One minute he was a college football star. The next minute he was in jail, then hell. All he’d ever owned was gone. It was a hot August morning and there was a vodka bottle in his hand and an empty Detroit alley before him. Billy Taylor, at that moment, could have slipped off the radar altogether.
But he heard a voice.
He says it called his name.
“William Taylor, come forth.”
He jumped up, dropped the bottle, fumbled to grab it, saw it smash. And he ran. Not the way he once ran through blocks and tackles; he ran like an alcoholic determined to rough up whoever had cost him his last drink.
By the end of that day, it really was his last drink.
Should Michigan win Saturday against Ohio State, and possibly tie for the Big Ten title after a 3-3 start, people will be talking about a major “comeback.”
They don’t know what comeback means.
Taylor does. Thirty-seven years ago, he was the leading rusher in Michigan’s biggest win ever over Ohio State, the 1969 upset of the then No. 1-ranked Buckeyes. Taylor gained 84 yards that Saturday, including a big 28-yard burst that led to the go-ahead score.
Two years later, as a senior, he surpassed himself, scoring the winning touchdown against Ohio State in his last regular-season play as a Wolverine.
“Touchdown, Billy Taylor!” Bob Ufer exclaimed.
It became his nickname. Taylor finished his career as Michigan’s all-time leading rusher.
And then his world exploded.
SERVING TIME, BUT NOT WASTING IT
Four days after the Rose Bowl, his mother died of a sudden heart attack. Then his girlfriend was stabbed to death at a roller rink. A beloved uncle shot his wife before turning the gun on himself.
“It was like everyone around me was dying,” he says. “I figured I was next.”
He tried pro football. It didn’t pan out. He was sad, angry and deeply depressed, but back then, you didn’t diagnose men that way, especially iron-tough football players. Taylor spun in directions he never imagined. He did drugs. He fell into debt. In January 1975, three years after the Rose Bowl, he was arrested for taking part in an armed robbery of a bank in his hometown. All he did was drop off the robber, but that was enough.
Soon, a small group of supporters, including his former coach, Bo Schembechler, was walking him to the entrance of a federal prison.
“Bo told me, Everyone is going to know who you are in there,’ ” Taylor says. ” You’re going to be challenged. Watch your back.’ “
“I remember the door shut behind me with this big echo. I can still hear that echo today.”
What happened next redefines the words “up and down.” Taylor earned a master’s degree while serving time. He got married once he was out. But he lost his job. His marriage crumbled. The anger and depression never left his system, and he soon returned to his old remedies: drugs and alcohol.
Before long, he was homeless. He panhandled. He slept in abandoned buildings. “I didn’t shower for almost a year. I did my pits’ in McDonald’s bathrooms.”
Touchdown Billy Taylor, who once dressed at a famous locker, now kept his clothes in a garbage bag.
FROM DOWN AND OUT TO A DOCTORATE
Which brings us to where we began, that hot August morning in 1997. The smashed vodka bottle. The run through the alley. Taylor was screaming for whoever yelled his name to show himself.
There was no one there.
“It was God,” he says. “I know it. I walked into traffic on Jefferson, and I kept walking. I went to this group home, Family Tyes, run by a woman named Sheryl Carson. And I said, I need a job. God sent me.’ And she said, Well, if God sent you, I guess I better hire you.’ “
Today, less than a decade later, Billy Taylor, 56, has a doctorate from UNLV in educational leadership. He has taught at community college. He is hoping to catch on at Michigan as an advisor or instructor.
He has not, he says, had a drink or done a drug since the day that bottle smashed and he went running toward a thunderous voice.
And Saturday, shortly before kickoff, he will make another run – this time through the tunnel with other U-M football alums. He’ll wave. He’ll breathe the autumn air.
And no matter what happens during the game, that will be the greatest comeback of the day.
Billy Taylor’s book, Get Back Up’, is available at umalumni.com