By Gene Frenette, GateHouse Florida
JACKSONVILLE — For almost 40 minutes, Jawaan Taylor is sitting inside a Jaguars’ media relations office and it’s impossible to wipe the smile or glow off his face. That’s because he’s peeling off layer after layer, story after story, about one of his favorite topics: Wendy Taylor.
By nature, the Jaguars’ 312-pound offensive tackle is pretty outgoing and good-natured, but nothing quite sends him to a happy place like talking about his Mom.
On the day before Mother’s Day, right in the middle of the team’s rookie minicamp, he was still mulling over a gift strategy. Though Jawaan won’t get down to Viera, near Melbourne, to see his mother for another two weeks due to football obligations, he’s waiting for the right gift idea to hit him.
“I don’t know yet, I’m trying to go all-out,” Jawaan said.
For two-plus decades, Wendy Taylor has always gone all-out for her two sons, but especially 21-year-old Jawaan because, well, she just felt he needed a little more maternal nurturing than older brother Jeremy, the more independent one growing up.
“I’m a momma’s boy, I really am,” said Jawaan. “When I was a kid, everybody used to say how I was always with my Mom. Everywhere my Mom went, I was glued to her. We’re very close.”
Don’t get the wrong idea here. Taylor’s father, Robert – a UPS driver and assistant pastor at the House of God, a Pentecostal Christian church in Palm Bay — and Wendy have been married 25 years. Both attend all of their kids’ activities faithfully and Jawaan admires the “great example of a successful marriage” his parents set, but their roles in raising them were slightly different.
While Robert was the disciplinarian, Wendy represents the anchor and family heartbeat. So just as part of Jawaan’s job now is to protect quarterbacks, Wendy was always fiercely protective of her baby that she nicknamed “Wanny” when he was 6-months-old, a monicker all his close friends and family call him to this day.
To understand how Taylor — already 6-foot-3, 325 pounds by the time he was in eighth grade — managed to have no scars from all the razzing he used to take from kids in his early years for his big belly, or how he dropped 53 pounds before his senior year at Cocoa High to earn a scholarship to Florida, or why he refused to be emotionally crushed over the NFL bypassing him in the first round of the April draft, all that stuff has Mom’s fingerprints all over it.
“We had that bond all the way through,” said Wendy. “I’d say, ‘Wanny, you got this. I believe in you.’ He loved hearing that. He doesn’t do anything big without calling me first, and he listens.”
A weighty matter
When Jawaan Taylor arrived three weeks early in 1997 and still weighed 8 pounds, 13 ounces at birth, Wendy’s mother, Gwendolyn Lewis, told her that was the first clue about where No. 75 for the Jaguars might end up.
“He had the biggest hands and feet you ever want to see on a baby,” said Wendy. “We knew right there where he was headed. My Mom said he looked like a football player.”
Taylor started playing competitive football at age 4 in Rockledge Little League, and as the years wore on, the issue of his weight always hovered over him. As much as Wanny loved football, he also loved his Mom’s macaroni and cheese, potato chips, fried chicken, pizza and all the usual starches.
“I babied him a lot,” said Wendy. “He was overweight, kind of picked on for his size because he was chunky. I was the one building his self-esteem. I used to take his belly and shake it, telling him the other kids were just jealous because they wanted to be big, too.”
Mom saw to it that her son never allowed his weight to diminish his self-image. Playing football played a part in that. So did playing the drums in the House of God church choir, something Jawaan learned at age 6 and continues to do as he recently performed on Easter Sunday.
But until his weight ballooned to 383 pounds after his junior year at Cocoa High — prompting then-Florida offensive line coach Mike Summers to tell Jawaan in 2015 that the Gators would only offer him a scholarship on the condition of him dropping serious weight and keeping it off — Taylor was never focused on being in tip-top condition.
“The light [to lose weight] would never come on in his head until he was given a chance to go to his dream school,” Wendy said of Florida. “That’s what motivated him to drop all that weight.”
Mom played a big part in that, too. The week after attending UF’s football camp, Jawaan went to a House of God convention in Nashville and made it a point to eat all healthy goods. When he came home and stepped on a scale in front of his parents and brother, it astonished him in a good way that he lost 10 pounds.
The next day, Wendy decided the whole family was going to go on a health kick to help Jawaan get that UF scholarship.
“She trashed all the bad stuff, cleaned everything out of the pantry and fridge and bought $300 worth of healthy stuff,” said Jawaan.
No more pans of Mom’s macaroni and cheese. Out went the chips, Jell-O puddings, Little Debbie snack cakes and Hot Pockets. In came salads, chicken, fish, fruits and fresh vegetables. If Jawaan came home from football practice hungry — while Dad was still driving the UPS truck and Wendy was working at the “Styles for Diva” hair salon she owns — there was an abundance of healthy choices for him to eat and cook himself.
“Mom made the whole family change their eating habits just for me,” Jawaan said. “When I was on a weight-loss plan, they were on it, too. That motivated me even more to lose the weight. It’s harder when you got all the bad stuff in the house and everybody is eating it in front of you.”
Wendy overhauling the family menu, along with Jawaan’s dietary discipline, paid off. On November 24, 2015, the day before his 18th birthday, after Jawaan dropped 53 pounds in two-plus months and played his senior year at 330 pounds, Florida offered him a scholarship. He committed to the Gators four days later.
“A lot of kids will lose weight and put it back on,” said New Smyrna Beach football coach John Wilkinson, who was Taylor’s head coach at Cocoa. “He’s been able to keep it off. He knew he was a much better player at a leaner, more athletic weight.
“I’m proud of Wanny. He set a goal and went about achieving it.”
A big push from Mom certainly helped things along.
Seeing his mother’s heart
Jawaan’s family bond is undeniable. He maintains one of the toughest times he went through was training for the NFL combine and his UF Pro Day, but not because of the conditioning workouts at Exos in Pensacola, which caused him unintentionally to drop another 15 pounds to his current weight of 312.
No, what drove Taylor stir crazy was a plain and simple case of separation anxiety. He went nearly three months without seeing Mom, Dad, Jeremy or half-sister Shaquitta, his father’s biological child from high school.
“That was the toughest time ever,” said Jawaan. “I’ve never been away from my family that long.”
The Taylor family connection runs deep. His late maternal grandmother insisted on a tight-knit unit, and nobody carried on that tradition with a greater passion than Wendy. It’s another reason why Jawaan leans on and listens to his mother’s advice in all facets of his life – school, finances, female relationships, etc.
Robert and uncle Marlon Lewis, his personal trainer, are respected male role models, and high-profile Drew Rosenhaus is his agent, but there’s no doubt that Mom is the go-to person.
“First off, she’s just a very sweet lady,” said Jawaan. “Anybody can talk to her and hold a full conversation. Anything my family needed, she went out of her way to make sure it was good and provided for. She’s a good-hearted person and very pretty.
“She’s also very God-fearing. She prays for us like no other. My Mom would be up at 3 or 4 in the morning while everybody else sleeps, just praying for the whole family. Any kid would kill to have my Mom, to be honest.”
Almost everything in the Taylor family runs through Wendy. After Florida’s Peach Bowl win over Michigan, she organized the catering for a family gathering of 54 members at an Atlanta hotel so Jawaan could announce in front of them that he was bypassing his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
When Jawaan, expected to be the first offensive lineman taken in the draft, went the entire first round without being selected, there wasn’t much doubt who would take charge to lift his spirits. Taylor had to wait another 24 hours in Nashville before the Jaguars selected him in the second round with the No. 35 overall pick.
“Drew [Rosenhaus] told us the draft is unpredictable, but it was so tough,” said Wendy. “You couldn’t tell me he would go the whole night without being drafted. I was devastated. It was his dream to go first round.
“The first thing he said [after the first round] was, ‘Oh, my God, I feel like I let you guys down.’ ”
That comment tugged at Wendy’s heart, causing her to walk away so she could cry momentarily without Jawaan seeing her face.
But just as quickly, her maternal instincts kicked in. She went back to being the mother Jawaan always knew, the strong, nurturing woman that refused to let her overweight baby boy feel bad for being different than the other kids.
So Wendy told Jawaan this after that first-round NFL snub: “You have not let me down. I never asked you to be the best. The only thing I expected was your best. You gave this thing your best.”
With that kind of motherly encouragement and love, is it any wonder Taylor is a momma’s boy? Or wants a lot of his mother’s traits in a future wife? Or why he’s still angling to come up with just the right Mother’s Day gift, like that first pair of brown Gucci tennis shoes he bought for Wendy on her last birthday.
The present for Mom won’t be a new house or car because his parents already provided that for themselves long before the Jaguars or anybody else coveted him.
In reality, Wendy Taylor already has what she wants for Mother’s Day: a son who adores his mother, says he gives her hugs that often last 30 seconds or longer, and is living out his NFL dream two hours from home. Some gifts, a mother just can’t put a price on.
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