Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Taylor-made for Bobcat Athletics November 24, 2009 by Bill Lamberty • Published 11/24/09

John Taylor often tells the story of a freshman who came to MSU from an urban background.
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Photo by Jay ThaneBobcat Athletics' Life Skills Coordinator, John Taylor. Photo by Jay Thane
In his role as Bobcat Athletics' Life Skills Coordinator, John Taylor often tells the story of a freshman who came to MSU from an urban background. The athlete thought he had the world on a string and rarely made it to classes his first semester.

Soon the player was in academic trouble. Under threat of losing his scholarship and even being booted out of the university, the young man turned himself around and went on to graduate, and play a couple of years in the National Football League.

"Yes, that's my story," Taylor admits.

"(Taylor) walked in their shoes, and they respect that," said Peter Fields, MSU athletic director, of Taylor's effectiveness with current Bobcats. "His ability as an all-conference player who spent time in the NFL speaks for itself, but the fact that he graduated from Montana State, to me, is important to our student-athletes."

Now in his third year as the Bobcats' life skills director, Taylor understands that his experience carries some cache.

"Having been (one) myself not too long ago, having that understanding, gives me a unique perspective and a way to work with our student-athletes," Taylor said.

A three-sport athlete at Denver's Manual High School, Taylor, 30, grew up near downtown Denver. His father died of cancer when he was 12. His mother, Merlin Taylor, encouraged her only son's interest in sports and theater to keep him away from gangs in the neighborhood.

Taylor came to MSU sight unseen when a couple of scholarship offers at larger schools dried up at the last minute. He said he was worried about whether he had made the right decision when he drove through the sparsely populated high plains between Denver and Bozeman. While he was relieved that he immediately liked Bozeman and MSU, he admits to some adjustment to living in a small town. He said he had an advantage because of the way his mother raised him.

"She exposed me to a lot of skills and experiences, to a lot of diversity," he said. He said those memories serve him well when he works with both African-American student-athletes from urban backgrounds such as his, but also players from small towns in Montana who have a hard time adjusting to so many people at MSU.

His mother's strong role in his life also kept him in school after that difficult first semester.

"I had the fear of God in me, or maybe the fear of having to tell Merlin Taylor that she was going to have to pay for my college. That turned me around."

Photo by Jay ThaneJohn Taylor was drafted into the NFL in the fourth round after he finished playing for the Bobcats. Photo by Jay Thane
Taylor graduated from MSU in 2002 with a degree in early childhood education. At 6'4" and then 265 pounds, he was an All-Big Sky defensive tackle, and drafted in the fourth round by the Detroit Lions. He played two years in the NFL with the Lions and then arena teams in Los Angeles and Chicago until injuries ended his career. While he understands that his NFL experience is part of his credibility with student athletes, he only recently hung his framed Lions jersey on his office wall because he was afraid it would send the wrong message.

"Before I hung it up there, I talked to a lot of people around here because I thought it might seem too boastful, but they encouraged me because it might be inspirational to the student athletes," he said.

Such a quiet demeanor gives him a commanding advantage in his job, according to Taylor's colleagues.

"John doesn't need to say much to get his point across," Fields said. "He relates very well to our young people, in large part because he is little on talk and all substance."

"JT is cool, collected, organized," said Kylie Perlinski, MSU's athletic academic coordinator and also a former Bobcat student-athlete. "He's very thorough. But he can get on a student-athlete who isn't doing the right things."

"He's helped me a lot," said Bobcat running back Aaron Mason, a senior from San Diego. "He's helped me schedule classes. He's helped me (manage) my schedule to stay good for practice. He's helped me stay eligible."

Taylor said there are more academic and mentoring tools available to help students such as Mason than there were 10 years ago. He credits an emphasis on academics by the MSU administration, as well as changing rules in the NCAA, with the growth in academic support.

Taylor said another improvement for student athletes is that Bozeman has become more diverse than when he first arrived. "At least for me, and listening to our student-athletes, Bozeman is a more accepting place."

You kind of feel like a proud parent when you see (students) at the end of their career or as they are graduating and they've had a successful career on and off the field.

-John Taylor
Taylor continues to lead by example. In May he received a master's degree in higher education. He and his wife, Paige Saunders Taylor, became parents when their first child, Tahlia, was born in July. Saunders Taylor, a counselor in Bozeman, is the daughter of Godfrey Saunders, the principal of Bozeman High School before he retired in June. Taylor says of Saunders, "He gives me someone to look up to. Someone to be like."

Taylor said he plans a career in athletics administration in a university or an NFL front office.

"John has a great future in college athletics, or whatever venture he enters, because he's a bright person who is willing not only to work hard, but to listen," Fields said.

But for now, Taylor said he enjoys his job helping kids fresh out of high school transition into adults.

"Now that I've been here three years and I've gotten to know some of the student-athletes more closely and over a longer stretch of time, you kind of feel like a proud parent when you see them at the end of their career or as they're graduating and they've had a successful career on and off the field. You feel like you're making a difference."