Look at the man with the wide grin and the happy-go-lucky demeanor. He wears his years well, and walks with the gait of a man following his life’s purpose. He’s called “Dr”. He works with young people, and helps them adjust to what lies ahead.
No one would ever know that this respectable, honored man was a homeless addict just 10 years ago.
|No one would ever know that this homeless, hopeless man was a three time All-American at the University of Michigan
Now, go back 10 years. Look at the man at the intersection of two of Detroit’s meanest streets. He has a look of desperation. For years, he has fought his inner demons, and for years he has come out on the short end. His clothes are ragged. His pockets are empty. His face is drawn.
No one would ever know that this homeless, hopeless man was a three time All-American at the University of Michigan – that he held Michigan’s all-time rushing record – that he was part of what has been called the greatest victory in Michigan football history, the defeat of previously unbeaten and #1 ranked Ohio State by the score of 24-12 in 1969.
His name is Billy Taylor. Dr. Billy Taylor. The great University of Michigan tailback. The haunted, homeless man on the streets. The man who now works with young student-athletes in a process he calls “transitional dynamics.”
It is a riches to rages to riches story. It is a story of jumping out in front in the first quarter, only to fall impossibly behind in the middle of the game, and then pulling out the victory with a dramatic flourish at the end.
It is the Billy Taylor story.
Billy Taylor spilled across the national scene when he was part of the largest African-American contingent recruited to play at the University of Michigan up to that time. Taylor and his fellow recruits formed a group they called the Mellow Men of Michigan. They were intent on making an impact and winning football games.
|“It was every kid’s dream,” says Taylor, remembering what it was like to score the winning touchdown
During his three-year varsity career at Michigan (Taylor’s freshman year was the last year of Freshman Football), Taylor’s Wolverines lost only three games – two his sophomore year (’69), one his junior year and none his senior year. Taylor was an All-American each of those years, and eclipsed the rushing record previously held by Ron Johnson.
Taylor’s collegiate career was capped in the last two minutes of the Michigan-Ohio State game his senior year. Michigan was trailing, 7-3, when Bo Schembechler, Michigan’s coach, called Billy Taylor’s number. Taylor skirted around the end and into the end zone, and Michigan had won another game in what ESPN calls “the greatest rivalry in sports.” “It was every kid’s dream,” says Taylor, remembering what it was like to score the winning touchdown.
Soon, the dream would be nothing more than a wispy memory, as the Billy Taylor story, with its seemingly successful opening chapters, would take an excruciating twist.
On January 4, 1972, just a few days after Taylor’s final game as a Wolverine, his mother died. “After my mother died I didn’t want to play anymore” says Taylor. But he did. He played in a post-season game at Bo Schembechler’s encouragement. O.J. Simpson, who was broadcasting the game, told Taylor to call home. There was some sort of emergency. When Taylor called home he discovered the breadth of the emergency. His uncle - his mother’s brother - had killed his aunt and then himself. Taylor was devastated - “ripped apart” in his own words.
But more was to come. Late that same summer, his girlfriend, Valerie, was stabbed to death outside a roller rink in Detroit.
|They were the dark years, and there were 25 of them
One year. Four deaths. His mother, his uncle, his aunt, his girlfriend.
And on the football field, where Billy Taylor had always experienced such success, things did not fare much better.
Drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, Taylor had a miserable training camp. He was playing with a bum knee, and in a situation totally unlike what he had experienced at Michigan. With all that was happening in his life, Taylor was not prepared for the environment he found with the Falcons in the south. “I was mortified”, he said. “Norm Van Brocklin (the Falcon’s coach) called all the black players ‘boy’. I simply wasn’t prepared for that.”
Taylor was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) during training camp, was put on injured reserve, and finally cut. After a couple seasons with the Calgary Stampede in the CFL, and a training camp with the Eagles, where he injured his knee again, Taylor’s football career was over.
But his misery was far from over, as his life continued its downward whorl.
|“The voice said, ‘William Taylor, come forth.’ I heard it as clear as we’re talking now”
“I self-medicated”, says Taylor succinctly. They were the dark years, and there were 25 of them. While Taylor had managed to get his Masters in Education, get married and have three children, and while he had occasional jobs when he was off the streets, his life was lost in an abysmal spiral of depression, culminating in divorce from his wife, isolation from his children, and life as a street person.
Billy Taylor, #42 of the Michigan Wolverines, was homeless. And hopeless. An ex-convict who spent 21/2 years in a federal penitentiary for having knowledge of a bank robbery. An addict on the streets of Detroit. He cut himself off from everyone, especially those who could have helped him. He lived on handouts and token jobs. He hid in alleys and slept where he could.
And then it happened – his miracle – the day his story began to move in positive ways. His voice crackles as he relates the events.
“It was August 17, 1997. It was 5 am. I was sitting in front of an abandoned apartment building at the corner of Lakewood and Jefferson. I was drinking Vodka and Black Label beer.
“I heard a voice. The voice said, ‘William Taylor, come forth.’ I heard it as clear as we’re talking now.
“It scared me to death. I jumped straight up in the air. I started cursing and looking for the person who had scared the daylights out of me.
|He has much to tell them, and they are willing to listen. After all, he’s been where they are.
“I searched the building. I had checked my perimeter before bedding down. On the streets you learn to do that as a matter of survival.
“I heard those words clearly. By the time I got to the front of the building, I knew those words had not come from any human being.
“It was God.
“I don’t want to offend anyone, but that’s my testimony.”
As Billy Taylor says, the proof is in the pudding. He was a 25 year alcoholic. And on August 17, 1997, the liquor bottle fell out of his hand and he never picked it up again. As he is quick to say, “since 1997, I’ve had no drink, no drugs, no cigarettes.”
That encounter with God on the corner of Lakewood and Jefferson was simply the beginning of the later chapters of the Billy Taylor story – chapters which are actually becoming the best in his entire story.
Through a whole series of events that started that same August day in 1997, Billy Taylor, formerly #42 of the Wolverines, formerly a homeless addict on the streets, became Dr. Billy Taylor, earning his Doctor of Educational Leadership degree from the University of Nevada – Las Vegas.
|For mor information about Billy Taylor, or to order his book "Get Back Up" visit www.bt42.com
Dr. Taylor, who had always found inspiration in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began living out his life’s purpose. He is a mentor for kids, helping young men and women make the right choices in life. His focus is helping young student-athletes make the transition from high school to college and from college to the pros.
He has much to tell them, and they are willing to listen. After all, he’s been where they are. And he made the wrong choices. His passion is to make sure they don’t.
He calls it transitional dynamics. It’s the process of moving from one level to another and being committed to doing the kind of things, both on the field and off, that will result in success. He has worked with colleges and Athletic Directors, functioning almost as a life-coach for student athletes, utilizing the BTI Initiatives.
And now he’s an author. A new book, entitled “Get Back Up” has hit the markets. And it promises to be every bit as successful as its author.
It’s quite a story – the Billy Taylor story. From dashing football hero to homeless addict to author.
His story poses an interesting question. There are countless homeless addicts living on street corners the world over. Most of them die on the streets. Some make it back. Few have ever had the experience of Billy Taylor.
So why Billy? Why was he singled out for this miracle? Ask him, and his answer is quick, indicating it’s a question he’s pondered himself. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s really a mystery. I wake up every day and say, ‘Thanks, Lord’ for another day.
“I don’t know the mind of God. All I know is I have been blessed.”
And how will this story end? Just the way it began – with hope and promise and success.