One of the first things you notice about Jimmy Taylor are his hands.
A lot of former football players’ hands are gnarled by the game and by time, not in much better shape than their hips or their knees. But apparently Taylor has made some special pact with Father Time.
For the most part, bodily aches and pains don’t trouble him, even now just three weeks shy of his 81st birthday. The hands Vince Lombardi trusted over and over again to protect the football and help forge the Green Bay Packers’ dynasty of the 1960s look like they could still do the job if the Packers of today needed him on a tough third-and-goal.
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He battles some hereditary heart trouble, and his heart can be left heavy by what the years have done to many of his great Packers teammates. Some like Ray Nitschke, Jim Ringo and Henry Jordan, all Pro Football Hall of Famers like Taylor, are dead. Others are ravaged by dementia.
“They’re fading out,” Taylor says with a sweep of one of those famous hands. “It is what it is. They see you, but they can’t talk.”
Green Bay quarterback and later coach Bart Starr, now 82, who took hundreds of snaps and turned to put the ball into Taylor’s dependable hands over and over again, is about to head to Mexico for an experimental stem cell treatment. That will hopefully allow Starr to return to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field this season after a similar treatment allowed him to attend the retirement ceremony of Brett Favre’s No. 4 last November.
The Packers never got around to retiring Taylor’s No. 31. It’s a small slight among his many honors. But he was the first of Lombardi’s Packers players to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, back in 1976. LSU has two other former players in the hall — the late Steve Van Buren, inducted in 1965 and Y.A. Tittle, who went in back in 1971 — but none since Taylor.
Saturday, Taylor’s collegiate career will mingle with his professional past. He will serve as LSU’s honorary captain when the No. 5-ranked Tigers play Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.
Taylor will be on the field, somewhere beneath his name in Packers gold. Some teams like the Saints (Taylor’s last NFL season was New Orleans’ first in 1967) have a ring of honor. To get your name on the facade at Lambeau you have to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
It’s a high threshold, but Taylor clearly makes the mark.
He was an All-American fullback at LSU, sharing the backfield his senior season in 1957 with a sophomore named Billy Cannon. It was a mixed marriage — Cannon was an Istrouma grad, Taylor went to Baton Rouge High — but arguably they were the greatest tandem ever to line up together behind quarterback for the Tigers.
To this day, Cannon, LSU’s only Heisman Trophy winner in 1959 and Taylor’s close friend, remains the player by which all other LSU football players are judged. But in 1957 it was Taylor who was the All-American, a year after he ran and kicked his way to the Southeastern Conference scoring title with 59 points (he also played middle linebacker as the best college players then had to play offense and defense).
In 1958, the Packers drafted Taylor in the second round. Green Bay went 1-10-1 that year while Cannon led LSU to the national championship.
“Shows how much they missed me,” Taylor said with a grin.
His titles would come soon enough. Taylor played with the Packers through 1966, winning four NFL championships and the first Super Bowl against the old AFL. In Super Bowl I, former Tulane receiver Max McGee scored the first touchdown on a 37-yard pass from Starr, but it was Taylor who scored the first rushing touchdown.
“Fourteen yards,” he recalled.
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Taylor was tough and durable, Lombardi football personified. With his crew cut, square jaw and rugged 6-foot, 215-pound frame, Taylor missed just five of a possible 134 regular-season games in his 10-year career. Taylor had five straight 1,000-yard seasons from 1960-64, his best coming in 1962, one of the years the Packers brought the NFL championship home to their little hometown that became known as Titletown, USA. That season, Taylor rushed for an NFL-leading 1,474 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The fullback is a seldom-used position in the pro game today. To Packers team historian Cliff Christl, that dims Taylor’s greatness in the eyes of the modern fan. Taylor was a vital cog in the Packers’ smashmouth attack, sharing offensive duties with Starr and halfback Paul Hornung, the 1956 Heisman winner out of Notre Dame.
“He was their featured ball carrier,” Christl said of Taylor. “The game was different. Paul Hornung was the ball carrier on the power sweep and a threat on the halfback option pass, which was a huge part of Lombardi’s offense.
“But (Taylor) was as important, if not more so. The Packers had a great 1-2 punch and Taylor got the majority of the carries.”
If Taylor outshined Cannon the year they played together for LSU, it was a trait he would carry over to the NFL.
“Every time they played the Cleveland Browns, Taylor outrushed Jim Brown,” Christl said. “That was one of the reasons the Packers beat them in so many big games. I wouldn’t say Taylor was better than Jim Brown, but he beat him head to head. That’s the type of player he was. It was a motivating factor for him.”
Taylor’s motivation started young, perhaps with the death of his father at age 10. His mother was left to raise Jimmy and his two brothers, one older and one younger.
“My brothers were not athletic,” Taylor said, though successful in business. “I was the only dumb jock. The good Lord put me here to run the ball and shoot the ball.
“I trained hard. I loved what I did. I pushed the envelope.”
Basketball was Taylor’s first love, but football remains his driving passion.
He still keeps a busy schedule. Last year, he and Helen and 18 other Hall of Famers accompanied New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on a trip to Israel. In January, Taylor was honored at Super Bowl 50 in the San Francisco Bay area. The Taylors just returned from Canton, where he was recognized for the 40th anniversary of his Hall of Fame induction.
And now, this week, back to Green Bay, where the Tiger from Titletown will lead his old team once again.
“It’ll bring some Louisiana people up to see Lambeau Field,” Taylor said, a note of pride in his voice.
Thousands of Louisiana people, in fact. Thousands who will appreciate first hand, and perhaps for the first time, the greatness of Jimmy Taylor’s football career.
THE JIMMY TAYLOR FILE
• Born Sept. 20, 1935 in Baton Rouge
• Attended Baton Rouge High School
• Lettered at LSU, 1956-57
• First-team All-American, first-team All-SEC, 1957
• Led SEC in scoring (59 points) in 1956
• Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in second round in 1958
• Played for Green Bay 1958-66; New Orleans Saints 1967
• Had 1,941 carries for 8,597 yards and 83 TDs in NFL career
• 1962 NFL MVP, leading the league with 1,474 yards, 19 TDs rushing
• Scored the first rushing touchdown in Super Bowl history (Super Bowl I vs. Kansas City, 1967)
• Inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, 1975
• Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1976