By Jason Keidel
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If you were raised in New York City in the early 1980s, you recall a sporting mantra in Manhattan and beyond.
Dwight Gooden’s likeness soared from the flanks of skyscrapers for Nike, Darryl Strawberry launched balls from Flushing to Strawberry Fields, and Lawrence Taylor chased quarterbacks with the force of a rhino. Lawrence Taylor is the greatest player I’ve ever seen on a football field.
I didn’t see Jim Brown. So I have LT, the tornadic linebacker for the Giants, who literally changed the way defenses and offenses were designed. Most of us are great at something, but few of us have the will to use it in the face of fear and failure. Taylor was a freak in the Jordan vein, whose hybrid dominance was skill and a will that propelled him to play through ungodly pain, like that Sunday in New Orleans in 1988 when he shredded the Saints with a torn muscle in his shoulder.
RELATED: Taylor: I Didn’t Pick Up Underage Prostitute On ‘Playground’
And when Taylor’s personal tailgate party never ended, but rather intensified, graduating from powder to pipe, we shrugged it off as another star stirring in the cauldron of retirement, the inexorable plight of the savant.
But Taylor stomped the symbolic, spiritual, and legal line when he became sexually intimate with a minor. A girl. This spikes the hairs on any dad’s back and quickens the pulse of people like me who spent my high school Sundays kneeling at the altar of athletes, with No. 56 bulging from my Mt. Rushmore of heroes.
A fan and I had a healthy debate at the bottom of a column I wrote last week about Derek Jeter, where I asserted that there’s only one “LT” and it wasn’t the running back for the Jets. He (JB is the name he used) said he’s sick of the Taylor adulation. He said he can’t praise Taylor the player because of Taylor the person. As the father of two daughters he can’t respect a rapist.
It is a very fair view, but still subjective. Others say that if you or I had done what Taylor did we’d be shipped off to the closest prison on the fastest bus. We don’t really know that, but the misnomer of “blind” justice well chronicled.
And it’s particularly tricky and awkward to assess the icons of your youth. Taylor, Doc, and Darryl were the Holy Trinity of New York sports in the 1980s, stars and athletes nonpareil whose on-field heft somehow surpassed the hyperbole. But the thematic thread running through their lives was a fondness for long nights in nightclubs and on street corners, where the demons congregate. And it haunted all of them, truncating two careers while all three should have ended in the Hall of Fame.
And while most of us are ashamed to claim our portion of Original Sin, Taylor seemed to embrace his with pride, as though the drinking and drugging were natural adjuncts of stardom. Perhaps they are. A hangover at 22 is cute, but sexual misconduct and soliciting a prostitute (for which Taylor was convicted) at middle age is disturbing.
No doubt many of you, as young men, were irked by someone your father’s age who gloated about the “old days,” how men, women, and sports were better way back when, trivializing everything you say simply because you weren’t around to see Joe D, Johnny U, or Jim Brown.
And since the old fogies always framed the dialogue in ways that that excluded us, we swore we’d never be like them. So I’ll be the first to say I’m a hypocrite when I say you had to be alive and lucid at the time to understand how good Lawrence Taylor was, and that no one who has put “linebacker” on his W-2 since Taylor retired is even close. I’m talking Taylor the player, not the person.
But alas, Taylor is a person, and a rather flawed one. Legally, he’s not a rapist, yet he must register as a sex offender, so perhaps such distinctions are academic. And this is where we, now adults, must try to shed the skin of adolescence for a final time, dropping another childhood hero from a roster that is receding like our hairline.
Now all of his deeds under the lights seem to shrink in the shadow of his dark side.
Unlike those autumn Sundays he owned, there’s no more winning for Lawrence Taylor. Likewise, there’s no right or wrong view of the man, just a man falling and failing in a life that has no bottom.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
What’s your take on Taylor the player vs. Taylor the person? Sound off in the comments below…