TSN Archives: Lawrence Taylor, linebacker at large (Nov. 17, 1986)

Press Room

This cover story, by Peter King, first appeared in the Nov. 17, 1986, issue of The Sporting News, as New York icon Lawrence Taylor was returning to top form after a stint in a substance-abuse facility following a subpar (for him) 1985 season. He was voted TSN’s NFL Player of the Year for 1986.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Bill Parcells, smiling, had reason to be happy. Very happy. A day earlier, his New York Giants had completed a two-game sweep of Washington and Dallas in six days, putting them in a tie for the NFC East lead with the Redskins after nine games.

Walking toward the locker room in the dank concourse under Giants Stadium, Parcells was happy about something else. Three things, actually.

1. Lawrence Taylor, the player

2. Lawrence Taylor, the person

3. Lawrence Taylor, the positive force instead of destructive influence.

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“Remember when I said this Lawrence Taylor story wouldn’t be the central issue on the team this year?” the Giants’ coach asked a reporter.

The reporter said yes.

“Has it been?” Parcells asked.

No, came the reply

Parcells smiled — with good reason. Nine months ago, when the best defensive player of the ’80s checked himself in as an outpatient for substance abuse rehabilitation, the immediate future of a team and a man went on IR (injured reserve). “They don’t sell insurance for these kinds of things,” Parcells told a Giants booster club dinner in May

But the Taylor time bomb, through 10 weeks of the season, had been effectively defused.

These days, it’s the rest of the NFL that needs Taylor insurance. Playing with the energy of a Doberman pup and the familiar quick strikes of a pit bull, Taylor has resumed his role as the NFL’s best outside linebacker. He’s close to being all the way back to his game plan-busting days of 1984 — considered his most forceful season as a pro — and his nine-game totals put him on course for career highs in the most significant categories for his position.

After 10 games, he had an NFL-high 14 sacks, one more than his career best, and 59 quarterback pressures, 28 less than his career high.

Perhaps as significantly, the Taylor story hasn’t become a sideshow. He has refused all print-media and most electronic-media interviews since his rehabilitation. So, after home games, his locker flanked by team statesman Harry Carson, All-Pro defensive end Leonard Marshall and reporters wondering about the play of the NFL’s second-ranked defense, Taylor, its most important player, is an island. He dresses in silence though he occasionally exchanges wisecracks with teammates.

Off the field, Taylor is not as monastic.

“Lawrence is not a choirboy,” said Giants General Manager George Young. “But great players tend not to be choirboys. Look at Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth.”

But associates say Taylor, whose wife Linda had their third child in September, has toned down his nightlife significantly.

“Let me make the ultimate statement on Lawrence Tavlor,” said good friend and former teammate Beasley Reece. “I go to his house now and there’s no beer in the refrigerator. Anybody in the NFL knows how big a statement that is.”

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On the field, Taylor insists he hasn’t changed, though he’s rushing the pass more than  ever. After a career record-tying four-sack game against Philadelphia October 12, Taylor in his only extensive interview since the rehabilitation, told WNEW radio, “I really don’t feel I’ve played any different than I have in the past. Maybe people see me in a different light and think I have something prove. But I really don’t get that excited about a game. If I can do it I do it. If I can’t I can’t.”

Before the Giants opened their season, one high-ranking member the organization stressed that Tavlor could not be judged on his impressive preseason or his exemplary behavior to that point. “Do you have a crystal ball? You tell me how he’s going to play in November,” the official said.

It is November. Here are the reviews on Taylor.

— CBS-TV analyst John Madden: “I thought in 1984 he was the best player in the league, the most dominant defensive player in football. When a game had to be won, he won. Last year he fell off. Falling off for him was to become a human player. Now, I think he’s somewhere in between.”

— Philadelphia Director of Personnel Joe Wooten: “He’s had some season. I think he’s playing better than ever before. Teams are putting tight ends on him, backs on him, tackles on him and he’s going through them. I think Washington tackle Joe Jacoby is a good football player and he had trouble with Taylor. He manhandles most offenses. Right now to me he’s the most dominant player in football, offense or defense.”

— Philadelphia tight end John Spagnola: “I think he’s playing his greatest football. I think his knowledge of the game and how he’s playing — with total reckless abandon — has put him on a new plateau.”

— Young: “He’s been so much of a bigger factor in games than stats. It’s amazing how much he influences the quarterback.”

— Giants defensive end George Martin: “This year, I think he’s a more mature ball player in all phases of the game. In his coverage and his performance as a pass-rusher, he’s more of a veteran ball player. As a rookie in 1981, he’d make a super-spectacular play, then blow a coverage or miss a tackle. He’s playing more consistently and that comes with experience.”

— Reece: “He has regained the title of the best football player in America, which means the world.”

* * *

I don’t think his problem was anywhere near the Buster Rhymes or Micheal Ray Richardson stage. He wasn’t going out on the streets and shooting up or anything like that. Lawrence was not — I repeat was not — entered in a rehabilitation center. — Agent Gary Kovacs

The news began to leak out February 12, just 10 days after Taylor played in his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl and enjoyed a Hawaiian vacation with his wife and children. Taylor, saying he needed to visit his ailing grandmother in North Carolina, asked Giants quarterback Phil Simms to step in for him at a White Plains, N.Y., speaking engagement.

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Two days later, an ABC Radio report by Howard Rosen said Taylor was in a drug rehabilitation center and called him “a sick man” in this regard. Sources told three New York newspapers that Taylor was being treated for cocaine use.

Taylor said nothing. The Giants said nothing. Then on March 20, in a statement issued through the Giants, Taylor admitted in the past year due to substance abuse “I have left the road that I had hoped to follow both as a player and as a public figure. In recent months, I have privately sought professional assistance to help me with these problems. I have just completed the first phase in what I now will be a difficult and ongoing battle to overcome these problems.”

Said Reece: “I think he took a look at himself and said, ‘This is not Lawrence Taylor. I have got to get this cleaned up.'”

Understand this followed what had not been a poor year. Taylor played well. It’s just that at times he didn’t play Tayloresque. He led the Giants in tackles and forced fumbles and tied for the lead in fumble recoveries. He had a career-high 13 sacks. But in Weeks 13-16, Taylor compiled just 12 tackles and no sacks. He often seemed distant in the locker room. When his agent tried to get the Giants to restructure Taylor’s seven-year, $6.25 million contract to give him some deferred money for his retirement years, the club refused.

The season ended after Taylor screamed at Bear fullback Matt Suhey for continually blocking him at the legs during a 21-0 playoff loss in Chicago and some Bears were yelling names at him after the game. When reporters approached him later, Taylor said with a glare, “Don’t ever come near me.”

The problem last year, said Young, was that he was competing with his own legend, his own excellence.

Madden said, “Lawrence is like a baseball player who hit .400 early in his career so then he never gets another good pitch to hit. Now they have big guys on Lawrence blocking him.”

Paul Hackett, the passing game coach of the Cowboys, told me there’s no one way to block Taylor. When Hackett was with the 49ers, the first time they played the Giants they used John Ayers, the left guard, to block him and they had success. The next time, they used Ayers and Taylor ate them up. The next time, they used a tackle or guard or a tackle and running back or something like that, giving Taylor lots of different looks trying to fluster him.

Madden: “Against Dallas (November 21), I noticed they were using tight ends right away so he doesn’t ever line up against air.”

So Taylor was competing in 1985 against the greatness he created. A very good season is what he had. A very good season though becomes open season for critics when Lawrence Taylor is having it. Which is probably why the world is only seeing the revival of this terrific player and not listening to reasons why he is terrific.

Perhaps these screaming February 15 headlines in New York explain the impact of the Taylor substance abuse bombshell and also why Taylor isn’t spilling his guts these days.

DRUGS SACK LT

Booze, coke send LT to rehab clinic

SAY IT AIN’T SO

Taylor in drug rehab clinic

Some of the other headlines that day befitted a mass murderer, not a substance dabbler. Examples:

Robustelli, Huff grieve for Taylor

Up-and-down year haunted superstar

LT’s mom says she’s shocked

On May 20, a day after three reporters sought unsuccessfully to interview Taylor at a charity golf tournament in Purchase, N.Y., the New York Post ran a picture of Taylor, golf club in hand, that was captioned “Ironing out his problems”.

That infuriated Parcells, who threatened to revoke long-standing press freedoms around the club if reporters either pressed Taylor on the issue or continued to stress it in their reporting. It was a direct threat.

“The guy’s made his statement. Just leave him alone,” said Parcells, who accused reporters of harassing Taylor.

Today, Parcells rarely discusses Taylor, and he shot an icy glare at the questioner who asked the coach in October if he was testing Taylor regularly for substance abuse.

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The Giants have closed ranks around the story. To them, now, it never happened. Three or four times during the season Parcells has been asked how Taylor is playing. “He’s doing fine,” Parcells has said.

It’s a good bet Parcells thinks things with Taylor are going so well in silence now, why should he inflate Taylor’s ego or mention anything about his play? “Write what you see,” he told a reporter after nine games, “because that’s the truth.”

“I’ve heard people say, ‘He should clear the air,'” Young said. “Hey, it doesn’t make any difference. Once a guy makes a statement, it still comes up anyway. It doesn’t exonerate him from talking about it again. Plus, in New York, you have to guard every word. He doesn’t have time for that. He wants to get his head together and play.”

Play? No. Ravage? Yes.

“I play the way I live,” Taylor said in the radio interview. “I live pretty wild. I play pretty wild. That’s how it goes.”

* * *

When God created a running back, He created Walter Payton. When He created an outside linebacker, He created Lawrence Taylor. — Johnny Roland, Chicago running backs coach

The new and improved Taylor was cruising along anonymously when one of the best (THE best?) stretches of his career hit in October. In September, he spent much of the day in Dan Fouts’ face as the Giants shut down San Diego, 20-7, and he consistently collared Saints running backs from behind on sweeps in a 20-17 victory over New Orleans. Early, he was matched big play for big play by left outside linebacker Carl Banks, who is finally emerging as a star — or would if he played somewhere else.

But in October, Taylor began a superb five game. At St. Louis: two sacks, four pressures, six tackles. He twice beat double coverage to sack Neil Lomax and forced a fourth-quarter fumble that clinched a 13-6 victory. In a 35-3 rout of Philadelphia (four sacks, eight pressures, nine tackles), pregame visitor Bob Knight, the Indiana basketball coach, challenged Taylor to “guard somebody.” Blanket quarterback Ron Jaworski is what he did. In a 17-12 loss at Seattle (no sacks, four pressures, four tackles), the Seahawks neutralized him, occasionally by running straight at him, not away from him, and getting a good game from tackle Ron Mattes. Check out the Washington/Dallas numbers: four sacks, 14 tackles, 16 pressures. The five October games produced 10 sacks. 32 tackles and 32 pressures.

By using quick and fast outside linebacker Andy Headen with Taylor and Banks in the lineup often at once, the Giants have given Taylor the most freedom he’s ever had to rush the passer He loves it

“They’re allowing me to rush more and not play the pass as much,” Taylor said. “It allows me to go to the open side and to do what I do best, which is run.”

Said Madden: “He’s definitely at his best when he pins his ears back and goes after the quarterback.”

Other factors in Taylor’s favor: the emergence of Banks, which makes teams pay attention not only to the Taylor-Leonard Marshall combination on the right side, the inability of an offense to focus myopically on Taylor because the Giants are the No. 2-rated defense in the NFL, defensive end Marshall, who commands more than one-on-one attention and diligence off the field.

“He wants to know what’s going on everywhere, not just at his position anymore,” Banks said.

The fans love him. Never has an anti-Taylor backlash been heard in Giants Stadium, just an occasional droning chant of “LT! LT! LT!” He’s been pardoned by these hardened fans quicker than was the Mets’ Keith Hernandez, if that’s possible.

Respect grows when the fans know a player is playing with pain. Tavlor is, having suffered a right shoulder injury in Game 6 which inhibits the movement of his arm. “But you can’t drag him out of the lineup,” Young said

Taylor’s healing power would make a Christian Scientist envious. After his three-sack night against Washington October 27, a showered and wincing Taylor toweled himself off near his locker and said, “I played with one arm tonight.” He told a teammate he thought he might have a rotator cuff injury.

Ten hours later, Taylor was teeing it up at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. On the 450-yard, par-5 10th hole, Taylor reached the green in two shots — with a driver and a nine-iron.

“To be physically beat up one night and to play another sport the next day is pretty impressive,” said Brian Bollaci, a Winged Foot pro.

* * *

He said he’d get his act together, and he has. —George Young

Reece played for the Giants from 1977-83 and became a confidante of Taylor’s. He knows the hurt Taylor felt. Now a TV sports caster in Tampa, Reece often stays at Taylor’s Upper Saddle River, N.J., home while on business in New York.

“What he went through is a shocking national embarrassment,” Reece said. “All of a sudden, a great champion had been disgraced. I am totally convinced he will never allow himself to be shown in that light again.”

Reece knows the issue won’t go away. “He knows people are going to be asking. ‘Is he or is he not clean? He had a lot to prove to the organization, the team and the fans.”

Taylor, Reece said, cares most not about the opinion of the season-ticket holders or the news media or the people who pay his check. It’s kids, Reece claims. Taylor never wants to let them down again.

“Half the kids in New York want to be Lawrence Taylor,” Reece said. “I saw him speak to kids at football camp in New York in the off-season, and he made a promise to them that he’d be back. That was a sincere, heartfelt talk. Nothing was held back. He game them everything. He answered everything. He told them that his little bitty drug kick almost destroyed his life. I think he’s very, very conscious about what young people think of him.”

Reece saw Taylor for three days in early October. One year earlier, after the Giants had conquered Washington behind what was probably his best game of the season, Taylor said, “I prepared well for this game, got some sleep and didn’t go to the bars as much as usual.”

That was not the person Reece saw on the trip last month. Taylor played with his kids. Taylor and Reece swam in the heated pool at Taylor’s $400,000 house. They golfed. They hit balls at a driving range. They played seven sports in three days, Reece said.

“He’s proven he can go through tough times and come out on top,” Reese said. “My prayer is that he never turns his personality toward anything that can hurt him again.”

A Megalopolis hopes the same thing.

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