By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Inside a roadside chain hotel in Akron, Ohio, Jason Taylor sat across from a sports agent named Gary Wichard and listened to the most ridiculous proposal. It was 1996, and the agent spoke breathlessly of motion picture and television opportunities and lunches with celebrities. The agent knew people. The agent called important figures in Hollywood and they called him back. The agent had a cellphone with a 310 area code and an office at the bottom of the hill where Sunset Boulevard goes to meet the sea.
It was preposterous, of course, because nobody outside of dedicated football fans in northeastern Ohio and a handful of NFL scouts even had heard of Jason Taylor. He was a senior defensive end at the University of Akron who weighed only 229 pounds. And yet here was Wichard saying that if Taylor would only choose him as his agent, he would make the player a Hollywood sensation.
Sitting in the back of a quiet auditorium at Redskins Park recently, Taylor chuckled at the memory. "I'm surprised I signed with him. I thought he was crazy," he said.
Today, Taylor will line up at defensive end for the Washington Redskins against the Arizona Cardinals largely because Wichard's words came true and the player landed a role last spring on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." The show put him in direct conflict with the offseason workout program of his previous employer, the Miami Dolphins, who decided they no longer wanted their most popular player over the last decade and traded him to Washington.
In a way, this is a byproduct of a sports world in which players are increasingly aware of opportunities in the entertainment field, sometimes even cutting athletic careers short when lucrative broadcasting jobs come open. In the spring of 2007, the NFL held a two-day training camp for players who aspired to move into broadcasting. And in the past year, former Redskins quarterback Tim Hasselbeck and onetime Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer left football after being offered announcing positions. Early in 2007, New York Giants running back Tiki Barber retired at 31, following his two most productive seasons, to take on various roles at NBC, including the "Today" show.
"I think it's a branding thing," said Ian Birch, who until this summer was the chief content officer of TV Guide. "More and more sportsmen and women looked to become brands and extend their celebrity. Do you want to retire to some fishing village or do you want to start laying down the foundation for some kind of brand?"
Taylor, named one of People magazine's 100 most beautiful people and one of TV's top 10 dream men by Us Weekly, already is a brand. But in attempting to become a star who can cross over from sports to Hollywood while still playing, he seeks something rarely ventured by athletes. The great Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown began his film career while still active in the game. But what makes Taylor unique is that his entertainment career was planned for him before he even joined the NFL.
And yet nothing is guaranteed. While Taylor turned out to be enormously popular on "Dancing With the Stars" -- fans, for instance, flooded TV Guide's blogs and chat rooms with adoring messages -- he still faces great odds in trying to convert his run on the show into something broader.
"There was a bit of a storm there and that's not something to ignore," Birch said of Taylor's popularity on the show. "But it won't propel you to superstardom. There is no precedent. 'Dancing With the Stars' has been a successful vehicle for rebooting fading profiles and in a few cases -- like Mario Lopez [who finished second to Emmitt Smith, another former NFL star, in the show's third season] -- generating new career opportunities. So far, these tend to revolve around cameo roles in Broadway musicals, book deals, TV newsmagazine shows and the like. But a major Hollywood role? Not so much."
It's a thought echoed by Fred Dryer, a defensive end for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams who made the transition from football to television in the early 1980s, landing the lead role in the police drama "Hunter," which ran for seven years on NBC.
"Jason Taylor is very charismatic and very, very likable, and like they say you don't get to play defensive end because you are a nice guy, you play it because you are good," Dryer said. "It's the same with acting. Something either happens behind the camera or it doesn't.
"I find it takes awhile to break through that way of carrying yourself as a football player. It's always incumbent upon you to become that everyday guy and not have that air, as they say in acting class, of coming off seeming like roses being looked at. There is an actual skill in acting class, and when people say you are a natural it's a trap. I spent five years in acting class before I left football. You can go through some humiliating moments in front of people."Man With a Plan
Wichard envisioned the dream long before Taylor came along. Throughout the 1990s, while he courted Taylor, he was trying to maneuver one of his more notorious clients, Brian Bosworth, into an acting career, envisioning Bosworth as the next great action hero. But Bosworth, whose rise from the University of Oklahoma to the Seattle Seahawks was a brilliant climb that ended in a spectacular fall, has found only moderate success in Hollywood. The name never has carried. The player never was good enough on the field or talented enough off of it.
Taylor is different, Wichard believes. Taylor was the NFL's defensive player of the year two seasons ago. He looks like an actor. With Taylor, Wichard hopes he has struck gold.
"Behind the scenes we have been doing this for years," Wichard said. "Now it's out of the closet. He has television star on his résumé."
Wichard loves the fact that Taylor is playing in Washington. The agent has long been fascinated with the Redskins. He is friendly with the team's executive vice president, Vinny Cerrato, and he thinks team owner Daniel Snyder's investments in movie and TV production companies are good for his top client's prospective transition into a Hollywood career.
On July 20, when Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels suffered a serious knee injury in the first hour of the first practice of training camp and Cerrato maneuvered to trade for Taylor by midafternoon, Wichard was ecstatic. For some time, Taylor said, Wichard has been raving about Washington, then suddenly he was here.
"I know that Phillip Daniels went down [making the trade possible], but that only expedited this," Wichard said. "This was a team that was on Jason's radar. Dan being who he is is a very big factor. Dan sees the big picture more than any other owner in the NFL. He's been second to none."
A day later, still excited about the prospect of Taylor playing for Snyder, Wichard gushed, "I couldn't handpick a better owner to be associated with."
It's difficult to say whether Snyder sees the relationship with Taylor in quite the same light as Wichard. Cerrato said the team's acquisition of Taylor was "football only" and that Snyder's TV production company "has not entered into any of the discussions."
There appears to be a trust between Taylor and Wichard that is a little different from many others. Perhaps it was sealed that day in Akron, or maybe it has come over the years as Wichard's vision has played out so well: first with some local advertisements in Miami, then a national ad campaign for Neutrogena and ultimately "Dancing With the Stars."
In case anyone thinks Wichard is manufacturing an entertainment career for Taylor without Taylor's full endorsement, it should be known that they very much are on the same page.
"I think your agent is a direct reflection of your personality, and he should be a direct reflection of your personality," Taylor said. "While they can be more cutthroat than us sometimes, I don't think they can deviate from your core values too much because they are representing you. And I think Gary was everything I wanted in an agent, and over the years I've learned from him more who I am and what I want to be."
The Accidental Star
The precision with which Taylor's Hollywood life has been planned is in sharp contrast to the accidental nature of his football career. As a teenager growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Taylor never dreamed of playing football. His mother, Georgia, and adoptive father, Tony, were strict Baptists and his mother decided to home-school him in high school. They sent him on missionary trips to Grenada and Mexico.
And while he was allowed to play basketball in junior high school and found his way on a handful of AAU teams around the city, his life outside of the lessons at home was mostly work. The jobs were hard and the neighborhood was not a nice place, according to Taylor's best friend, Bryan Coles, who grew up nearby and became his college roommate.
Taylor took a job with a fire and water restoration company that was contracted by the city of Pittsburgh to clean up after murders and suicides. He had to scrub away the blood, fluids and feces that drained from the dead in the days before they were found. Then he would cut out the floor, disinfect the area and rebuild it. "It was a nasty job," he recalled.
One day, while working a much more pleasant landscaping position, the football coach from the local high school approached Taylor from his home across the street and asked him where he went to school. When Taylor explained that he was home-schooled, the coach asked if he wanted to come out for the football team.
After one good year his senior season he managed to draw the attention of the University of Akron, which offered him a scholarship. At Akron, despite weighing only about 200 pounds, he managed to dominate at defensive end in part because of his quickness and in part because he had an uncanny ability to notice flaws in offensive players' techniques.
Dolphins defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday, who became his teammate in Miami in 2005, still marvels at the way Taylor can watch game films and quickly spot the smallest detail. "He's always looking for an offensive lineman to cheat," Holiday said. "Maybe the guy twists his knee just before he jumps out or puts extra pressure on his hand. He sees how the quarterback squats or how he moves his hands just before the ball is snapped. There are probably guys who are faster than him, but he's spent so much time studying the films looking for the little things."
It's what's gotten him this far as a player.
When Wichard first raised the idea last December of having Taylor appear on "Dancing With the Stars," the player said "hell no," and hung up. Wichard eventually was able to soften him to the point where Taylor mentioned the concept to Holliday, who erupted in laughter.
Things didn't get much better when he showed up for his first rehearsal with partner Edyta Sliwinska and admitted he couldn't dance. She asked if he could at least feel the music in his feet. He shook his head and told her he could hear the music in his ears. "Oh boy, we're in trouble," he remembered her saying.
But somewhere the athlete's ego took over. He spent entire days in studios around Los Angeles with Sliwinska, learning the dances, trying to find the right moves. Eventually it worked. They wound up as the runners-up. The show gave Taylor a bit of legitimacy in Hollywood.
"Jason has a lot of potential to make it in this business," said Taylor's Hollywood agent, Patrick Whitesell, who represents Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, among others.
Whether he will reach it is unknown. To really make it, Whitesell said, he will have to work. And work hard. This, even as Taylor insists he wants to play two more years.
"The first step is getting noticed and he's already done that," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "And if you think of the ladder as having 1,000 steps, he's already taken the first 100 by being a football star and being noticed, and another 100 by being on a reality show, and another 100 by having a big agent. But it's those last steps that are always the hardest."
And the only way of knowing if the most improbable proposal made one day in Akron will ever come true.