Editor's Note: I am trying to do a feature piece on different players from across the MAC. If you are a MAC coach, please let me know if you have a particular player you'd like featured in a similar piece. I'd like to do one player for every team throughout the season. Toledo will have the next feature.
Taylor after the final home win of the 2019 season, against Central Michigan.
"I want to be the greatest."
Coach Ray Baxter remembers the recruiting trip well. At the time, he was only an assistant for WMU, but he was sent out to try and seal some commitments with head coach Dacder. They were on their last leg of a recruiting blitz in the state of Ohio, and had stopped by the house of Sean Taylor on this particular Thursday afternoon in hopes of swaying him towards the Broncos. Taylor was a minute 5 foot 9 inches, and weighed in only a hair above 190 pounds, but Baxter sensed there was something more to the young Ashtabula native. "There was a ferocity in his eyes when he said those words," Baxter recalls. "I believed him when he told me."
The visit wasn't out of the ordinary; Baxter said they ate a meal with the family and gave them the pitch about Western Michigan, talking about everything from academics to playing time. "To be frank, I didn't know how we were going to land him. I mean, he was one of the most highly recruited players in the Midwest, and had fielded interest from just about every Big 10 school. Why were still on his list, I couldn't tell you."
Taylor was one of the most sought after prospects of the 2016 cycle. He was the 4th ranked cornerback, and the highest ranked DB in the Central region. His high school coach, Ken Parise, thought the hoopla surrounding Taylor was over the top. "This was just an 18 year old kid playing football, and he was the talk of the town. Ohio State, Michigan, Louisville- they all wanted him. The stadium was packed every Friday night, and it was all because he was playing. People around town knew he'd be special."
That's why it was so surprising when Taylor stopped Coach Baxter as he was preparing to leave that evening of the home visit.
"He grabbed me by the arm while I was walking out the door. I didn't know what was happening for a minute, but then he said, 'Coach, I think I'm ready to commit to your program,' and my jaw nearly hit the floor. Dacder and I just looked at each other. He said it with the same determined look he'd had when he met me that afternoon. When he said he wanted to be the greatest, I believed him. When he said he wanted to come to Western Michigan, I thought he was pulling a prank on us."
Just like that, Taylor's recruitment wrapped up. "It was only a couple weeks into his senior season," his mother, Teresa, said. "He didn't want the spotlight. He came home the night before Coach Baxter and Coach Dacder were coming to visit and told me that all the attention was getting in the way of his training. So that next night, he committed, and then completely shut down his recruiting."
Head Coach Dacder left after the 2016 season, but Sean Taylor's commitment didn't waver, especially after Baxter was promoted to Head Coach. He was a Bronco, and less than a week after graduating high school, he was on the road to Kalamazoo.
In his first practice for WMU, Taylor had a couple nice plays, but Coach Baxter said he wasn't ready to play.
When Taylor finally arrived on campus, he was not an immediate star. In fact, despite Coach Baxter's initial desire to play him at nickel his true freshman season, it became apparent that Taylor wasn't ready to see action.
"It sucked." Taylor responds to my questions only in between lifts. The only way he'd let me do the interview was if I didn't interfere with his schedule- a grueling schedule, I might add. Even though it is the offseason, he has stayed at Western Michigan all summer, working out three times a day with a personal trainer and coach. "When I committed, I expected to be an immediate contributor, but Coach Baxter had other plans. I didn't know the defense well enough, I guess. I was getting burned in practice and blowing coverages left and right. It was pretty discouraging."
So Taylor redshirted. He stood on the sidelines every game in the same brown sweatpants and sneakers every game his freshman year, the only variation in his wardrobe coming when it was too cold outside to wear only his jersey on top. He had a brown hoodie for just such an occasion. Taylor focused intently on the game as it played out. He shadowed the defensive coordinator every drive, trying to glean what he could from the play calling. His DB coach was constantly being pestered when the offense was on the field, too.
"I've never seen a redshirt that focused," said Baxter. "He went above and beyond to learn every second of every game. In the 4th quarter, no matter the score, he was still bugging the coaches to explain a call or an audible or something. It was insane. It would have been annoying if it weren't so great. By the end of the season, I was convinced he could've been an All-American as a freshman."
Taylor in his coming out party against Kent St. Taylor had 2 pick 6's in the 59-49 win.
Taylor didn't have too much fanfare going into the 2018 season. Other than the coaching staff, he was not a well known player around campus. "I liked it that way," Taylor admits. His workout has finished. Now, he's eating his third of five meals for the day. Salmon on a bed of rice, some steamed broccoli on the side. He eats it straight out of the tupperware he packaged it in, and shovels the food down his throat so fast you'd think he hadn't eaten in a week. "I can barely go to class without someone stopping me to talk or take a picture. And I love the Broncos fans and all, but I'm not here to be famous. I'm here to be great."
I tell him that being famous comes with the territory. He smirks. "I got a long way to go, but I guess I'm on the right track then."
Taylor played well his first season as a starter. He recorded interceptions in wins against Utah State and UTSA, as well as 2 in a shutout against Toledo (one of which he returned for a touchdown). However, he burst onto the national scene in a wild Week 12 game against conference opponent Kent St.
"That's a game I'll never forget," he tells me, this time not trying to hide a radiant smile. "It was the first time my mom had come to a game. We played there, so it was only about an hour and a half drive for her. She was working two jobs at the time, but both let her off for the whole weekend so she and my dad could bring my little sister down and they could spend the weekend with me."
And what a weekend it was. The game was a Thursday night game, and his family arrived just 30 minutes before kickoff. They found their seats and settled in for what would become one of the best games in MACtion history.
By the middle of the third quarter, MAC legend Emmanuel Fields had already rushed for 2 touchdowns, but Western Michigan was still trailing 35-28. Then Kent St. scored again, putting the score at 42-28. "At that point, I was losing hope," Taylor recalls. "I hadn't been playing super great, and given up a touchdown earlier in the night. But then Manny [Fields] scored again, and we were only down by seven, so Coach Baxter called us over and gave us a little pump up speech. He challenged us to get a stop so that the offense could score, but... I cut out the middle man and did the scoring myself."
It was 3rd and 7 with about 3 and half minutes left in the third quarter. Kent St was in a traditional I Formation, but then motioned a receiver across the field into the slot on Taylor's side. "I knew what to do. Kent St. had been running the same little rub play all year. I wasn't going to fall for it."
When the ball was snapped, Taylor backpedaled two steps to try and sell the fact that he was bailing. However, he planted his foot, and quarterback John Garland never saw him coming. As his receiver ran an out, Taylor undercut the pass and took it 46 yards for the score. He wasn't touched on the play.
"I was amped. We tied the game up on the PAT and had all the momentum. We were rolling." Taylor's smile remains as he recounts the events of that night. "I remember looking up into the stands and seeing my mom just going nuts as I crossed the plane of the goal line. She was jumping up and down and hugging my sister. I wasn't done though. I still had to show out for the family some more."
Kent St. answered right back. They marched down the field methodically, and the only thing that broke their rhythm was the end of the quarter. A minute into the fourth, they took the lead again. WMU would not go away, however, and had a sustained drive of their own, capped by another Emmanuel Fields TD, his fourth of the night, to tie the game at 49 with 8 minutes to go. Once again, it was time for the defense to step up.
"We all knew that we couldn't let them get rolling. They had a big kick return that put them on their 45, and then ran the ball for 6 yards on first down. They tried to test me on second down. That was their undoing."
Coach Baxter remembered calling out to Taylor frantically. "I was running down the sidelines waving my hands at him. He was on our side of the field, and they were in a set where they had a tendency to throw a go-route. I was going wild trying to make sure he recognized it, but he was as calm as could be. He just gave a thumbs up. I swear he even grinned. And before I knew it, he was making another play."
Taylor turned and ran with his man, Shannon Roman, down the sideline. He had safety help, so he tried to bait Garland into throwing the ball by pulling up just a hair and letting Roman get a step. Garland bit. The ball seemed to be perfectly placed, but at the last second, Taylor leaned into his man and reached his hand up, batting the ball into the air. Roman fell down, and that was all the help Taylor needed. He fielded the ball out of the air like it was a punt, and then cut back across the field behind his safety, Mohamed Walls, who threw a crushing block on Kent St's Harrison Mullin. Taylor broke two tackles and spun out of a third, and then it was off to the races. He wouldn't be caught. 79 yards later, he strolled into the endzone once again, putting the Broncos ahead for good, 56-49.
"I was crying tears of joy in the stands," Teresa Taylor said. "We hadn't seen Sean play in person since he was in high school, and now here he was, scoring touchdowns at the D1 level. We were-" she paused to dab at her eyes, "-so proud of him that day. We still are."
By the time he arrived back in Kalamazoo that weekend, he was a star.
Taylor breaks up a pass against Northern Illinois in week 13 of 2019.
2019 came and saw Taylor develop into one of the most dominant corners in the MAC. Even though his interception total dropped from 6 to 4, he saw fewer targets and saw his passes defended go way up. He was the face of the WMU defense under new coach Jieret, and helped lead them to a 10 win season and a bowl victory, the first in school history. But he isn't done.
Taylor makes sure that much is clear. His eating habits aside, he has what can only be described as an insatiable hunger to get better. I ask him why that is. "Who has ever gone down in history for being average? Alexander the Great wasn't just an average general. If he was, we wouldn't be talking about him now. I may just be a football player, but I'll be damned if I'm not the best football player I possibly can be."
I laugh and remind him he's already pretty good. He has fire in his eyes as he responds. "I didn't come here because I wanted to be pretty good. I'll tell you the same thing I told Coach Baxter and Coach Dacder when they recruited me:
"I want to be the greatest."