This is home: Jason Taylor's unlikely path to NFL greatness

This story was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Cigar Snob.

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Jason Taylor’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy career got its start with a chance landscaping encounter. Since then, his work ethic and goal-driven approach have guided him through victory, defeat, and life after football in his adoptive city.

 
 

Every cigar lounge has one at the door. You can’t touch, see, or smell it. But it’s there, covering the threshold so you can’t get inside without passing right through it. It strips away status and squeezes out pretense. Maybe you were someone before you walked in. But that’s who you were.

So when six-time Pro Bowler, two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, 100 Sack Club member, and Pro Football Hall of Fame shoo-in Jason Taylor walked into Smoke on the Water in Weston, Fla., it’s no surprise that the regulars gave more attention to his unusually spiffy attire than his celebrity.

“What the hell are you dressed for?” asked a dude at the bar after swallowing his beer and spotting Jason as he towered over the rest of the smokers in his cream-colored pants and seersucker jacket. It’s more common to see him here in shorts and a t-shirt.

“They’re all different,” said Jason, explaining what it is he likes about hanging out at this bar. “They’re all jerks in their own way.”

He’s not complaining, though. This is part of why he comes here. It’s one of the places he can be one of the guys—where friendship and camaraderie look much as they do in the high school locker rooms Jason almost never experienced.

You’re not playing basketball

Jason says that he was a “very shy, unconfident” kid. Not the type who’d ever rock seersucker jackets. “I’d worry about what people would say,” he explained.

He had the same kinds of pro sports dreams plenty of kids that age have. And, unlike the vast majority of kids, he had the natural athleticism to put those dreams within the realm of possibility. It might come as a surprise, then, that playing high school sports hadn’t even occurred to him until Woodland Hills High School football coach George Novak spotted him doing some landscaping and asked whether he played sports.

“No,” Jason said. “I’m home schooled. I don’t play anything.”

“You should play football,” Novak said.

He might not have known it then, but he was well on his way to picking up some seersucker confidence. Jason had never played football outside of pick-up games in the street. Still, Novak recognized the raw potential in his build and invited him to summer practices. Jason agreed, surprising his mom and others who knew he didn’t quite know the game as well as most tenth-grade football players.

“I was athletic enough, so it fit, but I had never played, so I didn’t really understand the intricacies of football. I was a huge Steeler fan, but never really appreciated it in that kind of way,” said Jason, smiling in a way that suggests he finds the start of his football career as funny, weird, and cool as the rest of us do. “I was the new kid. I was about 165 or 170 pounds and played wide receiver, tight end, and free safety. It was funny because things would happen throughout the course of a game and there were hand signals that I didn’t know, so I would just mill around and watch my teammates. They started walking that way and I was walking with them. It was like herding cattle. I had no idea.”

Though he felt lost on the field at times, Jason was far more familiar with his first love, basketball. The opportunity to play both sports was part of what had been so attractive about Novak’s invitation, and he enjoyed being a two-sport athlete without having to give up home schooling.

He was made a similar offer at the end of his high school career, choosing to head to the University of Akron, in part, for the opportunity to continue playing both football and basketball. This time, however, he was met with something of a bait-and-switch move.

“My passion was still basketball,” Jason said. “So when they said, ‘You can play both and we’ll offer you a scholarship,’ you know... Sold!”

“I could still play my passion, which was basketball... Or so I was told. When I got to Akron, the head coach was like, ‘Yeah right. We got yo ass. You’re not playing basketball.’ So they got me on that one, but I did play one year of college basketball. That was the year he was fired. After he got fired, I joined the basketball team.”

I was athletic enough, so it fit, but I had never played, so I didn’t really understand the intricacies of football.
— Jason Taylor

Jason’s college career might not have panned out the way he envisioned it at the beginning, but he put up solid numbers as a four-year starter at Akron. In a 1996 game against Virginia Tech, he put up 12 tackles, two sacks, two recovered fumbles, three stops for a loss, and a tackle on a punt returner that resulted in a safety (a performance that earned him Defensive Player of the Week honors).

Just as his high school coach and college scouts had taken note of how much his sheer athleticism and work ethic could help their teams, NFL teams caught on to how much they stood to gain by picking up the two-time First Team All-Mid-American Conference selection in the 1997 draft. In the third round, he got a call from Jimmy Johnson that sent him packing for his new home: Miami.

A new home

“I like pretty much every coach I’ve played for. I really do. There was one administrative guy and one coach who probably weren’t my fave five, but everybody brought something different. I came in under Jimmy Johnson, who was...” Jason pauses to think of a diplomatic description. “I can’t call him a dictator, but he was very set-structured and hard-nosed. It was a different league then, too. There weren’t as many rules limiting how much you could practice, how much contact you could have, so we went hard. We went hard a lot. It was one speed with Jimmy. Very tough, but it taught me a lot. To come in as a rookie and have a chance to play with all those guys... It’s the people. I always go back to that. It really turned me into the player that I was.”

Jason names players like Dan Marino, Trace Arm- strong, Tim Bowens, and O.J. McDuffie as having been important to his development into an elite NFL player. His relationship with Zach Thomas, however, might be the one that made the deepest impact on Jason, both professionally and personally.

“Zach and I always had a unique relationship because we were teammates, friends, family,” said Jason, smoking a cigar at the poker table in Smoke on the Water’s members-only lounge as he recalled his longtime teammate and brother-in-law. “I learned a lot from Zach. The way he handled himself, the way he prepared himself, the way he fought what sometimes people thought were big odds because of his size and speed.”

Jason, like any fierce competitor in any sport, sought recognition on the field. He kept flash cards that listed annual goals like “make the Pro Bowl” and “Defensive Player of the Year.”

“At the top of that list was always to win a Super Bowl,” he said. “Unfortunately, I failed at that 15 times. But you set a goal and you go after it. It can even be goals that you set on a daily basis. Today, I want to wash my laundry. Today I want to pay the bills. Incrementally, you have stuff going up with bigger and bigger goals.”

“That’s how I approached my career. It’s having something to shoot for. As an athlete, that’s what you do. You’re trying to win the game. That’s what you do. You’re keeping score. I’ve always kept score with myself.”

If Jason was keeping score, so was Miami. He became not only one of the most feared pass rushers in NFL history (he’s sixth on the all-time sack leader list), but also one of the most beloved Miami Dolphins in the history of the franchise. So it was a pretty big deal when he was traded to the Washington Redskins (whose name might have changed by the time this magazine is shipped). He was injured that season and ended up unable to contribute at his normal level. The following season, he ended up back in Miami and playing for new Head Coach Tony Sparano.

“That was great, coming back home,” he said as Dolphins fans in the room who were listening in on our interview recalled the relief they felt on his homecoming. “I mean, it’s been said long before I was born, there’s no place like home. I love it here. In the good years, early on in my career, and through the bad years, when it wasn’t always fun, it was always great to be here and be embraced by this fan base.”

If his being traded away by Dolphins executives caused a stir, it was an even bigger deal when he signed with the eternal archrival New York Jets, it was a treachery that ranked him somewhere between Judas and Benedict Arnold in the eyes of Miami’s most passionate, jersey-burning fans.

“People hated me for it, called me a traitor. Paul Castronovo (half of The Paul and Young Ron Show’s morning radio duo that’s become a household name in South Florida) burned jerseys and all that crap. But, in the end, it was a business thing,” Jason said. “Strangely enough, we had a good year in 2010. One game from the Super Bowl. It was the closest I ever got to a Super Bowl. My family and I embraced the change, embraced the move. I know Dolphins fans don’t like to hear that, but we enjoyed it. It was a little strange coming to Miami and being in the visitors’ locker room in Miami.”

Throughout the week of that game (and even before), Jason had had to deal with fans’ and the media’s focus on the traitor-comes-back-as-enemy storyline. Not the kind of thing an athlete who prefers to keep this head in the game wants to deal with while he’s preparing.

“The storyline wasn’t fun during the week, but when we kick the ball off, it’s great being booed. And we won. Sorry,” he said, laughing as he shrugged at Dolphins fans in the room. “But they beat us in New York, so they got some get-back.”

Life after football

While Jason set and achieved more (and more lofty) individual goals than most players can hope to, he always talks about those achievements in the context of the people around him who helped him succeed. His aversion to talking about his own success without putting it all in terms of how others contributed makes sense. Considering his reputation as one of the “good guys” of the professional sports world, you anticipate this kind of gracious humility. Too often, good deeds and positive stories are overlooked in favor of scandals and bad behavior. Jason Taylor was one of the few who got explicit recognition for being a model citizen—namely in the form of his 2007 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which came three years after the creation of the Jason Taylor Foundation.

“I was a lucky recipient of a lot of positive attention. There’s a lot of guys in this league who do a lot of great things in their communities on a daily basis. Sure, the media’s going to pick and choose who they highlight. But any time there’s a positive story of somebody who’s impacted the community in a positive way, impacted their teammates in a positive way, done the right thing... Any time a story like that is talked about or written or televised, it’s great for everybody,” he said. “I don’t do it for the recognition. I do it because we enjoy it. We love it. When you see a kid prosper and grow... It’s like a peacock. You see those feathers open up and their chest pumps out a little bit and they get confidence. It’s amazing.”

The Jason Taylor Foundation’s mission is “to support and create programs that facilitate the personal growth and empowerment of South Florida’s children in need.” Aside from creating its own youth programs, the organization helps fund similar charitable endeavors (usually in South Florida). For instance, the foundation opened the Jason Taylor Reading Room in Miramar, Fla., which—among other things—helps kids improve their vocabulary and reading skills. The foundation has also been a supporter of Take Stock in Children, a Florida nonprofit that primarily offers services and scholarships to students.

“You find a problem with kids who fall behind in middle school and don’t have a chance to ever catch up. They get into high school and they’re so far behind, they come from an area where they don’t see a lot of other opportunities. Next thing you know, they drop out. The dropout rate in South Florida is just ridiculous,” said Jason. “So that was kind of our focus; to open the foundation, support others, but then find our niche. We found our niche with the educational piece, with the reading room, with the college scholarships, and now this big poetry program that we have.”

 
 

Of course, Jason is able to pursue these charitable goals he’s set for himself and the Jason Taylor Foundation in large part because his fame puts real weight behind anything he associates with it. In other words, he not only went back to Miami twice as an athlete—he’s stuck around to put his success to work for his adoptive city.

“It’s all a trickle-down effect. Football gave me a platform and an opportunity here in this city, and the city supported me as an athlete for so many years,” said Jason. “So the football relationship opened up the doors for the foundation, and the foundation was able to stand on its own two feet very quickly. I’m known for playing football, but I’m not running the foundation on a daily basis. If it weren’t for the people who work with me and work for me, it wouldn’t work out.”

As valuable as the Jason Taylor brand is to his charity and business ventures, he’s a lot more hands-on than putting his seal of approval on things. The agenda for the week of our interview included speaking engagements, visits to kids at hospitals, a book launch to raise money for a children’s poetry initiative, and a fundraiser at Smoke on the Water. And that’s just the charity-related stuff. Jason Taylor has joined (and learned from) Dan Marino and Alonzo Mourning as one of South Florida’s most notable ex-athlete philanthropists.

“For him to put his name on it, it had to represent what he stood for, so he paid very close attention to everything, down to the logo. Every program is run through him, every event concept, every dollar that we donate, it all passes through him first,” said Jason Taylor Foundation Executive Director Seth Levit, who left a media relations position with the Miami Dolphins—where he got to know Jason—to run the foundation day to day.

“We do an annual celebrity golf classic. It’s the biggest fundraiser we do all year,” he said. “It’s a bear. We bring in a ton of volunteers and we have celebrities who fly in—everybody from Dan Marino and Mario Lemieux to The Jonas Brothers and members of N’Sync. One year, Jason showed up at the office unannounced. Didn’t know that we were stuffing gift bags with swag for the golfers. A couple of our volunteers got wide-eyed and were kind of blown away. Next thing you know, he’s down there sweating and stuffing bags and helping organize them. He jumps in and becomes one of the volunteers, so to speak. If something needs to be done, he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and jump in and do it.”

He takes his role at Smoke on the Water just as seriously. Though he’s an investor who could just as easily let others take care of day-to-day tasks, the regulars—with whom he’s on a first-name ba- sis—know better than to be surprised on nights when he decides to start cleaning windows and sweeping floors.

“He’s way more hands on than just doing the books. He loves to do physical stuff, electrical work, cleaning glass, working on merchandising in the humidor,” said Smoke on the Water owner Dan Husley, adding that Jason’s “OCD” helps make him the ideal person to organize a large humidor. “He’s a physical guy, so sitting behind a register doesn’t work for him. He’s also not afraid of anybody looking at him and saying, ‘What are you doing that for?’”

At the top of that list (of goals) was always to win a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, I failed at that 15 times.
— Jason Taylor

It was through Dan’s previous Weston cigar shop, Alligator Alley Cigars, that he developed a relationship with the football star during his career. Jason didn’t start smoking cigars until after he was drafted by the Dolphins. Eventually, he fell in love with the pastime and started looking for a place to light up— an especially important thing for smokers in South Florida, where it’s uncomfortably hot outside for so much of the year. As Dan tells it, Jason didn’t show up much while he was with the Dolphins, but would head to Dan’s store during his stints with the Redskins and Jets to minimize exposure to Miami’s more die-hard Dolphins fans.

“I found Dan’s old spot on Alligator Alley and thought it was great,” Jason said. “Little living room, some leather chairs. A lot of cigars, not many guys, not many chairs. It just felt like home. He had this idea of doing this bigger, better place with a bar and all that. He was shutting that shop down anyway, so I had to come over here. I figured I might as well invest. The cigar shop became a hobby that, in turn, supports the foundation and a lot of charities around the city. Dan does a great job of always being welcoming to charities and hosting events. We’re hosting an event here in about an hour for the foundation tonight, so, you know, one scratches the other’s back.”

Smoke on the Water is tailor-made for event hosting, but it’s an incredible hangout on any day of the week. There are plenty of bars with humidors. And there are plenty of cigar shops with alcohol. This is one of those places, though, that does both things exceptionally well. Walk in through the front door and turn to your left, and you’ve got a well-stocked bar with a fantastic view. Look to your right, and you’ve got one of South Florida’s best stocked humidors, with cigars on every inch of its walls, from the floor to the high ceilings.

While Smoke on the Water was an upgrade in Jason’s smoking home away from home, it still has the familiar, unpretentious feel that he remembered liking about Dan’s old spot. “(The people here) come from different walks of life, different nationalities, different backgrounds, and they all come together to enjoy a similar hobby in smoking. We’re not a big technical club where guys sit and talk about cigars in a technical way, you know? It’s a lot of TV watching, talking sports, talking business, talking politics—even though it drives me nuts when they do. It’s a lot more than just ‘cigar geeks,’” he said.

While life after football has afforded Jason the opportunity to spend more of his time giving back to his community and hanging out as a regular Joe (or something like that) at the cigar bar he’s invested in, it’s also presented new challenges that he didn’t have to deal with as a pro athlete.

“When I played football, I was always away for most of the day, but I came home at night. I slept in my own bed for six nights out of the week. We’d travel for one night the night before the game and then you’re back home,” he said. “So probably the biggest transition from football was traveling. I did ESPN for a while. I’m getting ready to take another gig out of New York. So that’s probably been the biggest thing—being away from my kids more than I used to be.”

Be it smoking on the water, fishing with his kids, or giving back to the community that embraced him on his road to NFL stardom, Jason Taylor is always finding ways to deepen his connection to Miami and the surrounding areas, where he’s put down roots stronger than lots of natives’.

“This is home. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but this is home,” he said.

While he’s no longer suiting up to knock the fear of God into opposing quarterbacks, he’s still taking the same goal-driven approach to his new life that he did to being an NFL superstar. So what are those goals?

“That’s one thing I don’t do. I don’t share my goals. When I was a player, I always thought the same way. No one’s ever going to set a goal loftier than what I set for myself,” he said. “I was disappointed after very successful games, because it’s always the play you didn’t make or the thing you didn’t do right. As long as you stay hungry, like every day is your first day, I think you can always succeed and achieve and continue to grow.”