From heart surgery to Giants minicamp

June, 10, 2013
6/10/13
7:16
PM ET
Robyn Taylor remembers watching her son make a routine tackle and thinking everything was fine.

But shortly after that first-half play during a Georgia Tech-Miami game on Sept. 17, 2009, Cooper Taylor tapped repeatedly on his Yellow Jackets helmet to ask out of the game.

The sophomore's heart was racing so fast doctors likened it to someone experiencing a heart attack. Taylor didn't have a heart attack, but a day later he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a heart rhythm condition that involves abnormal electrical pathways in the heart.

[+] EnlargeCooper Taylor
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsCooper Taylor, who was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome in 2009, was drafted in the fifth round by the Giants.
Taylor initially figured he had played his last down of football after undergoing a procedure that lasted eight hours and required catheters to travel through his groin to his heart pathways.

"We were scared to death," Robyn said, her voice still quivering a bit when recounting the 48 hours from when her son's heart issues arose to the moment when his procedure was completed. "They had to start and stop his heart several times."

Taylor lost 20 pounds and needed months to recover. But he regained his strength, renewed his motivation for football and received clearance to play again. This week, the rookie safety takes the latest step in his football career at the New York Giants' veteran's minicamp.

"I thought football was taken away from me," the Giants' fifth-round pick said recently. "I really thought if I had a heart condition, my career would be done. [But when] my doctor told me 'It's correctable' … to get a second chance at football really inspired me. It renewed my passion for the game, to get something taken away and then to get it back."

The 6-foot-4, 228-pound safety has the blend of size, speed, smarts and versatility that makes his coaches' hearts race. The Giants are trying their big safety at different positions.

"He has played strong and free safety, and we are playing him as the WILL linebacker in sub defense," safeties coach Dave Merritt said. "Runs a 4.4 [40-yard dash]; he is just a big man and very smart. Right now he is spinning because he is playing multiple positions."

"To be able to get a young man like that who also has the mental capacity and is very smart, that's the type of guy we had a couple of years ago in Craig Dahl," Merritt later added. "[Dahl] was able to line up the defense, which is what Cooper Taylor is doing already. He can line up the defense. He understands rotations. It is [former Giant safety] James Butler all over again as well, yet he is a better athlete than those guys were."

But long before he tried to impress Merritt and Tom Coughlin, Taylor had to seek his mother's approval to resume playing after the heart scare that terrified his family.

Taylor first complained about his heart racing in seventh grade. He had his heart tested by a cardiologist and was deemed healthy. But Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome can often go undetected and sometimes only shows itself in an extreme condition.

Once Taylor was diagnosed with the condition, doctors told the family that it is correctable and he wouldn't need any future procedures or require medication for the rest of his life.

But the surgeons also said the procedure typically takes a couple of hours. Taylor, though, remained in surgery for eight hours. Doctors had to search for and eliminate extra pathways. A few times, they thought they were done only to have to go back in, repeatedly accelerating and decelerating Taylor's heart.

[+] EnlargeCooper Taylor
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesCooper Taylor played for Georgia Tech from 2008 to 2010.
"I was so emotional," Robyn said. "Nauseous. You can barely breathe. My leg was shaking like a leaf every time the door would open for somebody to come out [to the waiting room]. Every minute seemed like an hour."

When the procedure was finally done late into the night, Robyn could barely recognize her son, who became violently ill and was vomiting.

"He was in a lot of pain," she recalled. "He had the tubes through his groin. He was whiter than a ghost, pale. He was as sick as can be. He lost a lot of weight. He was pretty miserable."

Doctors wanted to keep Taylor in the hospital under observation overnight and possibly for another day, but he wanted to go home immediately. When told that he would first have to prove that he could walk without bleeding and show that he could keep down liquids and crackers, Taylor immediately began trying to walk -- one weak step at a time.

With the help of his mother and father -- Jim Bob Taylor, who played quarterback at Georgia Tech and briefly for the Indianapolis Colts in 1983 -- Taylor slowly paced back and forth down the hospital hallways near one in the morning until he was cleared to leave.

In the next few weeks, Taylor lost 20 pounds off an already lean frame. While he might have grown physically weaker, his desire to play kept getting stronger. He started riding a stationary bike six weeks after his procedure, and, slowly, Taylor began making his way back to football again.

"Right after the procedure, he said, 'I never want to go through anything like this again,'" Robyn said. "But then a week or so later, he was like, [the doctors] said I'm good and I want to play and I want to do this. And we are like, 'Cooper you don't have to play. There are plenty of things you can do. You are smart.'

"He said, 'I am probably healthier than I was before I started. I don't want to quit, and I want to continue and get back to where I was.'"

With his parents' blessing, Taylor returned for the 2010 season. But he sat the second half of the season opener with a heat-related illness and played in only four games that season before opting to transfer to Richmond.

At Richmond, Taylor had to battle through a variety of injuries that included a knee issue, a pectoral muscle injury and two broken hands. But he had 78 tackles, five interceptions, one touchdown and 1.5 sacks as a senior. He drew interest from NFL teams and did well in the East-West Game.

Merritt went to Richmond to conduct a private workout with Taylor and was immediately hooked on the safety. Once he saw the way the tall defensive back could sink his hips, bend his knees and change direction, Merritt began to wonder why he even made the trip. Taylor looked every bit as good as he did on tape, at the East-West Game and at his pro day.

"I felt like he was going to be gone before the fifth round," Merritt said.

During the draft process, Taylor traveled with a stack of records and notes provided by his doctors to answer any doubts teams had about his heart. Giants doctors gave Taylor a clean bill of health and general manager Jerry Reese scooped the safety up in the fifth round.

Now, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who often likes to use three safeties, has another versatile safety who can play multiple positions.

"He is very athletic, tall and lanky, rangy," defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "That is what we like in our safety guys: guys that can play in the post and get in the box. He seems to have all those tools."

The biggest tool, though, is Taylor's heart, which is pumping perfectly thanks to the grueling procedure in 2009.

Now, if Robyn could only find a way to keep her heart from racing on Sundays to come.

"I just cringe," she said of watching Taylor play. "Usually, everybody can find me in the ladies room during the game because I have to wait until it is over for somebody to tell me how it went. I can barely watch."

From Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital's waiting room in 2009 to MetLife Stadium's ladies room this fall, Robyn Taylor will be there with her son, who has come a long way.

"I am so proud of him," she said. "To see all the changes and everything that he has had to go through, all the struggles, his fight and determination to get to where he is. … All of his dreams are coming true. All his hard work has paid off."
Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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