When Joe Taylor was 7, he wanted a football uniform for Christmas. And he wanted the works: shoulder pads, kneepads and that beautiful, shiny helmet.
His parents told him they couldn't afford one.
Later, Taylor says, he found out that the real reason was his parents thought football was too rough. Their objections notwithstanding, Taylor played in the neighborhood little league on Morton Street in Northwest Washington, where he ultimately received the much-coveted uniform. Even Taylor's parents were finally won over.
"They saw I wanted to do it," he says. "They didn't take it too seriously until I was in high school."
His first time out on the Morton Street field, Taylor says, was painful. "I got hit hard a couple of times. From that moment, I wanted revenge."
Taylor continued playing, at Banneker Junior High School, Cardozo High School and then at Western Illinois, where he was a guard from 1968-72. Now, he's at home in a new role:head football coach at Howard University, which finished 6-5 last season for fourth place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
The resolve Taylor has shown could be needed in his new job. The Bison started last season 1-4, including back-to-back losses to South Carolina State (50-0) and Florida A&M (62-3), before winning four straight. They closed out the season by losing to Western Illinois and then beating rival Morgan State, 42-19.
The problems went beyond performance and often were blamed on then-coach Floyd Keith, who resigned in February after four tumultuous years and a 23-17-2 record. "For one reason or another, the players didn't give their best," says Taylor, who signed a two-year contract. "Sometimes a change is necessary."
Howard hired Taylor, 32, last season as the defensive coordinator, although his previous college experience had been with the offense, first as a line coach at Eastern Illinois and then as an offensive coordinator at Virginia Union (1980-82). At Howard, "I was the defensive coordinator in all but two games, South Carolina State and Florida A&M. I don't know who the coordinator was those days," he jokes.
Darrell Mudra, Taylor's coach at Western Illinois, gave Taylor his first opportunity in college coaching. In 1978, Mudra moved to coach Eastern Illinois and won the Division II championship.
The day he was hired by Eastern, Mudra called Taylor, offering him the job of offensive line coach. "When Darrell was the coach at Florida State (1975), he called and wanted to know if I wanted to come down there. I didn't want to then but when he called again, my wife and I packed our bags.
"Winning the national championship (10-9 over Delaware) was a real thrill."
It was a good thing that Taylor didn't take the job at Florida State, because Mudra was gone the next year after a record of 4-18 over two seasons. But Taylor had another reason--he had started the District's high school wrestling program in 1972 and didn't want to leave yet.
Taylor, then the head football coach at H.D. Woodson High School (1972-77), had started the wrestling program because "I wanted to find a place for the kids to channel their energy. Wrestling took care of the more aggressive types, even the 98-pounders."
It began as a club sport and grew to varsity level. "It took a lot of hours and understanding people," he says.
A sign hangs on the coach's office wall. It reads: "No compromise. Man. Student. Athlete." "That's what we're trying to build," Taylor says.
He relaxes in his Georgia Avenue office, a few blocks away from his old stomping grounds at the Morton Street field. "It's kind of ironic," he says. "I never had any idea that I'd be back here."