Catawba Football: Taylor went from small school to big-time NFL

By Mike London Salisbury Post

How does a Catawba graduate wind up spitting in the face of All-Pro "Mean Joe" Greene?

It's a long story, but David Taylor took time to tell it when he and four other Catawba athletes who competed at football's highest level returned to campus for homecoming.

Taylor was an exceptional two-sport athlete at Chapel Hill High in the late 1960s, and North Carolina and Clemson weren't unaware of his prowess as a football lineman and track thrower.

But Taylor suffered an ankle injury that hampered his senior football season. That gave Catawba assistant coach Bill Faircloth a chance to sneak in the door and outrecruit the big boys. Catawba was just more enthusiastic than anyone else.

"I never really wanted to go somewhere there were 50,000 people, and Catawba had a nice campus and lots of pretty girls", Taylor said. Catawba was also offering a rare full ride to Taylor, who posted record performances in both the discus (171 feet, 8 inches) and the shot put (58-23/4) in the 1968 3A/4A state track meet.

"Catawba really wanted me and was offering the chance to do football and track, and I really wanted to try both sports", Taylor said. "I thought I had a shot at the NFL if everything worked out right, and I knew Catawba wasn't so small the NFL scouts wouldn't come around. I'd heard all about Bucky Pope."

In track, Taylor became a Carolinas Conference champion at Catawba. In football, he was a beast at offensive tackle and served as the team's punter, But his junior year, he suffered another injury.

"I had a great sophomore year and came in kicking butt my junior year," Taylor said. "Then I tore up my knee; just totally ripped it. Everything was twisted around like a chicken wing. Football was all over, and it was the lowest time in my life. Doctors said I'd never play again."

Like television's Bionic Man, Taylor's knee was put back together with an experimental procedure. He's not sure exactly how doctors did it, only that they somehow did. "They gave me my life back," Taylor said.

In 1972, his senior season, the 6-foot-4 Taylor was back to being all-everything for the Indians, including a first team NAIA All-American.

The Baltimore Colts selected Taylor in the fifth round of the 1973 draft, which meant they thought a lot of him, but he was still no cinch to make the team.

The team Taylor joined was at a low ebb. John Unitas, John Mackey and the greats who had won glory in the 1960s and early 1970s had been jettisoned, and a rebuilding process was starting. The key to rejuvenation was LSU quarterback Bert Jones, who was drafted four rounds ahead of Taylor.

"Baltimore was the perfect place for me because they were rebuilding with young guys," Taylor said. "I was 21 and newly married with a kid, and I knew that this would be my one shot."

"I wanted it bad. I burned every bridge behind me because I knew I couldn't go into pro football with one foot in and one foot out. I had to do it all the way. I was just a kid from Catawba who didn't know squat, but the one thing I did have going for me was passion."

Taylor made the team and played in 13 games as a rookie. By his second year, the 257-pounder was a fixture at left tackle. That's the key man in protecting a right-handed quarterback's blind side. "I was the one," Taylor said with a laugh, "that was supposed to keep Bert from getting killed."

There was fear Taylor would be killed in front of a television audience when the Colts faced the Pittsburgh Steelers early in his career. Taylor knocked Greene off his feet, and one of the best defensive linemen who ever lived got up snarling.

"It was a trap block, and I made a perfect one," Taylor said. "Joe gets up off the ground and yells 'Rookie!' at me, I guess because my eyeballs were the size of silver dollars. Then he spits right in my face."

Taylor didn't back down. It wasn't smart, but it was necessary if he was going to survive in the NFL. "I guess Catawba taught me that spirit of fighting back," Taylor said. "I went off. I went right back at Joe and spit in his face. The next thing I knew my teammates were holding me back."

Thank goodness for teammates.

The Colts took painful lumps Taylor's first two years, but by 1975, things had turned. Howard Schnellenberger was out as coach, Ted Marchibroda was in, and the Colts were winners.

From 1975-77, Taylor was part of 31 Baltimore wins and only 11 losses. Taylor gave Jones time to fire downfield to Roger Carr and Glenn Doughty and opened holes for Lydell Mitchell, Roosevelt Leaks and Don McCauley.

Another injury erased Taylor's 1978 season. He came back and played in 1979, but the Colts were struggling again and it was time to move on. "

About halfway through my pro career, I was starting to get involved in other things," Taylor explained. "I was a walking time bomb, but I was able to retire with my body still intact."

Taylor was successful in business endeavors and now resides in Florida. His memories of Catawba are strong. They flooded back when Taylor marveled at the rebuilt football stadium and sparkling field house.

Seeing Shuford Stadium also reminded him of his tough head coach Harvey Stratton. Stratton ordered "nothing but running drills" when he was ticked off. Once, Stratton sarcastically brought a load of baseball gloves to practice when the Indians were having a hard time catching the ball.

The sight of Shuford also helped Taylor recall the hardest lick he ever took, and it wasn't in the NFL. It was from Catawba teammate Larry Tootoo in practice. "Larry was tough, and he hit me with a forearm that dropped me to my knees," Taylor said. "Everything was black. That's not a good memory, but it's a vivid one."

But it's possible that blow from Tootoo helped Taylor make a stand against Mean Joe. "I was blessed to go to Catawba," Taylor said. "I came of age here. It's where I found out who I was."

This is the first of five stories on professional football players from Catawba who were invited back to this year's Homecoming.

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