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October 11, 2013It was the biggest hit on college football's biggest stage - several, in fact, still call former Michigan safety Daydrion Taylor's blow on Penn State fullback Bob Stephenson the most violent they've seen on a football field.
Perhaps it was fitting that the day, Nov. 8, 1997, was dubbed "Judgment Day," an afternoon of separation among college football's elite reserved for big time players and big time plays. In No. 4 U-M's 34-8 win at No. 2 Penn State that vaulted the Wolverines to No. 1, Taylor's hit was the shot heard 'round the college football world, the play that epitomized the Wolverines' thorough domination of the Nits.
Taylor's hit might still be one of the more celebrated moments of the '97 national championship season if only the play had ended with both players shaking off the effects and jogging back to their respective sidelines.
Instead, the collision was a career ender for each player. Stephenson's severe concussion ended the senior's final season. For Taylor, one of the Big Ten's up and coming safeties, it concluded a calling that held significant promise beyond the collegiate ranks. Many have wondered what happened to him since. We found him a while back and discovered he was doing just fine, but only after a bit of soul searching.
"At that point in my career I was pretty much on the verge of coming into my own," Taylor told us. "I felt I was on a path to the NFL, just starting to get everything going. I played as a true freshman, started the first game of my sophomore year and had learned the system. My junior year I had an ankle injury early in the season, but I played and started feeling extremely comfortable at my position. I started to open up and come into my own.
"I know I'd be in the NFL probably playing with [Heisman Trophy winning cornerback] Charles [Woodson] or next to him, against Tom Brady. You look back and you think what could have been, or what should have been. But you definitely have to move on from that. It's okay to think about it every now and then as long as you bring yourself back to reality and know what you are - you've got to use the knowledge you've gained and all the tools to help others. That's what it's all about."
And that's what Taylor does, having fulfilled his academic obligations in receiving his bachelor's degree in 1999 while working first in the weight room with former strength coach Mike Gittleson, then as a coach's assistant. Taylor returned to his home state of Texas to earn his teaching certificate from Prairie View A&M and now teaches phys ed and coaches football in high school.
His message to his students is the same one former coach Lloyd Carr preached when the diagnosis following the hit - abnormal space between the C1 and C2 vertebrae, repaired by a fusion using bone from his hip - brought with it the doctor's message that he wouldn't play again:
That hasn't been too difficult, Taylor said, though there are many days he still can't escape what's become his legacy. A clip of his big hit has been viewed over 180,000 times on YouTube.com, several times by his students and players. When they ask for his recollection, Taylor doesn't hesitate to oblige.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "I remember it was Bob Stephenson because we wrote a few letters back and forth after the incident. He caught a little fullback out pass and went up the sideline, I remember him running pretty hard. He saw me at the last minute and went to lower his shoulder a little bit. From the scouting report we knew how big their running backs were and what we were up against, so in order for me to make that tackle I knew I couldn't break stride.
"After I hit him, I remember the referee telling me not to move because he was unconscious on top of me. People think we were both unconscious, but the ref was telling me not to move. My legs locked up for what felt like a couple of minutes, but watching the video it was more like three seconds. I felt like I was floating for a couple minutes, though it was really a few seconds. My legs finally released and the stiffness released from my legs and arms. When I finally got off the field, my neck kind of got sore."
Taylor would have returned to the lineup had the doctors allowed, but in hindsight their expertise provided the difficult but prudent prognosis. Each year removed from the incident makes it easier to accept, said Taylor, noting he's "blessed" and acknowledging it could have been much worse than it was.
"It's pretty much humbled me to the point where I use it to help other kids understand the importance of education," Taylor said, noting he'd grown up in a home that encouraged his academic pursuits, one of the primary reasons he chose to go to Michigan in the first place. "That's one big thing that helped me move on and made it easier for me.
"Coach Carr told me no matter what my decision was, he was behind me. That's one thing about Coach Carr - he's a player's coach. He let me know right away no matter what my decision was, my scholarship was there and I was going to graduate, no matter what. That was the same thing in my mind. That was what I was brought up to believe in, education first, and without a doubt that was going to happen."
He also knew he wanted to "help youth grow up and become better people," and he has.
The only lingering effect of his surgery, meanwhile, is a little stiffness in the neck from time to time.
"I'm in pretty good shape. Being a health and phys ed teacher you have to be to keep up with the kids," he said with a laugh. "The selfish part of me still thinks 'What if?' sometimes, but I look at it and I'm proud of the life I have. I'm making a bigger impact on young lives than a clip you can watch over and over again on television."