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November 16, 2012

Tackling Adversity

By: Jimmy Robertson

Bruce TaylorBruce Taylor hasn’t let past obstacles get in his way of being a great player for Tech and well respected in the community for his efforts with Special Olympics

It practically takes more than an atlas to find the town of Riceboro, Ga., a mere speck on Rand McNally’s map of America. Even Google, with its answers for everything, churns a little uncertainly after one types the town’s name into its search engine.

But this place exists, a tiny dot of a town in Georgia’s coastal plain, with the massive Atlantic Ocean just to the east. The stately Southern city of Savannah sits off to the northeast, practically a half-day’s carriage ride, if you will, up what most know as Interstate 95.

Riceboro has exactly 736 residents, according to the 2000 census. It’s also the home of two stoplights, a post office, a paper mill and the modest beginnings of one Bruce Taylor, a three-year starter for the Virginia Tech football squad.

As a kid, Taylor’s only football exploits consisted of those earned in his mother’s backyard against his two older brothers. He lived his dreams there, catching the game-winning touchdown pass or making the game-saving interception, and after the game, he was hauled off the field by his teammates. He was all-state, All-American and All-Pro, just like every other young boy that age.

He never played organized football as a kid. Riceboro could barely field one team, much less multiple squads for competition. Taylor’s first crack at organized football came only after his mother made a life-altering decision to move the family to the Grand Strand – Myrtle Beach, S.C., vacation hotspot of the Mid-Atlantic.

He was 11 years old at the time.

“We were out in the country, and football wasn’t as available as far as teams where I lived in Georgia,” Taylor said. “I didn’t start playing on a team until sixth grade when I moved to South Carolina. I played middle school ball. That’s when I really first started.”

He said that 10 years later, now a 22-year-old young man, a college graduate, a civil servant best known for working with the Special Olympics and a fine football player wrapping up a terrific college career. He now sits on the cusp of being an NFL player, living that dream he dreamed many times while playing on that patch of grass in South Georgia.

Given all that’s happened to him, whatever may happen in the next phase of his life is really something hard to imagine.

Taylor returned to Riceboro in September of this year to attend his grandmother’s funeral, and waves of memories bounced through his head. After all, he started his life in this humble town, and it was where his mother, Marcia Walker, raised him and his brothers. She worked in a food court at a nearby hospital to make ends meet, and for that, she holds a special place in Taylor’s heart.

His father, Bruce Taylor Sr., wasn’t around, at least not for the first five years of Taylor’s life. He was in prison, and while the younger Taylor didn’t want to get into the specifics of what landed his father there, suffice it to say, his father was another of life’s victims of drug abuse and ill-fated decisions.

“My dad had a lot of issues with drugs and different things,” Taylor said. “He’s from West Baltimore, and that’s an area where, if you’re not doing the right thing, it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong thing. That’s something he regrets. He was a good student and a good athlete, but he got caught up with the wrong crowd, and that followed him into his adult life. He made some bad decisions.”

His father’s absence thus left Taylor’s mom in charge, and often, too, his grandmother. The boys, for the most part, stayed out of trouble, turning away from the problems that vexed their father and later landed him in a difficult predicament.

In a way, the timing of the incarceration of Bruce Taylor Sr., turned out to be a blessing. He went to prison not long after Taylor’s birth, so Taylor accepted his life as it was. He knew nothing else.

“It wasn’t tough for me,” he said. “It’s tougher for those kids who went from having a father figure around to then having him removed from the household.

“But in my case, as far as I could remember, it was just my mom and my brothers. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know what it was like to have a father figure there. I just knew my mom, and she did a great job of raising me and providing me with everything that I needed.”

Bruce Taylor Sr., was released from prison when Taylor turned 6. Today, he lives outside of Atlanta.

Walker, Taylor’s mom, took care of things. She remarried – she had divorced Taylor’s father – and then decided to move the family from South Georgia to tourist-haven Myrtle Beach after a job promotion called for relocation.

Taylor remembers the call he got from his mother telling him of the pending move. At home alone at the time, he took the decision hard. An 11-year-old, he already had his set of friends, and he wanted no part of finding new chums in a different world.

“It was tough because, at that age, I was heading into the sixth grade and had found my little group of friends that I would have been friends with through high school,” Taylor said. “I was so excited to play middle school ball, so it was crushing.

“It was tough, especially with all my family and friends being down there and moving to a place that I’d only been to once on vacation.”

Taylor, though, easily made new friends. Part of that stems from an engaging personality, but his success on the gridiron also helped immensely. After all, teenagers want to be associated with the football star.

And he became a star. He recorded 150 tackles in each of his three seasons as the starter at linebacker for Myrtle Beach High, and college recruiters took notice. He took visits to the home state schools, but Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles actually gave him a scholarship offer first. That made an impression, one that ultimately helped him in his decision to come to Blacksburg.

“I took visits to South Carolina and Clemson and wasn’t crazy about either one of them,” Taylor said. “Virginia Tech was going to be here, as far as the coaching staff and how they did things. If you look at South Carolina or Clemson in 2008, none of those staffs are still intact. At Virginia Tech, it’s been the same staff for the past 25 years or however long Coach [Frank] Beamer has been here.

“The defense had a big part in my decision as well. I wanted to go to a school that was known for defense, and I met Coach [Bud] Foster [Tech’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach]. I had been watching Virginia Tech for a number of years and knew how they played defense. That was something that intrigued me. I came up here on my visit, I liked what I saw, and the rest is history.”

Or maybe it was just the beginning.

Taylor’s career at Virginia Tech has resembled his high school career – steady ascension into a standout. He redshirted his first season, and while Tech’s staff worked him some at defensive end, the coaches ended up moving him back to mike linebacker, a position of leadership and one right in the middle of all the action.

He played sparingly as a redshirt freshman, but enjoyed a breakout campaign as a redshirt sophomore, starting every game and developing into a tackling machine. He led the team with 91 tackles, including a team-high 15.5 for a loss.

Despite coming off shoulder surgery in the spring, he was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s best linebackers last season. In the first eight games, he recorded 53 tackles, including seven for a loss, and five sacks.

But in the Hokies’ 30-14 win over BC, Taylor injured his foot. A subsequent MRI revealed a dreaded Lisfranc sprain – a profanity-sparking injury in the sports medicine world. Surgery followed, costing Taylor his season.

He did enough on the field to earn honorable mention All-ACC honors. But the injury left him depressed, even though his teammates advanced to the ACC title game and earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

“It was very difficult,” Taylor said. “It was a time when I kind of got away from the team a little bit. I didn’t feel as close to the team as I once did. Your eyes open to certain things when you go from playing to being hurt. It was definitely a tough time for me. When I got back in the spring, I didn’t realize how much I had missed it. Just being around the guys was a great feeling.”

An injury to fellow linebacker and good friend Tariq Edwards led to a position change for Taylor this past August. Foster slid him over to the backer spot – his third position at Tech – and moved Jack Tyler into the starting role at mike linebacker. Taylor had played backer once before, getting the start in the Orange Bowl game against Stanford after Lyndell Gibson went down with an injury. The results, though, were mixed, as he recorded seven tackles on a day when the defense gave up 40 points.

This season, he ranks third on the team in tackles as of press time. But that matters little to him. He’d swap tackles for victories any day, the Hokies’ five losses are already more than they’ve had in any season since he arrived.

“I take a lot of responsibility,” Taylor said. “I don’t know if that’s fair or not when we do good or when we do badly. Just dealing with the early disappointments that we’ve had early in the season, and then not even showing up against North Carolina on the defensive side, it’s tough when you have to come back in on Monday and look at all the faces and try to keep their spirits lifted after some tough losses when people may be pointing fingers.

“I’ve tried to control some of that stuff and not let it happen. It’s been strenuous and taken a lot out of me. But it’s been fun. It’s something that can better me as a person, as a leader, and as a team leader.”

As the season winds down, he hopes to remember it for one last hurrah – a bowl victory – and not as being part of the first Tech team in 19 seasons not to play in college football’s postseason.

Taylor doesn’t have concrete plans for his future. Much like he does on the football field, he’ll tackle that when the time comes. Like every college football player in America, he expresses a desire to play in the NFL, but he’ll have other options.

He graduated last May with a degree in human development. As part of fulfilling his degree requirements, he performed an internship with the local Special Olympics organization here in the New River Valley and developed affection for the young men and women with intellectual disabilities who compete in a variety of sports. Working with that wonderful organization intrigues him.

“I’ve had friends who have worked with Special Olympics throughout the years, and I had gone with them to certain events and met a bunch of good people, so I knew that it would be something that I would enjoy,” he said. “It’s sports, and it’s a bunch of good people who play sports for the right reasons.

“I saw an opportunity for me to grow as a person, just being around people who might not be as blessed as me. They may have a disability, but they have that joy and passion about certain things. It was a learning experience doing that, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

He also tossed out the idea of getting into coaching. Given his knowledge and instincts for the game, he’d probably be a good one.

For sure, he won’t follow in the footsteps of his father, who taught Taylor a good lesson at a young age, though indirectly, and the two maintain a good relationship today. Taylor respects the way his father turned his life around.

“Me and my dad are real close, not so much father-son, but more like being buddies,” Taylor said. “We talk about football and girls and life and family. He wasn’t around when I was younger, but once he got out, he changed his life around.”

Taylor himself has changed, more mature and more confident. His character, after all, was framed in a small town in Southern Georgia and continually honed through experiences in Myrtle Beach and in Blacksburg.

Given that, truthfully, not many would have guessed he’d go on to such bigger things.


It’s Friday night in the offseason, what are you doing?

BT: I’m probably with some of my teammates or some of my friends. We’re probably heading to downtown Blacksburg and finding some place to hang out. I don’t go out much during the season. I only go out if we win – I haven’t gone out much this year. I make time for my social life, but only in the right situation.

If you could trade places with someone for a day, who would it be?

BT: I’d say the President. There are a lot of things out there in the world that don’t quite make sense, and I feel like the leaders in the government know why things are the way they are. So I would take a day and snoop around everything and learn everything, like, is global warming real? Do UFO’s exist? All that high security clearance stuff that the President knows … I wouldn’t mind having that information.

Facebook or Twitter?

BT: I have both. I’ve been more on Twitter lately just because that’s the popular thing right now. It’s funny because Twitter is the fastest news source in the world right now. If you want to know what’s going on, chances are you can get on Twitter and go through your news feed and figure it out. I’ve found out that certain guys on our team aren’t traveling [for games] and certain guys are hurt. Different things that you feel like you’d find out from the team, it’s on Twitter before anyone else knows.

What are you reading these days?

BT: I’m not a big reader. I’ve got this app on my phone called ‘StumbleUpon,’ and it has interesting things on there. I pick up the paper every now and then. I don’t get it delivered to my house, but I’ll pick it up and flip through the pages. But no novels or anything like that. I’d rather read the news. You got to stay up on what’s going on in the world.

Who’s your favorite football player?

BT: Ray Lewis [of the Baltimore Ravens]. I was sad to see him get hurt. I love his passion for the game and his leadership qualities. He’s a player I wish I could be more like, model myself after.

Ten years from now, what will you be doing?

BT: Hopefully, living in a big house on a lake somewhere either getting ready for a season or enjoying my family with whatever I might be doing – which is a good question. I’d like to have a decent-sized family and a decent-sized bank account. I’d like to be comfortable and have my family in a comfortable place.”