His childhood meant attempting to keep up with Sean as their father, Pete Taylor, put them through a rigorous training regimen that included running hills and highways in Miami. Gabe would master those drills as he got older.
It meant, as Gabe recalled, the big brother — 18 years his senior — coming to the rescue after someone at a party dunked on a basketball hoop, causing it to fall on Gabe. It meant Sean handing Gabe the football seconds after he scored on a fumble return in Washington’s last playoff victory in 2006.
It also meant coming to grips with losing an older brother to gun violence, a loss that took Gabe a couple of years to fully grasp.
“That’s when all the pressure came to me [to play] football,” Gabe says. “So I had to make a name for myself.”
Taylor has done just that. The child who idolized his larger-than-life brother is now a hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety set to make his collegiate debut for Rice on Saturday afternoon when the Owls host Middle Tennessee.
‘No way we’re getting this kid’
Taylor took a hiatus from football during his first three years at Miami’s Gulliver Prep to focus on basketball. Years of pleading from the school’s football coaches eventually worked. Taylor returned to the gridiron, playing his senior season on Sean Taylor Memorial Field. In his first year of football since youth league, little brother produced. Taylor intercepted 10 passes in 12 games for the Raiders, returning five for touchdowns.
Rice defensive line coach Cedric Calhoun had been recruiting high school players in South Florida for years. When he got a glimpse of this one-year, playmaking prodigy, he alerted his fellow coaches. The Owls’ staff visited Gulliver Prep to watch film in December. Taylor stood out immediately.
“I remember as we started to watch him, our wide receivers coach, Mike Kershaw, goes, ‘This is a guy that’s different than anything we have,’ ” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren recalled. “You can’t help but watch the video. It doesn’t take long to see that the ball likes Gabe Taylor, like he’s always around it. And somehow it ends up in his hands very often.”
“He just popped off the tape in his ability to create turnovers,” Rice defensive coordinator and safeties coach Brian Smith said. “He was just making real instinctive plays, just doing things that you can’t coach. … I thought it was a no-brainer.”
Gulliver Prep Coach Earl Sims is effusive in his praise of Taylor, calling his former safety a “playmaker in every phase. And if there’s a scouting report against him, it should read: find him. He’s the first person you find. See if he got off the plane.”
“He’s cerebral; he’s physical,” Sims said. “He plays with a mentality that is from the old school, and he’s committed. You get it all. He’s kind of like a coach on the field. It’s like he’s been there before.
“We’ve had a lot of great players come through Gulliver Prep, but he’s on another level.”
Despite the lack of game tape, Smith was “shocked” that Taylor’s senior-year production didn’t generate more interest from colleges.
“I just assumed we had no shot at the kid. I assumed he had a bunch of offers,” Smith said. “I kind of just laughed it off, like, ‘There’s no way we’re getting this kid.’ ”
Rice wasn’t looking for a safety when scouting Taylor. But when a safety on its roster entered the transfer portal, the Owls swooped in to scoop up Taylor.
“They let it be known that they wanted me at Rice,” Taylor recalled of the Owls’ recruiting efforts. “Coach Calhoun was like, ‘If you don’t get on this plane, I’m going to get fired.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, they really want me here.’ ”
Taylor’s February commitment made him Rice’s highest-rated recruit in the 247Sports era. Not bad for a player who was unranked when the Owls began pursuing him.
In Houston, Taylor has made people pay attention just as he did in Miami. Buried on Rice’s depth chart, the true freshman capitalized on an opportunity to showcase his talents when three safeties sat out an October scrimmage because of injuries. Taylor had already collected a handful of interceptions and big hits during preseason practices. One of those hits recently circulated on social media, giving observers in Washington and Miami an eerie feeling of familiarity.
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds and wearing No. 26 as his brother did for the Miami Hurricanes, Gabe is about five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Sean was entering his freshman year of college. But he makes up for the lack of size. Taylor describes himself as a ballhawk, as does Smith. Bloomgren and Sims call him a ball magnet. Taylor is lauded for possessing the attributes needed to thrive in his role.
“He’s so instinctive; he’s such a ballhawk,” Smith said. “He does things … that you can’t really coach. He sees the game a different way. He just has a knack for finding the ball. The ball kind of finds him.”
“The ball loves him,” Bloomgren said. “I don’t know how else to say it. He is around the freakin’ ball. His anticipation of things is out of sight. He’s a really good safety that sees the game — especially for his lack of experience playing it — he sees the game and feels the game so incredibly well.”
Rice’s biggest defensive priority heading into 2020 was to create more turnovers, and Taylor’s ability to read a quarterback should help the Owls do just that.
In the second week of practice, Taylor won the Turnover King award, given to the Owl who creates the most turnovers.
The play that surfaced online this month showed Taylor readjusting to make a break for a receiver. Taylor then delivered a hit that knocked the receiver off his feet and forced the ball out of his hands. His teammates stormed the field.
“That hit, when it surfaced online, it had to make people realize, ‘Yep, that probably is Sean’s little brother,’ ” Bloomgren said.
Sims had to stop himself from getting too emotional when discussing the comparison.
“That’s why I pause because I get,” Sims said before stopping to regain his composure, “I get chill bumps, because it’s like, when I say that this cat been here before, it’s just crazy, it’s unexplainable, but you know what it is.
“It’s like he’s been here. He’s seen the game before. Gabe is his own man, so I try not to mention his brother too many times. But when I say he’s been here before, it’s a crazy feeling when you see him making plays like that.”
Despite his lack of size, Gabe doesn’t back down from challenges. Bloomgren and Smith both gleefully recalled Taylor going one-on-one against a running back who outweighed him by about 50 pounds.
“He was able to make a form tackle, pick the dude off the ground, it’s unbelievable,” Bloomgren said. “. . . It’s un-freakin’-believable the courage that it takes from Gabe, the fact that there was no second thought and the guy turns what looks like was going to be an explosive run, Gabe shut it down to three yards.”
‘I love the fans in Washington’
Most of Gabe’s life has been accompanied by love and admiration from Washington Football Team fans. November marks 13 years since his brother’s murder. Since then, his brother’s name was added to Washington’s Ring of Fame and his No. 21 has been unofficially retired. Last month the franchise named a street at FedEx Field Sean Taylor Road.
Donning the burgundy and gold in a few years just as his brother did for 3½ seasons has certainly crossed Gabe’s mind.
“I love the fans in Washington,” Taylor said. “They always show love. They say they want me to come play for them. Hopefully that comes one year.”
Playing high school ball at Sean Taylor Memorial Field and professionally by Sean Taylor Road would bring Gabe’s football career full circle.
“I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but I’m just saying to see him walk down Sean Taylor [Road] and into that FedEx Field, it would be a great, great feeling,” Pete Taylor said.
Gabe says he understands the pressure associated with trying to live up to his brother’s legacy but he fully embraces the challenge.
“Oh, there’s for sure pressure right now,” Gabe says. “But … I always wanted pressure my whole life. I’m not going to shy away from it.”
Taylor’s next step in developing his own identity begins Saturday when he takes the field at Rice Stadium, where he will attempt to help change the culture of a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2015.
“When the clock starts, in between the lines I’m focused on winning,” Taylor says. “I didn’t come to Rice to waste my time. I’m just trying to win. That’s all I want to do here at Rice.”