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Jason Taylor's 20-Mile Journey to the NFL Hall of Fame

[Photo: Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock]

The distance from the University of Akron to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, is exactly 20 miles. Only a 25-minute trip by car, but for former Akron Zip Jason Taylor, that journey took 20 years.

Taylor was inducted into the Hall of Fame Saturday, as part of a seven-member class that included running back LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback Kurt Warner and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, among others.

After growing up in Pittsburgh, being raised by a single-mother, Taylor played four years at Akron as a linebacker and defensive end. Following his college career, he was drafted in the third round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins, where he would spend 13 of his 15 seasons.

“Back then, I couldn’t fathom that over the course of the next two decades, step by step, I’d travel those 20 miles to be on this stage wearing this jacket,” Taylor said at the start of his induction speech. “20 years to travel 20 miles, but it was worth every bit of it I’ll tell you what.”

Taylor went on to say, former coach and fellow Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson by his side, that his 20-mile journey almost didn’t happen.

“After about the fifth day of training camp my rookie year, between all the two-a-days, the heat and humidity, and Jimmy; I went back to my room one night and I called my mom,” Taylor said. “I said ‘You know what, mom? I don’t think this NFL thing is for me.’ I was that beaten down after five days. She said, ‘Well you can come on home and get a job or go into the military, or you can get your butt to bed and get back to practice.’”

He took his mother’s advice and never looked back. Taylor went on to record 139.5 sacks and 525 tackles in his career. He was also the model of consistency, missing only seven games over 15 seasons.

Along with thanking his former coaches and teammates for playing roles in his success, Taylor also got emotional when talking about his former agent Gary Wichard, who died of cancer in 2011.

“As the NFL became a real possibility, another person came into my life to who prove to be one of the most impactful, personally and professionally: Gary Wichard. He was my agent, but he was so much more,” Taylor said, fighting back tears. “He was a dear friend, he was an advisor, he was a mentor, and he was truly the father I never had. No one believed in me the way Gary did.”

When Taylor shifted to talking about his family, he once again was moved to tears when talking about his three children.

“My hearts,” Taylor started. “My kids, Isaiah, Mason and Zoe, you guys are my world. I’ve always believed that no matter what you do in life for a profession, or want to be the best at, no level of success in any walk of life means anything if you’re not taking care of what’s important first. I never had a father, and there’s no bigger honor, there’s no bigger blessing and there’s no greater job in this world than being a father.

“I love you guys from the bottom of my heart. Thank you guys for always being there and supporting me, even when you were young and you didn’t know what was going on a lot of times. You and your mom were always there to support me, and without that I would not be here. So keep growing, keep being who you guys are, I’m very, very proud of you.”

Despite the success Taylor found throughout his career, he says he holds only one regret, and encouraged others to learn from his experience.

“I was so focused on the destination the entire time, I didn’t enjoy the ride enough,” Taylor said. “I wish I could go back and savor every film session, every pre-game meal with my teammates, every locker room prank, every post-game speech (…). So I challenge each and every one of you today to enjoy your journey. Wonderful experiences become distant memories so fast. Too fast.

“My football career, forever, ends right here, tonight. My gratitude is eternal. Thank you.”

Taylor’s 20 mile trip to Canton took longer than most and included stops in Miami, Washington and New York. Despite the delay, Taylor is now one of the chosen few to reside on the pinnacle of the sport, and has found his new lifelong team.

“A team we cannot get cut from, we cannot get traded from, like Deacon Jones said, you can’t even die from it.”