Sal Paolantonio once called Lionel Taylor one of football’s all-time “most-underrated” receivers.
George “Papa Bear” Halas called Taylor “My boy.”
Today, lean and 83 years of age, the once-gifted AFL receiver still has a good memory – and a good sense of humor. Heck, he calls himself, “the original LT.” (Sorry, Lawrence Taylor and LaDanian Tomlinson.)
It’s been 50 years since he last caught a pass in a pro football game.
Back in 1960, the Denver Broncos, who won the first-ever AFL game played, and Taylor were a good match. Taylor had 12 touchdowns in his first season with the blue and orange and hauled in 92 passes. The following year he became the first pro receiver to accomplish the feat of catching 100 passes in a season. In the next four seasons he caught at least 76 passes and, after a 35-catch campaign in 1966, the year the AFL and NFL merged, spent the final two seasons of his career in Houston.
For his career, Taylor caught 567 passes, good for 7,195 yards and 45 TDs. He also scored four times on rushing plays. He was the league’s leading receiver his first six years in the league and was the first receiver in the old AFL with 500 catches, thanks to the arm of QB Frank Tripucka.
Taylor was the Broncos’ team MVP from 1963-65 and an AFL all-star in 1961, ’62 and ’65. He is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame.
A recent search on eBay revealed 255 Taylor items, including a 1970 payroll check to him, in the amount of $607.35, signed by Steelers owner Art Rooney. Taylor chuckled when he heard that, but he knows people haven’t forgotten him – he still gets mail from collectors, seeking his autograph. Some even send him money, but he always sends that back.
But how did he wind up in Rio Rancho*, New Mexico, which proudly calls 2018 NFL Hall of Fame inductee Brian Urlacher one of its own?
Taylor came to the Land of Enchantment to play collegiately at New Mexico Highlands University. (Part of the answer to why he wound up in Rio Rancho, N.M., is because he married a Cochiti Pueblo woman, and as the couple aged, needed medical care that was closer to their home.)
“I was going to school in West Virginia; I transferred out here (and played three seasons),” Taylor explained. “I got news for you; I got off the bus about 2 a.m. in Raton and said, ‘Where’s John Wayne? ‘Cuz I know he’s gotta be here somewhere.’ It was a good move; it wasn’t a cultural shock but it was something to get used to.”
The NMHU Cowboys were winless the season before Taylor arrived.
“It was decent football, we just didn’t have the players,” he recalled. “I think the first year we got here I think we won seven games. We had a bunch of new guys to win six or seven games after going 0-8.” (During our interview he never mentioned also starring in basketball and track while at NMHU. And it was at NMHU that he met his wife of 60 years, Lorencita.)
His Highlands highlight? Beating New Mexico State 19-12 in Las Cruces on Sept. 24, 1955.
“I’ll never forget. When we were doing the calisthenics, they ran through our little group. They ran through for 10 minutes, they had so many people, you know,” he said. “We only had about 20 people dressed.”
Back then, football was a two-way game: Players played on offense and on defense. When the Cowboys’ opponent had the ball, he said, “(I played) wherever necessary. They tried me at defensive tackle in that game against New Mexico State; they found out I couldn’t play defensive tackle.”
Taylor, named all-conference in 1956 and ‘57, wasn’t the only Cowboy that went on to play in the NFL: “Charley Cowan, he’s passed away now, he went to high school with me, he played 15 years for the Rams,” Taylor said. “And then there was Carl Garrett, who was Rookie of the Year. And everybody gave UNM credit for Don Woods (AFC Rookie of the Year in 1974). He started at Highlands. There wasn’t a lot; there was a guy named Bill Miller, who was drafted by the Houston Oilers.”
Add in Anthony Edwards, a former wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals.
After playing at NMHU, Taylor said, “I went to the Bears and I got cut.”
Taylor played eight games with the Chicago Bears, coached by legendary George ‘Papa Bear’ Halas, in 1959, although he didn’t catch any passes.
He chuckled again when he recalled a game in which he was sent in by Halas and told to “get hurt.” Taking him literally, Taylor said his crossing pattern didn’t have any chance of that, and he later realized Halas had wanted him to merely fake an injury to stop the clock.
He still remembers hearing a knock on his hotel room late one night and being told, “Halas wants to see you – and bring your playbook.”
Then, sitting in Halas’s office – at a desk that “cost more than I made in my life” – he learned he was going to be cut.
“Tears came down my eyes,” he said, which apparently softened up Papa Bear. “He gave me an extra $500, said, ‘See your wife.’”
Taylor found out he was going to be placed on waivers, but the Bears were still interested in bringing him back. Instead, he went to see the Denver Broncos. He “caught” on with them – and the rest is “Original LT” history.
Back in 1959, Taylor was also playing some semi-pro football in California. An executive with a Canadian Football League team who had talked to Taylor about playing in the CFL became the general manager of the new AFL franchise in Denver, which led to his roster spot in the Mile High City.
“It was great for us for one reason: It gave more guys an opportunity to play. Here’s Lenny Dawson not playing – now he’s in the Hall of Fame. Here’s Don Maynard not playing – look at him. There’s guys like Tom Flores – too much talent for the 14 teams in the NFL,” he said. “(The AFL) really opened doors.”
But, Taylor admitted thinking at the time, “If I can’t play here (in the AFL), I can’t play anywhere. I didn’t think the league would make it – I have to salute Lamar Hunt Jr. for his vision.”
When the Broncos inaugurated the Ring of Fame at Mile High Stadium in 1984, Taylor was one of the original players honored, along with Floyd Little, Rich Jackson and Austin ‘Goose’ Gonsolin.
“To me, that wasn’t Lionel Taylor, that was his teammates,” he said of the honor.
Asked to recount his Broncos’ highlights, Taylor replied, “When they signed me to a contract and gave me that first check. I wasn’t one to keep up with what went on on the field.”
Taylor remained in the game after his playing days.
He fondly remembers during his days as an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, when head coach Chuck Noll wanted Taylor to teach Hall of Fame QB Terry Bradshaw to run an option play.
“Heck,” Taylor drawled, who didn’t even want to run an option play.
Of course, during his great career with the Broncos – setting receiving records left and right, many through uncanny one-handed catches – he didn’t even want to block.
But he remembers Bradshaw starting the option out on the right foot, running parallel to the line of scrimmage – and then chucking the ball over his shoulder. Yup, over his shoulder. That’s probably why you never saw No. 12 run the option for the Steelers. The play never went into the playbook.
“I was with the Steelers seven years, then I left and went to the Rams. I was there five years,” he said.
He’s still seething over the Steelers’ Super Bowl XIV victory over his Rams.
Taylor also coached at Oregon State and spent five seasons as the head coach at Texas Southern, “and then I ended up with the Cleveland Browns. Then I went to the World League and I was there for four or five years in London. So it’s been interesting.”
Just listening to Taylor talk, reflecting on various aspects of his career, was also quite interesting.
(* Rio Rancho was once the home of former NFL standout Conrad Hamilton and Anaheim Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly; Boston Red Sox utility player Blake Swihart grew up here, making Little League all-star teams and as a standout prep player.)
Gary Herron is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.