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August 17, 2010

GOAL-ORIENTED - Tyrod Taylor set lofty goals for himself at a young age, and as he gets ready to start his senior season at Virginia Tech, he's nearly accomplished them all

By: Jimmy Robertson

The booklet sits at his folks’ home in Hampton, Virginia, slightly worn and weathered, a sure victim of time.

It wasn’t a fancy piece to begin with; certainly not a work with a perfect binding, color graphics and high-gloss paper. It more resembles something an elementary school student would piece together, which, of course, is where he was going to school when he organized this little booklet.

Its ratty appearance, though, means nothing. Its contents mean everything.

For inside, written on its now yellowed pages by the hands of an elementary school boy, sits the goals of Tyrod Taylor. These pages offer the first deep insight of a young kid who has now grown up, one who’s quiet, reserved and guarded with his innermost thoughts. That he wrote his goals down, even at such a young age, wedded him in his mind to trying his utmost to accomplish them.

The other kids just wrote down things to finish the assignment. But not Taylor. He took it seriously. If some elementary school teacher was prying his thoughts from him, then he was going to be truthful about it.

His goals: 1. Go to college and get a degree. 2. Play college football. 3. Play in the NFL.

On the surface, they sound like any other kid’s dreams. But the difference is he seriously believed in himself that he could accomplish all of them.

As the fourth quarter of his days at Virginia Tech ticks away, he almost has.

Tyrod Taylor could finish at the top of just about every major statistical category by the time he departs from Virginia Tech after the 2010 season.

On Aug. 3, just three days before the Hokies begin practice for the 2010 season, Tyrod Taylor celebrates his 21st birthday. He lounges with his parents, Rodney and Trina, at their home in Hampton, along with numerous other family members who stop by for a massive late summer cookout.

While Taylor is an only child, he comes from a rather large family. His mother has three sisters and a brother, and his father has two sisters and a brother. That equates to numerous cousins, many of whom not only live in the Hampton area, but also played football on the same rec teams and went to the same schools.

This is home – and where Taylor feels the most comfortable.

“I love the Hampton area,” he said. “I love going back and seeing old friends. A lot of people say that it’s a beach area, but growing up, we never went to the beach. We went to the mall a lot. It’s a nice area to be around.

“I just like going back home. There’s no place like home. All my family’s in that area and I like going back to see them.”

Not long after the grills get fired up and the fat on the meat starts to sizzle, a familiar face stops by to wish him a happy birthday.

Mike Smith, Taylor’s head coach at Hampton High, becomes the center of attention. But that’s not surprising. Smith tends to be that.

The Tech staff and Smith got into a recruiting spat more than 20 years ago that created some angst. But Tech’s coaches respect Smith for his coaching and for his ability to churn out high-quality athletes.

Taylor loves the guy, crediting Smith with helping him become a terrific quarterback at Hampton High.

“He has some of the characteristics of Coach Beamer,” Taylor said in a statement sure to leave Hokie Nation with a bit of incredulity. “He has high-intensity practices, and he’s big on character. If you’re not a good guy or if you’re not doing schoolwork while you’re at Hampton High, then you’re not going to play.

“Everyone likes him, just like with Coach Beamer, especially when you leave and come back.”

Interestingly, Smith got in a spat with UVa’s Al Groh a few years ago, and at about the same time, Tech head coach Frank Beamer hired Curt Newsome, one of Smith’s friends, to his staff. That equated to a smoother-than-expected recruitment of Taylor.

Taylor’s most memorable moment of his recruitment didn’t come on his official visit or on any of his unofficial visits to Blacksburg. It came when Tech’s staff stopped by Hampton High to chat with Todd Nolen, a receiver and a Tech verbal commitment at the time. They also said hello to Taylor, batting their eyes and subtly winking to let him know the pending courtship was serious.

“I remember being in a computer class and this was when I had an afro,” Taylor said. “I had braids that day and I was in the process of taking them out. My mother was going to do it after school.

“When I walked out of the classroom, the coaches were there and they told me they were interested in me and that they had seen my tape. They liked what I had done on the football field.

“But I was standing there with my hair half braided and half unbraided. I was like, ‘Man, this is the wrong impression.’”

Actually, he gave them every right impression. Thanks to impressive parenting by Rodney and Trina Taylor and stern discipline from Smith on the field, Tyrod never got into a peep of trouble. His grades were good and he avoided the Hampton and Newport “Bad” News street scene the way he avoided oncoming rushers.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff, a lot of trouble,” he said. “But that’s just allowed me to learn common sense stuff. You don’t need to be around certain crowds and you learn from people who have been in those situations. We had a receiver who got in some trouble that could have been avoided. You learn from mistakes others have made, both in school and in the city. You learn by example. A lot of things happen that can teach you right from wrong.”

He had goals, anyway. That booklet always reminded him of that.

Like most coaches, Mike O’Cain remembers just about every detail of every game, and he remembers vividly the night of Sept. 8, 2007, when the Hokies prepared to take on LSU in Baton Rouge.

More than 90,000 fans from every city, town, parish and bayou shoe-horned themselves into Tiger Stadium on a sweltering evening, swapping sweat and screaming the lyrics to Garth Brooks’ Callin’ Baton Rouge. This is the LSU version of the national anthem.

The Tigers destroyed Tech early and often. Beamer, O’Cain and the rest of the staff had pondered playing Taylor during their meetings in the preseason. They needed his ‘escapability’ behind the Hokies’ patchwork offensive line, and against LSU, they decided to insert Taylor into the game with 6:39 left in the first half – and just a month removed from his 18th birthday.

All sorts of worries crept into O’Cain’s head. Could Taylor get the snap from center? Could he get the right play called? Could he read the defense? Could he execute?

And what about the atmosphere and those 90,000?

“Those 90,000 – nah, that was never a concern,” O’Cain said, laughing.

“I had reservations because I knew he wasn’t ready to play totally and because I really wanted to redshirt him. But I never had any reservations about him going out and not performing well or being able to handle the pressure. He’s got a confidence in his ability. Part of that is because of his athleticism. He feels like he can beat a guy one-on-one – and he can. So that generates confidence.”

“That first play,” Taylor said, “my hands felt like someone had poured a bucket of water on them.

“After about three plays, I was good. I was a youngster in a hostile environment, but I couldn’t take myself out of the game. That’s why I came here – to play.”

He scored Tech’s lone touchdown on a 1-yard run and he led the Hokies in rushing with 44 yards on nine carries.

He worked in tandem with Sean Glennon for the remainder of the season. Glennon got the starts, but Taylor played extensively. The following season, Tech’s staff planned to redshirt him, but after one game, he supplanted Glennon as the starter and that created what could best be described as a prickly situation.

For that good reason, Taylor tried to shun media members who constantly dogged him about the two-quarterback system. He respected Glennon and considered him – and still does – a friend. So when questioned, he often gave short, guarded responses.

“It was an awkward situation, just with Sean,” Taylor said. “Every interview I did, it seemed like they [reporters] tried to make us out to be like enemies and we weren’t. So that was awkward.

“I think the people who were interviewing me got mad because every answer I gave was short and sweet. Short and to the point. They expect you to talk more than I was talking. They’d ask a question and I might answer with five words. They were looking for me to say more and I didn’t want to say more.”

Taylor never wanted to be the story. But his position, and his status within the team, demanded it, thus forcing a battle within himself. In the end, accepting his position as the face of the program conquered his soft-spoken nature.

He’s opened up the past two seasons and his responses to questions often show the depth of his personality.

“I’ve gotten more comfortable with it,” Taylor said. “I know I have to do interviews even if things are going good or bad. As a quarterback, you’re the face of the program and you’re going to have to do interviews during bad times and good times.”

Michael Vick casts a pretty long shadow in Blacksburg in spite of his travails.

He guided the Hokies to the national championship game and lost just two games in his career. He was the rookie of the year in the Big East and finished third in the Heisman voting as a freshman and sixth as a sophomore. He ended up being the first pick in the 2001 NFL Draft.

Taylor finds himself blanketed by that shadow. Yes, he and Vick possess some similarities. Both hail from the Tidewater area, both are quarterbacks, both are African-American and both are insanely athletic.

But Taylor has not been named to any All-America teams in his career. He owns no MVP trophies and no player of the year awards. In fact, he has never been named to the All-ACC team, not even honorable mention.

Instead, he just wins.

And that’s the ultimate compliment to pay any athlete.

“I try to make my own legacy,” Taylor said. “We [he and Vick] have some things that we do alike, but we’re very different on the football field. I’ve played here more years, and I think I’m a more polished passer. I got asked at [ACC] media day if I would be more comfortable saying he’s a better runner and I’d say that.

“You can compare us, but I try to make my own legacy. I try to be Tyrod Taylor and not Michael Vick – or any other quarterback from the Hampton area.”

Taylor is 23-5 as a starting quarterback at Tech. He needs only to win a few more games to be the school’s all-time winningest signal caller. He’s already the first Tech quarterback to win back-to-back bowl games.

Category No. Rank
Wins by a starting QB 23 2nd
Rushing yards by a QB 1,537 2nd
Rushing TDs by a QB 18 2nd
100-yd rushing games by a QB 4 t-2nd
Passing yards 4,274 8th

He’s won about everything except Dancing with the Stars – and a national championship.

The latter drives him. It consumes him. He rarely goes out, he has no girlfriend and he lives by himself, giving him ample time to digest video both of himself and his opponents or to watch old films of his favorite NFL quarterbacks, like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. On rare occasions, he sneaks out for a bite at Mike’s Grill or wings at Bull & Bones, or he’ll venture to a teammate’s to play some video games.

But his passion is gathering his teammates and working on pass routes to prepare him and the Hokies for that ultimate goal.

“All season round, he wants to work on getting better,” said Rashad Carmichael, one of Taylor’s best friends on the team. “That’s the honest truth. He’ll go and get guys up on a Friday or Saturday morning to go throw the football. I’ll be like, ‘Ty, it’s January!’ But he says there are so many questions about what he can do. He’s one of those guys who tries to get better. He works out, drinks water and plays video games. That’s about it.”

“He has more fun than you might think,” O’Cain said. “He laughs a lot. He takes the game seriously, but he can laugh at himself and you can laugh at him and he’s fine with that.

“He’s very attentive and he understands the game. He wants to be good. Any time you have a young man like that, those are the ones who are fun to coach.”

Fun to Taylor is accomplishing his goals. He’s well on his way to graduating with a degree in residential property management, and, barring injury, he’ll go down as the winningest quarterback in Virginia Tech history. That leaves the NFL, something he’ll pursue this spring.

Right now, though, his breakout season a year ago and a stacked squad ranked in the top 10 in the preseason polls leaves him wanting one more thing.

“There’s nothing like holding that big glass football,” he said, referring to the crystal national championship trophy.

You see, sometimes other goals are just as important – even if you didn’t write them down as a kid.