Kelvin Taylor seeking his own legacy at Florida


Freshman running back Kelvin Taylor, son of Gator legend Fred Taylor, made a strong first impression on the Florida coaching staff in the team's annual Orange and Blue Debut, rushing for 59 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. (Doug Finger/Staff photographer/Photo illustration by Adam West)

Published: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 8:26 p.m.

Kelvin Taylor enters the huddle and hears one of the staple plays in Glades Day's offense.

“Pro left, 45 counter Dallas.”

In other words, give Taylor the ball and get the point-after touchdown unit ready.

His team trails by two points and faces second-and-9 at the 34-yard line of District 14-6A champion South Fork. With less than five minutes to play in the second quarter, Taylor eyes the end zone. He doesn't care about the deficit, down and distance or even the touchdown itself.

Taylor is 23 yards away from history.

He gets the carry and patiently approaches the line of scrimmage. The left side of his offensive line knocks back South Fork's nose tackle and defensive end, while the right guard pulls to the left to take out the blitzing cornerback. Once he sees the hole, Taylor takes off like a youngster chasing rabbits in Muck City.

His fullback misses the block on the linebacker, but a quick side step from Taylor avoids the diving tackle attempt. The safety sprints toward the left sideline and gains an angle on him. He wraps Taylor around the waist and brings him down, but not until the ball crosses the goal line.

A 25-year-old record falls.

With that run on Nov. 11, 2011, Taylor became the state of Florida's career high school rushing leader, eclipsing the mark of the NFL's all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith, who ran for 8,804 yards at Pensacola Escambia from 1983-86.

After he exchanges high-fives and hugs with teammates and coaches on the sideline, Taylor walks behind the bench and embraces his mother, Tiffany Campbell-McGrew. As fans cheer, she heads back to the stands nearly in tears, holding the ball her son carried to set the record.

“My mom is my everything,” Kelvin says. “She's always been by my side supporting me, so it was a blessing to do that in front of her.”

In the 43-29 win, he finishes with 388 rushing yards on 34 carries and six touchdowns. After the game, dozens of people come up to congratulate him. But like most Friday nights in the fall, something's missing.

The two biggest football influences in his life.

***

Football is in Kelvin's blood — from his father, a possible future Hall of Famer, to his uncle, a prison inmate.

He's the son of former NFL running back Fred Taylor, one of only 18 players to have more than 11,000 career rushing yards. But Fred didn't introduce Kelvin to the sport, nor did he push him to follow his career.

“Our relationship has never revolved around football,” Fred says. “That's the story the media wants, this father-son American success story where Fred was there each and every step of the way.

“No, it's not like that.”

As a high school senior in 1993, Fred was a Parade All-American and track star for Glades Central in Belle Glade. At the University of Florida, he helped the Gators capture their first national championship in 1996 and rushed for 3,075 yards and 31 touchdowns in his career, which ranks fourth in school history.

Fred didn't know he had fathered Kelvin (born in 1993) until after his ninth overall selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1998 NFL Draft.

“His first five years of life,” he says, “I don't deserve any credit for that. Then here I am, this young guy in the league living my life, and I get this information. And there's only one reaction — shock.”

By the time Fred met him at age 6, Kelvin was already immersed in the game of football courtesy of another Glades Central alum.

***

In the 1998 Class 4A state title game, a 1-yard touchdown run by Madison County puts Glades Central behind 28-14 with 7:58 left to play.

But the deficit doesn't discourage the rallying Raiders.

They've come from behind in all four of their victories in the playoffs, including the week before when they scored 22 points in the final 3:15 to upset top-ranked Miami Pace. And as it has done throughout the postseason, Glades Central turns to its troubled-but-talented quarterback, Jerry Campbell.

He throws a 66-yard TD pass on the first play of the ensuing drive, but the extra-point attempt fails. Campbell gets the ball back at midfield with 5:02 on the clock. He completes five consecutive passes, the last a 5-yard touchdown toss. The score makes it 28-26, but Campbell's two-point conversion pass is picked off.

Although the Raiders' defense holds one last time, Madison County's punter pins Glades Central at its own 3. Campbell must take his team 97 yards in 95 seconds or it will lose in the championship game for the second straight year.

Campbell connects on one completion after another, including a 30-yard dagger. He reaches the red zone, but is sacked on first down for a 14-yard loss with 30 seconds remaining. With his kicker out of range, Campbell, under pressure again, heaves a pass to the corner of the end zone before he's knocked to the ground.

“I just threw it up,” he now says.

Eventual UF receiver Reggie Vickers is tripped up as Campbell's desperation throw approaches, but he manages to locate the ball and hauls it in while falling backward.

Touchdown Raiders.

“They just pulled out a miracle,” a Madison County player tells reporters after the game.

The 33-28 win gives Glades Central its first state championship since 1972 behind Campbell's 301 passing yards and four touchdowns. The victory, which few thought Campbell could achieve, offers him personal redemption and a lifelong lesson for his nephew.

***

Kelvin Taylor was 2 years old when his mother's younger brother handed him a football for the first time.

“He could catch right away,” uncle Jerry remembers.

With no father figure around Kelvin, Campbell took it upon himself to be a regular presence in his life. The two instantly connected through football, as Kelvin tagged along to his uncle's high school practices and games. He sported Jerry's jersey all the time, wore his helmet for hours on end and slept with a ball in his bed every night.

“I had to fight with him to get my uniform back,” Jerry says. “He was just different. What I saw in him at 3 years old, I didn't see in my high school teammates. It was real hunger and want. Not like a spoiled kid wants something. He had to have it or he would cry and be upset all day.”

As Kelvin grew, so did his passion for the game. Jerry started training him in first grade: His after-school activities consisted of cone runs, pass-catching drills and conditioning.

“I had to do like 20 push-ups for every pass I dropped,” Kelvin says. “People thought he was going to kill me when they heard the stuff he had me doing. It sounds like a lot of work for a kid, but I wanted to learn from him and it made me the player I am today.”

***

Jerry was on and off probation for various offenses throughout his high school career and didn't play football for a season and a half at Glades Central. Ruled academically ineligible during his sophomore season, he missed all of his junior year, regained eligibility as a senior and returned to replace quarterback Brad Banks, a first-team all-state selection in 1997.

Benched several times throughout the regular season, Jerry put in hours of practice and prayer in the playoffs to redeem himself. His nephew witnessed the turnaround.

“He saw my struggle,” Jerry says. “I constantly told him I was going to get a state championship, and he would say, ‘Unc, you ain't even played the game yet.' But he was always there, seeing me work and believing in what I was doing. So when I actually accomplished that, something the school hadn't done in 26 years, that put the faith in him.”

When Kelvin signed up for youth football at age 7, Jerry brought him to pick-up games in the park to prepare him physically.

“I took him back to the projects,” Jerry says, “where he could really get banged up at.”

There, he played with teenagers twice as old as him and several inches taller. But one advantage they didn't have: Kelvin looked like a ripped middle-schooler, and his muscle mass made him 20 pounds heavier than most kids his age.

“He was too rough for them,” Jerry says. “And he just kept getting bigger and wanting to learn more. He was trying to fill shoes he couldn't even wear.”

As Kelvin bulldozed through the Pop Warner divisions, Jerry spoke about him the same way he did winning a title in high school. He called his nephew “the LeBron James of football” and bragged about him to anyone who would listen.

“You got some parents that like to say how good their kid is, but my uncle would sit there and talk about me nonstop,” Kelvin says. “He swore I was going to be a star one day. Everybody thought he was just hyping me up because I was his nephew, but he meant it.”

The foundation and confidence Campbell instilled in Kelvin has his father forever grateful.

“I can honestly give his uncle Jerry all the credit for getting him started in football,” Fred says. “He saw the potential in Kelvin before anyone else. Thankfully, I was able to take up where he left off.”

***

While Kelvin continued to feed his hunger for football, Jerry developed an appetite for the fast life. He became a hotshot in Palm Beach County with multiple girlfriends and VIP status at night clubs.

“I was so full of garbage,” he says. “I had everybody telling me I was the best ever, and I was trying to live a life I couldn't keep up with. I was eating too fast. I can't eat 12 steaks at one time, because I can't digest them. But I didn't have any patience.”

On April 12, 2004, he committed six armed robberies and another on April 17. A year later, he was sentenced to serve two years on all seven counts consecutively at a Florida correctional facility.

“It killed me, man,” Kelvin says of his uncle's incarceration. “He had basically been like a father to me since I was a baby.”

Shortly after his prison term started, Jerry dedicated himself to uplifting Kelvin through his own downfall.

“I told myself that I had to use my life to put fear in this kid so he can stay humble and hold on to his gift,” he says. “I had the same gift, and he watched me throw it all away.”

Jerry continued to train Kelvin by phone, both physically and mentally. He made sure a dozen steaks weren't going on his plate at once. He shared workouts to do at home and things to pay attention to when watching film. Jerry put Kelvin through mock interviews with inmates when he came to visit, and always told him to give all the credit to his offensive linemen. Kelvin signed his first autograph in prison.

Most importantly, he challenged him with this message:

“If you don't get close with your dad, you won't be the next great one. Between his bloodline and mine, there aren't better football traits. But you have to embrace both of us. He's the one that will help you through your career, so let the past go when he wasn't there. You have to give to receive. That's the volume of life.”

***

Glades Day enters 2008 ranked No. 1 in Class 1A and plays host to Chaminade-Madonna in the season opener.

Senior Brandon Dean, a small running back who excels with speed and elusiveness, leads the Gators into the game. But his wheels never get going. Dean tears his ACL in the first half. He's out for the year.

Glades Day coach Pete Walker turns to a backup with zero varsity experience.

“He was our best back behind Brandon,” Walker recalls.

The eighth-grader takes his first touch: 10 yards. His fourth rush nets 40 more.

“He started to the right,” Walker says, “and then made a move that only someone with his natural ability can make. He just cut on a dime against the grain, and nobody caught him. I told my coaches, ‘I think we got something here.'”

Facing older players from Chaminade was a cakewalk for the junior high running back compared to what he saw the previous summer. He worked out at a training facility with his father and a few of his friends — Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore and Byron Leftwich.

Like he did as a 7-year-old against teenagers, Kelvin Taylor rose to the challenge.

“He went through one-on-one pass drills and receiving drills against NFL linebackers,” Fred says. “They were really getting after him, because I told them to make sure they beat him up. But he actually won some of those reps, so I'd say he was prepared for varsity football.”

Kelvin ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries in his high school debut.

“From there,” Walker says, “he really never looked back.”

■ The second eighth-grader in Florida history to make first-team all-state.

■ National freshman of the year.

■ Back-to-back state titles in 2009 and 2010.

■ Florida's all-time leading rushing record as a junior.

■ The No. 1 running back ranking on ESPN by the end of his senior season.

“He just got better every year,” Walker says. “There were many times when I took a second to smell the roses and appreciate what we had back there. I'd be on the headphones with my coaches up in the press box and tell them, ‘I want you to look down on that field. That's what greatness looks like.' ”

***

The day Kelvin has had circled on his calendar for months finally arrives.

Sept. 28, 2012.

It's his 19th birthday, and he's about to play on the biggest stage of his high school career.

His Glades Day Gators have traveled to Class 4A Yulee to take on the Hornets and future Alabama running back Derrick Henry. A 59-year-old rushing record dominates the game's storylines. Both Henry and Taylor are chasing the national mark of 11,323 yards, set by Ken Hall from 1950-53 in Sugarland, Texas. Although Taylor leads the career rushing total in the state of Florida, his statistics from eighth grade don't count toward his national numbers, which trail Henry's.

The matchup draws ESPNU and a capacity crowd of 4,500 to the small town near Jacksonville. Two days later, Fred Taylor will have his jersey retired by the Jaguars and his name put in the ring of honor.

Kelvin tells the media it's just another game to him, but inside he's more anxious than ever.

“With it being his birthday, his first game on ESPN and my ceremony that weekend, he just thought everything was supposed to happen perfectly,” Fred says. “But it didn't go his way.”

Henry torches Glades Day's defense for 362 yards and all six of Yulee's touchdowns in a 42-6 win. Taylor rushes for 223 yards and the Gators' only score, but he's visibly frustrated following the blowout loss. He sprints to the locker room, avoiding the sea of reporters waiting for him with their recorders and cameras.

“Knowing Kelvin,” his coach says, “he wanted to outshine Henry. That's what a competitor wants to do. More than anything, I think losing a game like that on national television bothered Kelvin the most. He hates losing more than he loves winning, and that one stung more than some others.”

Despite his disappointment, Kelvin hid his private pain in the face of the public eye.

“I was proud that he didn't let the game or the media influence him to act an ass out there,” Fred says. “I told him, ‘Kelvin, the whole world is watching you. When a bad play happens and somebody misses a block, you're the leader. You have to carry yourself the right way. It's about body language. It's about showing maturity.'

“So I hope that particular experience helped prepare him for what's to come in the future. ESPN will be back to see him again, and either praise him or rip him. Whatever happens, he has to be ready for it.”

***

Henry's performance that night propelled him to the national record. He went on to break the mark in November and finished his prep career with 12,124 yards, three more than Taylor in the Florida record books, which eliminated the discrepancy between their state and national numbers.

Yulee's coach, Bobby Ramsay, seemed on a mission to make Henry the all-time leading rusher toward the tail end of 2012. The 6-foot-3, 243-pounder carried the ball late into the fourth quarter of most games, some where his team led by multiple scores.

Taylor, however, sat out the second half several times during his senior season, finishing some nights with fewer than 10 carries while Henry had at least twice as many.

Walker, who now coaches at his alma mater, Clewiston, refused to let the record influence his use of Taylor. He monitored his carries in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Against the weaker teams in their district, he always came out by halftime.

“I used to tell him before those games, ‘Kelvin, you won't be in long tonight so you better get it while you can.' There were times he wanted to run more, and I said, ‘Kelvin, let me take care of you.' And he put his arm around me and understood.”

Walker continues, “Can you imagine what kind of a coach would allow a stud like him to be in the game when you're up by six touchdowns? And on top of that, can you imagine you're in a blowout game continuing to run a young man for a record and he blows his knee out? And it's happened, many times. I think (Ramsay) ought to be ashamed of himself.”

Kelvin developed a reputation for having a heavy workload at Glades Day after he tied the FHSAA record for most carries in a state championship game (42) as a freshman. He also received criticism for the competition he faced at the 2A, 1B and 1A level in his five years with the Gators.

“Anybody who knows the history of Glades Day knows we play 4A, 5A and 6A schools. His best football games have come against those teams above us in classification,” Walker says. “He always ended up on the bench against the smaller schools, which probably equated to him missing a whole season.

“You would have never heard of Derrick Henry if Kelvin played in all the football games he could have. He would have blew the all-time leading rushing record away. It wouldn't have even been close. And he would have done it anywhere he went.”

Aside from the Yulee game, Kelvin didn't endure much adversity playing in high school other than a slight tear of his right meniscus in the spring of 2009 and the playoff losses in his final two seasons.

His toughest test came away from the field.

“The recruiting process,” his father says, “is the fastest way to become a man.”

***

Fred Taylor sits in his Weston home, where he lives with his wife, Andrea, and Kelvin's four siblings. He takes out his Bible and searches for the verse that describes his son's recruitment.

Matthew 6:21.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Fred reads. “So naturally, if you read it the other way around, your heart will take you to your treasure. He went where his heart was.”

During his junior year, Kelvin grew infatuated with Alabama and its heralded halfback, Trent Richardson.

“That was my man,” Kelvin says. “We texted and talked a lot to each other.”

After a trip to Tuscaloosa, he bought Crimson Tide attire and grew serious about the school.

“All I heard from him was, ‘Bama, Bama, Bama.' At one time, I can tell you he was most definitely going there,” his coach says.

Early on in his recruitment, Kelvin called UF his dream school and named the Gators his leader. When the Tide turned, his father heard about it from Florida's fanbase.

“I got a ton of messages on Twitter from fans telling me, ‘Fred, your son is talking a little bit too much about Alabama.' I knew that if he went to Alabama, the Gator Nation would come after me,” he says. “Throughout the process, I seriously thought he was going there. I really believe they had him.”

But as his parents did with him, Fred let his son make his own decision and only offered advice when asked.

“My dad never pressured me,” Kelvin says. “He wanted me to do my thing, and I respect him for that.”

Fred originally pledged to play for Florida State during his recruitment before making a late switch to Florida. His family wanted him to attend UF all along, but they didn't force their feelings on him.

“I wanted to treat him just like they treated me,” he says. “As a parent, I believe if I had influenced him to go to the University of Florida and his experience there wasn't a good one, that would put a strain on our relationship for the rest of our lives.”

As time passed in Kelvin's process, the environment at UF surpassed the mystique of Alabama. He visited Gainesville more and fell in love with the campus. He built a strong bond with the Florida coaches and players. Being close to home factored in. His father's legacy sealed the deal.

When he chose the Gators during their Junior Day event, Fred felt relieved.

“Kelvin called me,” he says, “and told me, ‘Dad, I just committed.' I was like, ‘Huh?' I tried to play stupid. Kelvin said, ‘Pops, you know I wouldn't do you like that.' I muted the phone, and I was just thankful knowing that burden is gone. I didn't have to deal with what I knew was coming if he didn't go to Florida.

“But it was all his decision. 100 percent. At the end of the day, his heart wasn't in Alabama. I don't know how much of an influence I had, because we never talked about it. I wanted to have more of a brotherly type relationship with him, and I believe that's where we are now.”

***

Kelvin lines up in the I-formation, on the field where his father made his name and his uncle won a state championship.

At Florida's final scrimmage of the spring, Kelvin is making his debut in The Swamp. Starter Matt Jones and backup Mack Brown are getting little action.

The UF coaches want to see what the five-star freshman can do.

They put the offense inside its own 10-yard line for the final session of the practice. With his back against the end zone, Kelvin hits the hole hard and bounces to the outside for a 16-yard gain, the longest run of the day by any player.

Kelvin finishes with 11 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown, but rushing for those numbers won't be easy once the season starts. Jones has a stranglehold on the starting job and many believe he'll have a breakout year.

But Kelvin couldn't be in a better situation, according to his father.

“I believe competition creates a masterpiece,” Fred says. “All athletes are artists, and the greater you compete, the greater your masterpiece. They drafted maybe eight running backs when I was in Jacksonville. My attitude was bring them in. I'm going to help them learn the plays, then I'm going to go on the field and kick their ass.

“But there was once a time when I had to be patient, and now he's at that stage. He was born for this, and he's been chomping at the bit. Something good will eventually happen, and he has to seize the moment.”

In the meantime, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder continues to lean on his father and uncle for advice on football and staying out of trouble in college.

“I'm just blessed to have them in my life,” Kelvin says. “They want me learning from their mistakes and just keeping my head focused.”

Fred was charged in 1996 with petty theft for accepting stolen textbooks and served a four-game suspension. The year before, he and three teammates fraudulently used a credit card to order pizza.

Former NFL receiver Reidel Anthony, who attended Glades Central and Florida with Fred and knew Jerry growing up, says Kelvin's sounding board is an invaluable asset.

“It will help him tremendously,” Anthony says, “to have someone like his father going into detail about his incidents and showing how to still be successful, and then have his uncle telling him how to avoid his situation where it only takes one bad decision to mess up your whole life. So he gets to see both sides of the spectrum.”

Kelvin is already a fan favorite at Florida and his autograph is one of the most sought-after signatures on the team. But Fred is cautious about his son reaching role-model status too soon.

“No matter what tags they give him,” he says, “Kelvin is still a teenager, and he's going to make some mistakes. The picture that the media is painting, it's good marketing and we'll ride that wave. But I don't want people to take it the wrong way and think since he's Fred Taylor's son, he's supposed to be squeaky clean, because he's not.

“His father wasn't perfect and neither was his uncle. He's gotten it raw growing up. He understands the realness. He by no means is going to sugarcoat things or be fake. And he's going to stay humble and accept full responsibility for the decisions he makes.”

Campbell's release from prison is scheduled for 2018. By then, Kelvin will be in the midst of pursuing his lifelong goal to play in the NFL. It's destined to happen, Campbell believes, because his nephew has accomplished everything else he set out to do. And by remaining hungry and humble through it all, Kelvin gives him the strength to press on in prison.

“They call this place hell,” Jerry says. “And I'm going to show him his uncle is strong enough to defeat it, and I know he can defeat anything that comes to him. Years ago I told him, ‘You're going to play on ESPN one day, just stay humble. You're going to be better than me and your dad, just stay humble. You're going to be the No. 1 running back in the nation, just stay humble.' All these things came to pass. I'm watching God's words come to life, and that's keeping me out of trouble because I have something to believe in. His success is making me a better man. So not only have I changed his life, he's changing mine.”

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