gabriel still has that $2 his mother gave him, too. The two bills are back home in Texas, he says, "in a safe place." He holds those $2 and remembers that Mom was the one who instilled "the lion" inside of him. No, he won't lampoon the Browns for cutting him loose as you might expect; rather, Gabriel views that all as a stepping stone to Atlanta.

To becoming the X-factor.

"Gabe was certainly somebody, we saw the competitor that he was," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn says. "There's always somebody that you weren't counting on to step up and take on a big role. For us, that guy has definitely been Gabe."

Everyone has a Gabriel "wow" moment.

Against Arizona, he took a 35-yard screen to the house. Weems told him that anybody can do it one time. Later that game, Gabriel took a 25-yard screen to the end zone.

"I couldn't say anything else," Weems says. "That was real special."

Holloway points to a play at AT&T Stadium in college. Inside the 15-yard line, he caught a short drag and made three tacklers miss.

"One guy has him—he has him!" Holloway narrates. "He's in a phone booth. And Taylor shakes him down. Another guy comes, hits Taylor, Taylor takes the hit, and then dives into the end zone."

Anyone can relive Gabriel's college highlights. He uploaded them onto YouTube himself…scouts weren't going to find him on ESPN.

Now, Gabriel believes he truly will be one of the NFL's best wide receivers. And Holloway insists it's not bluster.

"Some people look at him like, 'Are you serious?'" Holloway says. "In his mind, he's dead serious. If he stays healthy—and he keeps doing what he's doing—I think he can. He can light the NFL up."

The out-of-body sensation is difficult for Gabriel to explain because it's not tangible. He can point to a 4.27 40. He can break down how he beats press coverage. He can point to his faith. But when Gabriel is darting in all directions, when he's cutting and leaping and leaving defensive backs 15, 20, 25 yards in his rearview mirror, yes, Gabriel can hear Mom's voice. He can picture her.

And in that moment, Kimberly Gabriel has never been more alive.

"I feel like I'm closer to her," Gabriel says. "I love that feeling of her being out there with me.' It is like an out-of-body experience."

So for the Falcons, it's simple. It's divine. The closer Gabriel is to his mom, the further they'll advance this postseason.

This 170-pounder may be the one who takes them to the Super Bowl.

 

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.