Notre Dame's Aaron Taylor takes the hard road to the College Football Hall of Fame
It didn’t start out as a dream — not Aaron Taylor’s anyway. Playing football was more like a last resort.
For a life that was out of control.
Growing up in Northern California, Taylor and his single mom, Mardi, moved a lot. And whenever they did, the former Notre Dame All-American offensive lineman found trouble.
How that turned into a Hall of Fame moment Monday — Taylor being named to the 2021 College Football Hall of Fame class — started with a heart-to-heart conversation with Mardi going into his junior year of high school.
It wasn’t the first time he had heard those words, but it was the first time they resonated. And to this day they not only forged four years of excellence at Notre Dame, but they have helped Taylor push through and thrive in the tough times that have come in life after his playing career.
“The turning point was a combination of things,” Taylor shared years ago. “There was always a feeling inside of me that I could do more. I realized at some level I was selling out and that I was going down a road that was beneath me, that I was lowering the bar.
“I don’t know where I got that from. Maybe I was born with it, but my mother certainly fostered a lot of that, specifically with a conversation we had where she just kind of walked me through choices and consequences. That’s when the light bulb went on, that I was going to be left with very few choices if I continued down the road I was on.
“She helped me think about goals and opportunities. I very much appreciate and respect her more and more each day for what she did to help create the opportunity to play football.”
Now he stands among the sport’s immortals.
Just .02% of those who have played and coached college football reach this summit. He joins 10 other FBS players and two coaches who were on the 2021 ballot of 78 and seven, respectively. Fellow former Notre Dame All-American, linebacker, Bob Golic, was also on the ballot.
The 48-year-old Taylor becomes the 48th Notre Dame player — most of any school — to be selected for the College Football Hall of Fame, along with six Irish coaches.
“Once I knew that it was going to be real, I started reflecting on all that it took to allow for this moment to take place,” Taylor said in a phone interview on Monday.
“I haven’t played football in 25 or 30 years, so whatever I did on the field had taken place a long time ago. As I started to reflect, I started to write down the names of every single person that I came in contact with that played some role in my football life.
“Man, there were 100 plus names and counting when I finally had to leave my house, but that’s going to be an exercise I’m looking forward to finishing because the phase ‘I am because of us’ has never been more true than it is for me right now this very moment.”
The 2021 College Football Hall of Fame class will be officially inducted during the 63rd NFF Annual Awards Dinner on Dec. 7, alongside the 2020 Hall of Fame Class (the 2020 event was postponed due to COVID-19). They will also be honored at their respective schools with an NFF Hall of Fame On-Campus Salute during the 2021 season.
Joining Taylor are Harris Barton (OT, North Carolina), David Fulcher (DB, Arizona State), Dan Morgan (LB, Miami [FL]), Carson Palmer (QB, USC), Tony Romo (QB, Eastern Illinois), Kenneth Sims (DT, Texas), C.J. Spiller (RB/KR, Clemson), Darren Sproles (RB, Kansas State), Andre Tippett (DE, Iowa), Al Wilson (LB, Tennessee) and coaches Rudy Hubbard (Florida A&M) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma).
At Notre Dame, Taylor was a consensus All-American as a junior offensive guard, then went on to be a unanimous All-American as a senior in 1993 at left tackle.
He also that season won the Lombardi Award, through 2016 given to the nation’s best offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker. He was drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers in the spring of 1994.
None of it came easy. Not even getting to Notre Dame.
Once Taylor had his first taste of organized football in high school, he coaxed his mom to move across the bay to Concord, Calif., and enroll him at national prep power De La Salle High.
She worked additional shifts as a pediatric nurse and Taylor worked odd jobs, including picking up trash, to make the tuition payments.
At Notre Dame he played for iconic offensive line coach Joe Moore, a renowned taskmaster who now has a college award named after him, going annually to the nation’s best offensive line. Notre Dame won it in 2017 and was one of three finalists this season.
“What happened to the super-nice guy that was recruiting me?” Taylor said of his come-to-reality moment as a freshman regarding Moore. “Where’d that guy go?
“(But) he taught me to believe in myself and he taught me I was capable of achieving a lot more than I thought possible. He taught me that the limitations that I put on myself were unnecessary, that I was capable of achieving things far beyond my wildest imagination. And he ensured that I didn’t sell myself short.”
Right in sync with mom Mardi’s message years before.
And it’s a message Taylor spreads to others to this day in the many different directions life has taken him.
That and the words Moore shared with him and the fellow senior Irish O-linemen after their college playing careers had concluded.
“He brought up a drill we all hated, that made me as tired as I’ve ever been in my life,” Taylor recounted. “And just when you thought you had nothing left, he’d ask you to do five more.
“Joe said, ‘Do you know why I did it?’ And I said something smart to him, and we laughed.
“Then he said, ‘The reason I did that is that in the fourth quarter of a game, when you didn’t think you had anything left, that you really did have five more in you.
“ ‘And I wanted to let you know that as a man, when life gets hard — whether it’s in the NFL or you face adversity as a father, as a husband, as an employee — that you’ve always got five more in you, that you’re capable of doing more than you ever thought possible. I just wanted you to know that.’ ”
Today Taylor is a husband and a father. He serves as a college football analyst for CBS Sports in the fall as well as being part of the Joe Moore Award team of organizers. He does public speaking when it’s not football season.
Taylor reunited with his own father roughly a dozen years ago after decades of estrangement, and couldn’t wait to call him on Monday to share the Hall of Fame news. Mardi Taylor died from a stroke three years ago, passing in Hospice with the Notre Dame-Stanford game on TV in the background.
Somehow, somewhere, Taylor said, she’s smiling.
As he says it, his voice cracks with emotion and he remembers one more turning point.
“After I had the talk with my mom, I went to that very first practice at De La Salle, and I got mother-scratched and dog-cursed for three straight hours,” he said Monday. “If the play was going left, I was going right. If it was going right, I went left. And it was brutal.
“I mean, this is De La Salle, so that standard’s quite a bit different than it was where the high school coach stole our bus money. So I come home and I’m crying.”
Mardi listened to every detail, then calmly told Aaron the next step was up to him and that he needed to figure out if what he wanted was worth the price he was going to have to pay for it. She said she knew if he was at breakfast the next morning at 6, she’d know the answer, and then shut the door.
“I don’t know if at that moment I knew what I was going to do,” Taylor said. “And I didn’t sleep well that night. And I was sitting at the edge of the bed thinking, ‘Holy (cow), what am I going to do? How did I create this pickle? How am I going to get out of this?’”
The next morning Aaron was at breakfast at 6 a.m. and at practice by 7.
“I got my (butt) dog-cussed for 2 hours and 45 minutes,” he said. “But that day went a little bit better. And I got up the next day, and that day went a little bit better. And as it turned out, I was pretty good at football and just didn’t know it yet.
"I think about that moment — and I’m getting emotional talking about it right now — because I didn’t know just how close I was to giving everything away. I had no idea what was waiting for me and how I would have given up if I had just stayed in bed that morning.
“Somehow, someway, I found a way to get up. And I’ve been getting up every day since. That’s one of the things I’m really beginning to start to appreciate about my journey — all of these Y’s in the road and how important each of them are.”
With offensive lineman Aaron Taylor's selection on Monday, here are the 48 players and six coaches who represent Notre Dame in the College Football Hall of Fame:
Hunk Anderson (1918-21)
Angelo Bertelli (1941-43)
Tim Brown (1984-87)
Ross Browner (1973, 1975-77)
Jack Cannon (1927-29)
Frank Carideo (1928-30)
Dave Casper (1971-73)
George Connor (1946-47)
Bob Crable (1979-81)
Jim Crowley (1922-24)
Ziggy Czarobski (1942-43, 1946-47)
Bob Dove (1940-42)
Ray Eichenlaub (1911-14)
Bill Fischer (1945-48)
Thom Gatewood (1969-71)
George Gipp (1917-20)
Jerry Groom (1948-50)
Ralph Guglielmi (1951-54)
Leon Hart (1946-49)
Frank Hoffmann (1930-31)
Paul Hornung (1954-56)
John Huarte (1962-64)
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1988-90)
Johnny Lattner (1951-53)
Elmer Layden (1922-24)
Johnny Lujack (1943, 1946-47)
Jim Lynch (1964-66)
Ken MacAfee (1974-77)
Jim Martin (1946-49)
Bert Metzger (1928-30)
Creighton Miller (1941-43)
Don Miller (1922-24)
Edgar Miller (1922-24)
Fred Miller (1926-28)
Wayne Millner (1933-35)
Alan Page (1964-66)
Louis Salmon (1900-03)
Marchy Schwartz (1929-31)
William Shakespeare (1933-35)
Red Sitko (1946-49)
John Smith (1925-27)
Harry Stuhldreher (1922-24)
Aaron Taylor (1990-93)
Joe Theismann (1968-70)
Adam Walsh (1922-24)
Bob Williams (1948-50)
Tommy Yarr (1929-31)
Chris Zorich (1987-90).
Dan Devine (1975-80)
Jesse Harper (1913-17)
Lou Holtz (1986-96)
Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53)
Ara Parseghian (1964-74)
Knute Rockne (1918-30)
“I got my (butt) dog-cussed for 2 hours and 45 minutes. But that day went a little bit better. And I got up the next day, and that day went a little bit better. And as it turned out, I was pretty good at football and just didn’t know it yet.''
Aaron Taylor on his first days at national prep power De La Salle High School