ENGSTER: Jimmy Taylor was one tough Tiger

This writer was born in the year that Jimmy Taylor was a rookie fullback with the Green Bay Packers. In nine seasons with the Packers, the kid from Baton Rouge was the tenacious poster boy on four NFL title teams and was the only man of his era not named Jim Brown to lead the league in rushing yardage.

In the era of three television networks and no cable offerings, the voice of CBS announcer Ray Scott is indelibly remembered for enhancing the legend of the 1960s Green Bay Packers and making Taylor a household name in America.

By the time he retired in 1967 after pacing the New Orleans Saints in yards rushing in their inaugural season, Taylor was the second leading rusher in the history of the game. He was the churning no frills fullback while teammate Paul Hornung gained about half as many yards as his cohort but received twice the publicity because of his Notre Dame and Heisman Trophy pedigree and oversized personality.

For Taylor, the accolades and awards that were accumulated in a life of 83 years would fill a year’s worth of columns, but the man was an extraordinary specimen of strength and resilience.

When I first entered weight room at the Spectrum on Perkins Road in 1993, Taylor was one of the fittest 58-year-old men on the planet. When he died last Saturday a few blocks from the gym where his presence was palpable, it was at a time of the morning when Taylor would have been pumping weights at 83.

Taylor was a regular participant on Saturday mornings, often outperforming men one-third his age. He would work out while his wife, Helen, would hold court commenting about the fascinating life she led with the Pro Football Hall of Famer. When the Green Bay Packers honored the champions of the first Super Bowl two years ago, Taylor took pride in being the lone member of the team to run to the middle of Lambeau Field. The others walked or were wheeled to the site of the memorable frozen tundra.

Taylor battled back from a nearly fatal stroke a decade ago and resumed the frenetic pace he craved. As a kid, he woke before dawn to throw two paper routes to help pay bills for his mother, who was widowed when Jim was ten. After retiring at age 32, he remained in spectacular physical condition and for years in Metairie, his neighbor and exercise buddy was Pete Maravich.

During his playing days, Taylor was recognized as the most ferocious ball carrier in the league even though he was listed at 6-feet, 214 pounds. Fellow LSU star Wendell Harris, who played many seasons in the NFL, would spend the offseason running up and down the stairs at Tiger Stadium. Once he saw Taylor ramming his backside into the stadium wall and asked him what in the world he was doing. Taylor smiled and told Harris, “It’s good to know I’ve got the toughest ass in the business.”

As an octogenarian, Taylor did not carry the excess baggage around his midsection that many current players do as they suit up on Saturdays and Sundays at the highest levels of the game. Leaving the shower a few months ago with a towel draped around his waist and water droplets cascading down his still muscular torso, Taylor was in a mood to reflect back 61 years to his last game at LSU. The passion was so vivid and the recollection so keen that it is hard to believe Taylor was soon to leave us.

With Paul Dietzel’s job on the line as coach (his three-year record at the time was 10-17-2), Taylor scored every point as LSU beat Tulane 25-6 to close the 1957 season. The Tigers’ backfield featured Taylor and sophomore Billy Cannon with No. 42 the featured attraction, leading the nation in scoring with 86 points and earning first-team All American honors. Dietzel stated that “Jim Taylor is the best football player in America.”

Taylor was the preliminary act to Cannon’s superhuman seasons of 1958 and 1959 and still ranks as the most prolific professional runner ever produced by the Ole War Skule. The honor roll includes Taylor, Cannon, Charles Alexander, Dalton Hilliard, Kevin Faulk, Jeremy Hill and Leonard Fournette.

It was Tall Paul’s former staff mate at Army, Vince Lombardi, who inherited a hidden gem at Green Bay in 1959. Taylor started seven of 12 games in Lombardi’s first season with the Packers, then started every game the remainder of his career. In 1960, he gained 1101 years in a 12-game regular season, followed by 1307 yards in 1961 and 1474 in 1962.

The Packers went 8-4 in 1960 and fell a few yards short of beating the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFL Championship as Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles stopped Taylor just shy of the goal line as time expired.

There is an iconic photograph of Hall of Fame linebacker Bednarik walking off the turf at Franklin Field with Green Bay’s two Hall of Fame running backs, Taylor and Paul Hornung on each side. In those days, players competed bitterly, then shook hands and departed the arena together.

Taylor is possibly the most decorated athlete in LSU history. As a prep star at Baton Rouge High School, he received first-team national honors in both football and basketball. Taylor not only counted Maravich as a friend, he was also close to Bob Pettit, who was a few years ahead of him at BRHS.

Taylor impressed friend and foe with his competitive zeal. In his early days at the gym after his stroke, Taylor struggled. I watched him leave without comment when he failed to bench press 135 pounds after his brush with death. Six months later, he was lifting the same weight several times.

Taylor’s relationship with Lombardi was not all roses as the men ended a beautiful partnership when Jim returned to Louisiana to play for the Saints. It was a personal loss for the coach because Taylor epitomized the work ethic demanded by Lombardi. It’s been 48 years since Taylor’s great coach died at 57 with colon cancer. It is comforting to envision Jimmy and Vince on the other side ruminating about two lives committed to the pursuit of excellence.

My friend Darin Mann provided me a photo in April of this year of Y.A. Tittle, Jimmy Taylor, Tommy Casanova, Billy Cannon and Jerry Stovall united on the floor of Death Valley. Three of the five Tiger greats are gone. Tittle died last October and Taylor died 146 days after Cannon.

Tittle, Cannon and Taylor have permanently left the building they cherished more and more as they inched closer to the finish line. Taylor saw Tiger Stadium grow from a capacity of 12,000 when he was born on Sept. 20, 1935 near the spot at Our Lady of Lake Hospital where Huey Long died ten days earlier.

The life of James Charles Taylor ended on Oct. 13, 2018 at the new Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, and there will always be places where his image endures. One of those is the weight room at a local gym where Taylor stoically set an example for two generations of younger men, many unaware they were in the presence of a Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL Most Valuable Player.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for a terrific article. I remember watching Taylor in ’67 as a Saint in Tulane Stadium, as you mention. He will be missed.

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