Saying goodbye to Bob Taylor


LaGRANGE — They came to say goodbye. They were sad. They were hurting; his teammates, his coach and his friends. They came because they loved him, but they also came out of deep respect.

I never saw Trippi or Sinkwich, except on film, but I never saw a tougher running back than Elton Robert Taylor–ERT to his buddies. I’ll always admire Herschel who was a very tough runner, and if I were starting a football team tomorrow, I’d want Herschel in my backfield. ERT wasn’t as gifted as Herschel, but even Herschel didn’t run any harder than Bob Taylor. Nobody was more accomplished when it came to second effort. Taylor was a like an automatic shotgun. He would fire, the defense would resist. He would recoil and fire back. A runner like a sleek and skilled middleweight boxer, popping you again and again. Nobody took it to the defense like Bob Taylor.

He wore number 24. He played on Vince Dooley’s first team. The 1964 UGA media guide reflected that he stood 5-10 and weighed 184, but he played as though he were 6-2, 235. Pound for pound, ERT was one of the toughest and best runners Georgia ever had.

When he died last week, it was disbelieving to his teammates who gathered for his farewell in LaGrange. For the last half century, when Bulldogs, especially those long in the tooth, have gathered, they rekindled glorious memories of Bob Taylor’s years at Georgia in which he only played a season and a half. In that time he established a reputation for toughness, but what we revere him for was that he was the end piece to one of the greatest plays in Georgia history–the unforgettable flea flicker against Alabama in Sanford Stadium in 1965.

The morning after in those years was a splendorous time. Sunday mornings, Dan Magill, creator of savoring phrases, was listening to the Georgia fight songs as he worked and suddenly leapt to his feet and exclaimed: “Moore to Hodgson to Taylor to Glory.” Magillisms were always poignant and apropos.

The youthful Vince Dooley had put together an eager and spirited coaching staff, led by his brother, Bill and the unparalleled Erk Russell. They bonded with players who were not elite, but solid performers, hungry to succeed. You would have to go back to 1959 when Fran Tarkenton became the toast of the Classic City for leading Georgia to a 14-13 SEC title clenching victory over Auburn to find a more serendipitous time than the flea flicker in 1965.

The Bulldogs were lethal that season in winning in the first four games: Alabama, defending national champions, 18-17; Vanderbilt in the rain, 21-6; Michigan shell shocked in Ann Arbor, 15-7, led by wrong-way running Preston Ridlehuber; and a good Clemson team disposed of in Sanford Stadium, 23-9 when Jimmy Cooley blocked a punt with a hand so bandaged up, it looked like bolo ball.

However, the worst was taking place and everybody was holding his breath, week to week. John Glass, a fine linebacker you never heard of, was the first of this mash unit to go down with pre-season knee injury. Joe Burson, a defensive back with no peer in the SEC, played with knees so bad that they would make Joe Namath’s look like new. Doug McFalls, the captain, broke his jaw.

Then against Florida State in Tallahassee, the ultimate dagger came about when Taylor, fighting for extra yardage, had the misfortune of having two defenders hit his planted leg from different directions. His broken leg broke the hearts of all Georgia partisans. His career was over, as was Georgia’s season. Seldom has a Bulldog team had more promise.

With the abundance of talent today, shaped by year-round conditioning drills and weight training, you often wonder if players 50 years ago could play today. I believe ERT could because of his toughness, competitiveness and heart. I regret that latter-day players and fans never had the opportunity to stand on the sideline and watch Bob Taylor take a handoff and sprint to the line of scrimmage with the greatest sense of urgency and purpose. His legs were like pistons, his head and shoulders battering the first tackler backwards, audible grunting and unrestrained second effort–which made every coach swoon. “We called it body lean,” Vince Dooley said. “He ran low into the line and didn’t give the defense a target.”

When football was over, Taylor had earned a degree and did what most everybody else did in those days. He went to work, never asking for a free pass because of his memorable play against Alabama. He worked as hard as he ran, but ill health in the recent months brought about deep depression. He lived alone on a peaceful farm not far from town. Until lately, you could call him or go to see him and he was as upbeat as a priest at communion. His laughter defined him. When he ran the football, he made us smile. When he made a motivational speech late in life, he made us laugh. That the laugh is silenced makes those who knew him ponder the vicissitudes of life.