L.T. was reckless, magnificent
By David Whitley
Special to ESPN.com
Lawrence Taylor has been called a lot of things -- the best defensive player in NFL history, L.T., reckless, Superman. But from his first days of high school football in Williamsburg, Va., he wouldn't allow anybody to call him one thing: Larry.
That was a name for golf pros or bowlers or anyone whose life's work included the element of restraint. Lawrence Taylor did not become the most feared player in pro football by letting himself be controlled.
"I guess that I'm just a plain wild dude," he said early in his career.
Taylor's motto seemed to be live fast, perhaps die young, and leave a trail of battered quarterbacks in your wake. He was technically listed as an outside linebacker, but he was more like a force of nature. After being unleashed on the NFL in 1981, Taylor's unparalleled will and wildness spurred the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles.
In 1986 he recorded a career-high 20 1/2 sacks and was the league's MVP, becoming the first defensive player to win the award since Minnesota's Alan Page in 1971. Taylor didn't just play the game, he revolutionized it. The greatest linebackers had always played the middle. Guys like Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus, who patrolled the trenches like Dobermans.
Taylor created the outside linebacker position in his own image. He was 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds of athletic fury, a Butkus with wheels. Fast enough to cover receivers, strong enough to bully offensive linemen, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. And heaven help any quarterback who got in his way.
With his 142 sacks, L.T. ranks among the all-time leaders.
"Lawrence Taylor, defensively, has had as big an impact as any player I've ever seen," former Raiders coach John Madden said. "He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers."
Taylor played and lived on the edge. For all his physical gifts, his greatest strength may have been his mind. Taylor was an adrenaline junkie who willed himself to do things mere mortals would not consider.
"What makes L.T. so great, what makes him so aggressive, is his total disregard for his body," said Bill Belichick, the Giants' defensive coordinator during Taylor's prime.
The wildness that made him a magnificent football player often streaked into his personal life. He battled substance-abuse problems during and after his career, unable to bring his appetite for destruction under control. He became the image he had been working on from his early football days.
Taylor was born on Feb. 4, 1959 in Williamsburg. He didn't begin playing football in high school until his junior year. Lafayette High Coach Mel Jones recruited him "out of the hallway because he was big."
Taylor was not highly recruited out of high school. He played defensive line for his first two seasons at North Carolina, but it didn't take that long for the Tar Heels to realize they had something special.
"As a freshman playing on special teams, he'd jump a good six or seven feet in the air to block a punt, then land on the back of his neck," said North Carolina assistant coach Bobby Cale. "He was reckless, just reckless."
Taylor was nicknamed "Godzilla," not so much for the way he played as the way he lived.
"We'd always joke him about how he wasn't getting respect at this bar downtown," said his roommate, Steve Streater. "So one night Lawrence walked into the bar and busted up everything -- chairs, glasses, everything. That's what he thought it took to gain respect."
With that attitude, respect came quickly in the NFL. The Giants drafted Taylor with the No. 2 overall pick in 1981. In his first training camp, teammates were calling him Superman and considered replacing his locker with a phone booth. He had 9 1/2 sacks in his first of 10 straight All-Pro seasons.
Not only was Taylor dominant, he had an actor's sense of timing. When the game was at its most dramatic stage, Taylor would take over. He became New York's greatest off-Broadway hit.
"There comes a time in a game when you know a key play is coming up," Taylor said. "You can just feel it in the air. There are guys who shun those moments. It's like in basketball. There are guys who want to shoot that last shot, and others who want to pass off. I want that last shot."
Before games against Washington, Giants coach Bill Parcells would tell Taylor the Redskins didn't think he could play anymore. No matter how often he'd heard it, the tactic always worked.
Taylor was part of arguably the most gruesome televised moment in NFL history. He crashed in and landed on the back of Joe Theismann's knee on a "Monday Night Football" game in 1985. The Redskins quarterback's shin snapped forward like it had a hinge in the middle. Taylor immediately jumped up and started motioning for help.
"It's not a moment I want to remember," he said, "or see again."
Taylor's reaction was a little odd considering the threshold he had for his own pain. He once suffered a concussion, and the Giants trainer had to hide his helmet to keep him from going back in the game.
He suffered a hairline fracture of his right tibia against San Francisco in 1987 and played the next week. He broke a bone in his foot in 1989 and missed only one game. Maybe his greatest "No Pain, No Gain" performance came in 1988 at New Orleans.
The Saints were 9-3 and the Giants were playing without quarterback Phil Simms and All-Pro linebackers Harry Carson and Carl Banks, both injured. Taylor had torn shoulder ligaments and a detached pectoral muscle, but he strapped on a harness and had seven tackles, including three sacks, and two forced fumbles. The Giants won, 13-12.
Taylor once said playing in pain was simply a matter of tricking yourself into believing you aren't hurt. He could convince himself of almost anything, including his own invincibility. But when you live on the edge, even the strongest eventually fall off.
He was once asked what he could do that no other outside linebacker could.
"Drink," Taylor said.
But Taylor's problems ran deeper than alcohol. He admitted to cocaine abuse in 1985. He said he switched his addiction to golf, which he called his "detox tank," and putted his way through rehabilitation. He was suspended for 30 days in 1988 for failing a drug test.
He came back from that and helped the Giants win the 1991 Super Bowl. Not even Taylor could will himself to completely overcome a ruptured Achilles tendon in 1992. He played one more season before retiring at age 34 and facing life without a perfect outlet for his personality.
"I live my life in the fast lane," he said, "and I always have."
Taylor entered drug rehab twice in 1995. Then he was arrested two times in three years on charges he tried to buy cocaine. Getting out of the fast lane has been difficult for a man who did everything at full speed.
"In 30 or 40 years, I'm going to take out the tapes and show them to my grandkids," running back Keith Byars said. "To show them I really played against Lawrence Taylor. The greatest."
Byars will tell them one thing: "That he was everything they said he was."
For better and worse, L.T. was many things. But he was never just a Larry.