Reliving the hope and heartache of NFL Draft night

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

It is given in the reverential Notre Dame offensive line culture that former Irish All-American Aaron Taylor will watch from a distance and rejoice as recent line standouts Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey stride into history Thursday night.

But it won’t come without pain — his own pain — of how much of an unrealized dream the now 45-year-old left on the table, the product of turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Taylor did so to deal with injuries and disappointments that sometimes happen once the crescendo of draft night is over.

“I think at the time I was convincing myself I just liked to party,” Taylor said on the eve of the three-day 2018 NFL Draft, which kicks off Thursday night in Arlington, Texas, with round 1. “But there was a deeper, darker reality that I was either unwilling or unable to see at the time.

“It was a negative coping strategy for depression, anxiety and the sense of loss that I felt from being hurt and not being able to perform the way that I had wished and hoped for. I was labeled a disappointment, and that wasn’t inaccurate.”

The gift in the anguish, beyond the fact he’s 16 years sober, is that Taylor has openly shared his experiences with the next wave of Irish offensive linemen. Those include recent first-rounders Zack Martin (2014) and Ronnie Stanley (2016), and the two expected to hear their names during Thursday’s proceedings, Nelson and McGlinchey.

“Draft night will change their lives forever,” said Taylor, who was a first-rounder himself 24 springs ago. “But how they handle what comes after draft night is so important.

“I think at the end of the day, what separates the good from the great is their mindset. Those that are able to appreciate the strength and conditioning, the recovery, all of the dietary components — all of the things that go into being a consummate professional — are the ones that eventually have the longevity of the careers.

“Everybody that’s in the NFL can run, block, catch, tackle or throw. The ones that succeed there, the ones that thrive instead of survive, are the ones that approach the game on a consistent basis like a professional.

“That’s probably the single greatest gift that Harry Hiestand gave to Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. He gave them the tools that they’ll need to prepare for their careers at the next level.”

Hiestand will spend this draft as the Chicago Bears’ offensive line coach, in his second tour of duty with the NFL club. and there are realistic scenarios in which Nelson could end up joining him.

Hiestand ended his six-year run as ND’s O-Line coach in January, capped with a Joe Moore Award for the 2017 Irish unit being named the nation’s best.

Should Nelson and McGlinchey become the 67th and 68th first-round draft picks from Notre Dame in school history, as expected, they’ll be the third and fourth Hiestand protégés to go in the first round in the last five drafts.

To put that in perspective, for the first 12 years of the 2000s, the Irish produced a total of two first-round draft choices at any position — period. That was center Jeff Faine (2003) and quarterback Brady Quinn (2007).

“Both McGlinchey and Nelson could have come out last year, but benefited greatly by staying with Harry for another year,” Taylor said. “For Quenton, he became a more vocal leader, and that’s going to serve him well at the next level. For McGlinchey, he gained so much physical strength and, I think confidence.

“But with Harry Hiestand, it’s more than that. Here’s the thing: When players get a lot of money, when they set a goal their entire life to reach a certain milestone or threshold and they accomplish it, human nature is to take our foot off the gas pedal and enjoy the spoils of all the hard work.

“When I look back at my own career, regrettably, part of that was true for me — getting to the NFL, versus having a career, impeded my process to maximize the potential that I had. I was instantaneously compounded with the rupture of my kneecap.

“The combination of those and then the negative coping strategies — that included a lot of frosty alcoholic beverages — kind of made for a toxic combination of the law of diminishing returns.”

Taylor was tough but wasn’t durable. He worked hard but never gave his body a chance to recover.

“I didn’t ever sleep eight hours,” he said. “I was always dehydrated. You compound that over a long enough time frame, and you end up playing six years instead of 16, like I did.

“Everything I’ve seen from Quenton and Mike, there’s no chance that’s going to happen to them. I think both of those guys have told me and would readily admit that they will credit Harry Hiestand 100 percent, because of what he taught them.”

What Taylor has tried to impart to them, with regard to the draft specifically, is that the organization that you end up with is much more important than the actual draft order.

Not that it felt that way at the time for Taylor.

In the 1994 draft, the Indianapolis Colts at No. 5 and Tampa Bay at 6 each had a strong need for an offensive tackle, the position Taylor played at Notre Dame his senior year. and that is where most mocks had him going.

But the Colts took linebacker Trev Alberts and Tampa Bay took quarterback Trent Dilfer. A tackle wasn’t selected until No. 14. That was Georgia’s Bernard Williams. and again at 15, Auburn’s Wayne Gandy.

“My world was upside down,” Taylor said. “I had decided to watch the draft from home with family, friends and coaches (as are both McGlinchey and Nelson), and boy was I glad at that point. I would have been the guy they had the camera on in the green room, sweating like hell and screaming, ’what the (expletive) is going on?’

“You hear stories about draft-day spirals and you wonder what the rumors are and what’s happening. In my case, it was the first time I had heard that they didn’t think I could play tackle at the NFL level and that I was considered a guard. I guess I should have figured that out when I played my senior year at left tackle in a right-handed stance.

“Fortunately, Green Bay traded up with Miami and took me at 16. Looking back, I am so lucky that things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to.

“Had I gone fifth or sixth, I wouldn’t’ have had a Super Bowl ring. I wouldn’t have played in two Super Bowls. I wouldn’t have been on the field for two of Brett Favre’s three MVP years. I think the lesson is personally I don’t always know what’s in my best interest, and I think these things have a tendency to work themselves out the way that they’re supposed to work out.”

No matter where Nelson and McGlinchey end up, though, there’s going to be some culture shock involved, Taylor said — with the speed of the game, with the brutality of the business side of the game, with how much taxes get taken out off the top of the newly found financial windfall.

“Quenton and Mike will handle that,” Taylor said. “And I hope they never have to handle what I brought on myself, and I don’t think they ever will.

“The disease (alcoholism) was still with me two years out of retirement. That’s when I hit rock bottom. That’s when I said I’ve got to figure something out, because something’s not working.

“It’s working now, and I’m so glad I got to know and work with those guys during their college careers. My only regret with them? That I didn’t get to play alongside them.” Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) talks with offensive guard Quentin Nelson (56) during the first half of ND's game with Wake Forest on Nov. 4.