Limited to playing just a game and a half of high school football because of his mother's strict Seventh Day Adventist religion, Colorado linebacker Davion Taylor laid a path to the NFL with his faith in God and a deep belief in himself
By Chase Goodbread | Published April 1, 2020
The walk always began the same way, with a baked chicken breast, mashed potatoes and green beans -- a pre-game meal that never varied -- anchoring Davion Taylor's stomach like a rock. He never found it particularly tasty, but the alternative -- an empty stomach knotted with stress and pain and regret -- was no way to face the gut punch that awaited him at 5 p.m. every Friday, like clockwork, when he'd push open the exit door.
That's what time the South Pike Eagles would pour out of the cafeteria, all but one of them wearing game jerseys, and head left toward the locker room to brew anticipation for that night's game. And where their best player, Taylor, would instead bear right and begin his lonely walk home. A linebacker from the University of Colorado, Taylor has walked what might be the most unlikely path of anyone who will get selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. He got there walking home, and walking away from something virtually every NFL player has in common -- a high school football career.
He was forbidden from playing by his mother, because of her devout adherence to the 20th of 28 fundamental beliefs of the Seventh Day Adventist Church: observance of the Sabbath. Adventist doctrine doesn't permit recreational activities from sunset Friday -- when high school games kicked off under the lights in his hometown of Magnolia, Mississippi -- to sunset Saturday. Stephanie Taylor meant business when it came to keeping the faith, and that meant keeping Magnolia's best athlete at home on Friday nights.
At home on the rare occasions when a college scout would roam the sideline at South Pike, a small school of about 500 students in a rural corner of southwest Mississippi, looking for an athlete like him.
At home while, around the nation, the majority of the 2020 draft class was attracting the scholarship offers necessary to, in turn, attract the NFL.
At home while his teammates played on a field with yard lines he had chalked for them, drinking from water bottles he had filled for them, nursing injuries with ice he had bagged -- anything to feel a part of the team -- for them.
Taylor's pain was visible each Friday as he turned his back on South Pike's Colee Field.
"You could see him walk off with his head hung low. You could see his shoulders slumped," said Jason Tillmon, Taylor's teammate and best friend. "I tried to cheer him up, but what can you say to someone in his situation? You can't say, 'Your religion is getting in your way.' "
A likely mid-round selection in the upcoming draft, Taylor now stands on the cusp of a pro football career that Sabbath observance once made a fraction of the pipedream it would normally be. It was hard enough for even the most athletic kid at South Pike to attract college recruiters. But it was all but impossible to rise from a polarizing triangle that pulled him between respect for his mother, Adventist orthodoxy, and its inherent conflict with another religion: high school football in the deep South.
Davion would wish his teammates good luck as he left them on late Friday afternoons, and they would in turn console him with a cursory hug, a pat on the back, and no questions asked. He faced enough pressure, from all kinds of angles, to suit up and play with them. They didn't win much, which only intensified that pressure, and they had a certain awareness that belaboring Davion's predicament as he exited the cafeteria would only make him feel worse as his walk home began. Not the time. Not the place.
Stephanie Taylor's North Clark Avenue address leads GPS technology directly to Magnolia Court, a small, dilapidated storefront building with what appears to be just one functioning business. It used to be called the Wash Board, but that sign has come down, revealing an actual antique washboard nailed above the doorway, and replaced by a hand-painted, sign reading Washateria, a 1950's term for laundromat. The building used to be an old motel, she says, and sure enough, a few rooms overlooking a second-floor balcony appear as though they might still be for rent. The Taylor residence, however, is in an annexed building hidden behind the storefront, accessible by car only around the right side thanks to a massive mud puddle on the left side that looks borderline impassable.
This is where Stephanie Taylor's own hometown tried to break her.
They wore a path straight to her door -- coaches, neighbors, teachers -- mud puddles be damned, and asked her to bend her faith just enough to let her boys play ball on a day of rest for Adventists. Most dipped the awkwardness of asking such a thing in as much Southern politeness as possible, but a few didn't always bother with niceties. A former South Pike coach once tested Stephanie with the shiniest of lures, audaciously offering cash to a single mother of modest means if she would allow her oldest son, LaDarris, to break the Sabbath by playing football on a Friday night.
The offer was as futile as it was inartful.
LaDarris, according to one South Pike coach, could fling a 65-yard spiral as an eighth-grader and was destined to be the Eagles' varsity quarterback as a freshman until word got around town that his mother would not allow Friday night football to clash with the Adventist Sabbath. So, the school's best athlete was only allowed to play junior varsity ball in ninth and 10th grade -- JV games didn't violate the Sabbath because they were played on Thursdays -- until a state rule barring JV participation beyond the 10th grade effectively ended LaDarris' football career. He blocked his favorite sport out of his mind and joined the Marines out of high school, so by the time his brother, Davion, reached high school two years later, South Pike coaches and fans knew he, too, would be finished as a JV sophomore.
In a two-hour conversation about the spiritual decisions that suppressed not one but two promising football careers, Stephanie comes to tears just once. Flanked by photos of her sons -- Davion in a Colorado uniform on her right, and a proud, smiling Marine corporal pictured in full dress uniform on her left -- she stops talking about their pain just long enough to talk about her own.
"I prayed, 'Lord, why did you give me boys who play football so good, and they can't play? Why give me two athletes like this?' " she asked, suppressing tears. "What hurt me at times was to see them go through this, and people just not wanting to respect it. That was hard for me. And they came to me and begged to play -- Momma, please! -- and I loved them so much. But I could not do it."
It would be easy enough to assume the strength of Stephanie Taylor's faith is rooted in a strict upbringing, but you would have her all wrong. She found a home in the Seventh Day Adventist Church on her own, in her early 20s, after her previous church left her unfulfilled.
"I wasn't getting fed spiritually," she said.
Her new faith required she wean herself off certain foods, and pork -- she'd always had a taste for bacon -- was most difficult to give up. But with help from a pastor she grew to trust implicitly, she wholly bought in. And that meant keeping the Sabbath without exception. According to Adventist.org, recreation or "intensive physical exertion and various forms of tourism are out of harmony with true Sabbath observance."
No matter what anyone thought of the hard stance she took with LaDarris and Davion, there was nothing hypocritical about it; Stephanie observed the Sabbath herself with every bit the intensity she demanded from them. This is a woman who missed her oldest son's wedding last August in order to keep the Sabbath. Wedding plans intended to time the ceremony after a Saturday sunset were a bit off, so she could only make it to the reception.
"I missed the first dance," she said.
When Davion played day games at Colorado the last two years, Stephanie couldn't watch, because that would be a recreational activity on a Sabbath Saturday. For night games, however, once the sun had set in Magnolia, she would watch him on television at a friend's house.
With that level of devotion, it's no wonder she could stand firm against all the pleas from her sons and neighbors to make an exception for a ballgame. Stephanie had a level of respect, however, for those who would at least confront her directly, wielding cash or otherwise, and less for those who undermined her parental authority by pressuring LaDarris and Davion outside her presence.
"They wanted to play badly enough without hearing about it all the time," she said. "And when people would lay it on them at school or wherever, they would then bring everyone else's frustration into my home."
When LaDarris turned 18 during his senior year, just a couple months after football season had ended, Stephanie told him he was old enough to make his own decisions regarding Adventist faith, and no longer had to observe the Sabbath if he chose not to. Davion, 16 at the time, did the math: his 18th birthday would also fall too late to play with the varsity.
LaDarris says he holds neither regret nor anger about it.
He arrives at Stephanie's apartment and sits with his mom to discuss how Adventist faith veered his life away from football. Four years in the Marines have given him the body of an NFL linebacker just like his brother's, but even bigger, with a flashing bright smile and a bone-crushing handshake. In a town as small as Magnolia, he's constantly reminded by those who saw him play JV football that his brother's impossible path to the NFL could have, should have, been his. Asked how long it's been since he last heard such a comment, he sighs and points toward the Family Dollar store just a short walk up North Clark Street.
"Yesterday," he says. "Some guys I played with were up there and told me I ought to be getting drafted, too. I don't mind it. It's good to know people still remember what I could do."
As he stepped off school property, Davion would make a left onto North Prewett Street needing something to take his mind off football. His head drooped in sorrow, his eyes naturally locked onto the sidewalk. He would count the seams in it, although he can no longer remember how many of them separated South Pike from his mother's apartment. He'd avoid stepping on them all the way home.
Listening to Rochelle Collins' voice crackle over the P.A. system brought Taylor closer to the action on Friday nights than anything else. His mother's apartment was so close to South Pike he could open his bedroom window and hear Collins' voice boom through the stadium amplifiers.
He'd be in bed by the opening kickoff but with no intention of sleeping. A few friends would text him quarterly updates and, perhaps, word of an Eagles touchdown. He'd even get glimpses of the action if one of his classmates launched Facebook Live from the bleachers, usually only for a quick minute. But Collins unwittingly provided him broken, bread-crumb bits of a broadcast with her P.A. comments from the press box.
"I'd get up under the covers and try to pick up anything I could hear over there. I could hear when the crowd went crazy and knew it was a touchdown for us, but at a home game, you can't tell when the other team scores," Taylor said. "I could always hear the announcer say, 'First down and 10,' but I didn't always know who had the ball."
Taylor would cobble together those scraps of intel just to gain a crude understanding of how the game flowed, all to avoid the embarrassment of having to ask later.
"I didn't want to go to school Monday and not know anything about what happened," he said.
The idea of having to give up his football career, for Davion, evoked real emotional loss.
LaDarris saw his mother's hardline stance in a more pragmatic way, made a measure of peace with it, and threw his heart into something else -- military service. It's unfair, Davion says, to presume LaDarris had less love for the game than he, because his brother loved it first, and loved it large. It's just that when football dead-ended for LaDarris, he made a clean, cold break.
Davion could not.
"He wouldn't talk about it much," said Kim Tillmon, Jason's mother and one of Stephanie's close friends. "But his countenance, if you know him, it just gave him away, how sad he was."
Taylor practiced every week with a reckless exuberance -- practices, after all, were his games -- and was attentive in team meetings to learn a weekly game plan that didn't involve him. Determined to have some role in South Pike's games, even a peripheral one, he took on various tasks of a team manager for coach John Culpepper. On Thursdays, he'd help line the field if needed. Fridays before his dreaded walk home, he'd stock the benches with water and ice and make sure the press box was in order. Sometimes on Sundays, he'd even meander back to school to help Culpepper wash Colee Field dirt off game uniforms, wishing his -- just one time -- would also have to be cleaned.
Taylor came to recognize a familiar quizzical look in people who still hadn't gotten a satisfactory explanation -- as if they were even owed one -- for why he couldn't play ball. Outwardly, Taylor was cordial with them all. Underneath, his patience understandably ran thin.
"He could've said, 'Mind your business,' but he'd give a quick recap of what his religion is and why his mother didn't let him play," Jason Tillmon said. "At times, people would get aggressive and continuously ask, and it would make him feel bad about the whole thing. It got old for him."
On Senior Night, when players are honored with their parents on the field before kickoff, Stephanie was willing to participate -- the sun would still be up -- but Davion declined.
"I didn't want to have to walk off that field knowing everybody else was about to play, listen to the crowd cheer for me, and then have to take that walk again? No," Davion said. "If I had seen that crowd, with my mother there beside me, it would've been too much pressure for both of us."
As Davion's walk approached West Olive Street, his concentration on tallying sidewalk seams would be broken with another reminder of what he'd be missing that night. Far off to his left, the South Pike band would launch into warmups and pound that night's halftime performance into his ears. After all the commenting he endured around school and town on what was, in large measure, a private matter, here came the South Pike music department putting in its two cents.
Steven Miller didn't believe it the first time. Or the second. The new Coahoma (Miss.) Community College coach had just taken over a program that was 1-26 over the previous three years and was mostly recruiting players no other JUCO in the state wanted, when Taylor, at nearly 200 pounds, blazed by him with a 4.43 40-yard dash at an open tryout.
Miller asked Taylor to run again: 4.43. And again: 4.43.
He looked across the finish line at linebackers coach Charles Lee, whose expression said it all.
"Somebody missed on this guy," Lee said.
Taylor had already toted his dying football hopes to one of Mississippi's least successful, athlete-starved JUCOs -- Southwest, 3-6 the year before and just 15 miles from Magnolia -- and been turned away. Copiah-Lincoln said no thanks as well. Four-year schools wouldn't touch a player with no football resume, even as a walk-on, even one with a strong academic record like Taylor's, and until Coahoma took him on, two-year schools had passed on him as well.
One problem: Miller had no roster spot available. JUCO rosters were limited to 55 scholarship players with no walk-ons, but the roster didn't have to be certified until the first week of the 2016 season. As such, Taylor went through preseason practices not knowing whether he'd be kept or cut.
A practice player only, all over again.
"Someone was going to have to quit, or I was going to lose him, one of the two. I (didn't) have the balls to cut someone after I'd just given them a scholarship. The first one that came in the door and said, 'I'm homesick,' I said, 'Hmm, yeah, you should go on and be with your family,' " Miller said with a laugh. "My coaches died laughing after the kid walked out. I was about to have to cut Davion."
Taylor, meanwhile, was praying in his dorm room for a roster spot.
"I thought it was about to be over," he said. "If they had cut me, I would've been done with sports. Maybe be a personal trainer."
Taylor signed his scholarship the day before Coahoma's season opener. He was tried as a pass-rushing linebacker in a 3-4 defense, even at an undersized 200 pounds, mainly because it was the easiest position to learn. As athletic as he was, his skill set couldn't have been more raw.
"His stance was a mess, and if you ran any kind of misdirection, you'd get him every time," Miller said. "He only knew how to run with the flow, he didn't know how to read guards, none of that. But he could run right by people in pass rush, so we put him there until we could get him coached up."
Davion didn't know the people sitting on the porches that lined Prewett Street, watching his weekly march, and it was just as well; by each Friday, he'd already explained why he wasn't playing as many times as he could stand. Over his left shoulder, the Adventist Sabbath approached with the setting sun.
Ross Els has been at enough coaching stops over 30 years to know JUCO players often put off small-school recruiters while awaiting offers from bigger schools. But it's not something Power Five programs like Colorado ever deal with. Here the former Buffaloes assistant coach was, offering to sign Taylor up for three years at CU, with its annual athletic budget approaching $70 million, after just one season at Coahoma. Taylor declined -- not for another offer, but to stay another year at arguably the worst JUCO program in Mississippi.
Taylor looked in the mirror and saw a kid with just one year of playing experience who needed more seasoning. He wasn't big enough for Power Five linebacking, nor had he learned enough about the position. Els would've been glad to redshirt him for a year to provide that development -- an opportunity JUCO players would normally jump at -- but Taylor didn't want to come until he was ready to contribute.
"Colorado was pretty shocked," Taylor said. "Coach Els said, 'I thought this was what you wanted.' But I learned so much my second year at Coahoma. It was a smart decision."
Els was drawn to Taylor, despite his obvious lack of experience, for the same reason Miller had been a year earlier: sheer athleticism. He had won two state track titles at South Pike with a 10.79 100-meter dash and a 45-foot, 7 3/4-inch triple jump that, thankfully, fell on a Friday afternoon before sundown. Running track in his first year at Coahoma, he trimmed his 100-meter time to 10.63.
"We watched some of the film of him that first year there, and man, the kid could fly. He was very raw, but he could run and had size," Els said. "We were worried when he didn't come after that first year that some school closer to home would get him the next year."
Miller couldn't have been happier to keep him for another year at a school where players transferred out of at virtually any opportunity.
"Our cafeteria used to run out of food, and players would lose weight," said Miller, who departed last November after four seasons. "There was a lack of resources. Our weight room was basically five racks in a barn, no history, crime and drugs in the area. It was a hard place to recruit."
For one more year, however, it was good enough for Taylor. He'd gone through four years of high school without colleges even knowing his name. He had become accustomed -- almost comfortable -- with anonymity.
Sometimes, Davion would spot the yellow school bus, rumbling along West Holly Street, just two blocks ahead of his mother's apartment as it approached South Pike's stadium. Yet another unwanted reminder. It would be carrying the Eagles' opponent that night. And if the visiting players had ever glanced left out of the bus windows as they crossed Prewett, they would have seen Davion coming toward them on his short walk home; oblivious that their chance of winning increased with every step he took.
Exactly four years after Taylor barely avoided an end to his football career by running a 4.43 at Coahoma's open tryout, he stepped to the 40-yard dash starting line at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He was 30 pounds heavier, at 228, than he had been when he ran for Miller as an anonymous kid with no high school tape, and still showed NFL general managers another sub-4.5 clocking: 4.49. It was the third-fastest time among 44 linebackers at the combine, behind only first-round lock Isaiah Simmons (4.39) of Clemson and Mississippi State's Willie Gay (4.36). He then lowered his 40 by a tenth of a second at Colorado's pro day to match Simmons.
Taylor added top-five showings among linebackers in three more events at the combine -- the broad jump (10 feet, 7 inches), bench press (21 reps) and three-cone drill (6.96) -- to establish himself as one of the 2020 draft's elite athletes at the position.
But this time, he's finally got some game tape to back it up.
He flourished at Colorado as an immediate impact starter in 2018 with 75 tackles, a whopping 18 of those at or behind the line of scrimmage. As a senior last year, he was credited with 14 third-down stops and broke up seven passes.
"Last year, Davion became our eraser," Els said. "If something broke down on the perimeter, Davion would just track the son of a gun down. Mentally, he nailed our defense -- he's a smart, smart football player."
The Cowboys, Saints, Texans and Rams were among the first clubs to reach Culpepper last fall for background information. Among questions by NFL scouts were whether Taylor would have personal issues with NFL team activities such as workouts, travel or meetings held on Saturdays, even though he had played in every game in his two years at Colorado. Culpepper assured them there would be no issue, and Taylor said those questions faded from subsequent interviews at the Senior Bowl and combine.
His faith is Adventist, but his career is football, and he's chosen to balance the two in a way that won't impact whatever life in the NFL demands during the Adventist Sabbath.
NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein sees Taylor as a mid-round draft pick who might need an "extended developmental runway to counter his lack of experience." Until then, he's projected to provide some immediate value as a core special teams player.
"Fast and physical, that's what it takes on special teams," said an NFC area scout. "Defensively, you can see some areas where he just hasn't played enough. But athletically, he can dive in and swim with pros."
By the end of his walk, Davion had often spilled tears on the sidewalk. Sometimes he felt a determination to, somehow, play college football without playing in high school. Other times, he just felt despair and doubt. The distance was only two-tenths of a mile, thanks to a vacant field he could cut through to access a backdoor to his apartment building, so it took only minutes to complete. Sometimes, it felt endless.
Stephanie uncomfortably shifts on her couch when asked why, after years of being rigid, she finally gave in. She scatters a few reasons why Davion ultimately got to play one and a half games of high school football -- the season opener of his senior year and the first half of the following game -- with her reluctant blessing. She cites the fact that when LaDarris earned his freedom by turning 18, he was able to participate in Saturday track meets in his final semester of high school. Davion wouldn't have that chance because his 18th birthday fell beyond graduation, in August, so she let him taste a bit of football out of a sense of fairness.
She also mentions the general parental tendency to be more lenient with the youngest child.
But she finally settles on practicality as the primary reason she broke. The South Pike coaching staff had gently convinced her that her son had no chance of a college scholarship without at least one game tape for colleges to evaluate.
"I told his mother, 'I understand and respect your religion, but you do realize God gave him a tool to make his life better,' " said former South Pike defensive coordinator Milton Green. "I asked her, 'Do you have money in your bank account right now for college tuition?' I knew the answer. I'm not sure any coaches had been that transparent with her like that. I came at her with the truth. This is a business."
Word of mouth had reached the home crowd assembled for South Pike's 2015 season opener against Jefferson County that Davion Taylor would play that night. The buzz in the bleachers was palpable.
That bland, pre-game chicken breast tasted like it never had before.
The walk, for once, was to the locker room instead of home.
The band, finally, would play for him.
He was the first Eagle in the locker room to have his uniform on, pacing like a rodeo bull awaiting the stall gate to fling open. His eyes, one teammate remembers, were wide with excitement.
"He was like a balloon ready to pop," Kim Tillmon said.
From the P.A. booth, Rochelle Collins called his name all night, tackle after tackle, and this time he didn't have to strain to hear it through his open bedroom window. Then came the moment Magnolia will never forget. The secondary was in Cover 2, with Taylor at free safety, when a deep pass over the middle came within range.
"I baited the quarterback to make it look like the guy over the middle was open. He was running down the middle of the field with his hand up, and I'm thinking, 'Please throw it,' " Taylor said. "I jumped and caught it and the crowd lost their minds."
A standing ovation followed, but Stephanie wasn't there to see it.
"I knew it was wrong for me to be there, so I didn't go. I wasn't going to break the Sabbath myself to go watch him break the Sabbath," she said.
More than 7,500 miles away in Okinawa, Japan, 15 hours ahead of Mississippi time, it was Saturday afternoon for LaDarris, who was relaxing in his Marine barracks when the first text popped in: Your brother just got an interception. He read the text in disbelief. Although he eventually made peace with his mother's decision, he admits to being momentarily angry that she'd relented in a way she never did for him. At the same time, he was happy that Davion got the chance he'd always pined for.
A week later, Davion got half a chance more.
When coaches pleaded with Stephanie that two game tapes would help her son much more than one, she sensed a give-an-inch, take-a-mile dynamic to the ongoing conversation. A week later she allowed Davion to play the first half of a road game at Franklin High, when the sun would still be visible, but with an explicit directive that he wasn't to play once it had set, and clear notice that she would not allow him to play the rest of the season.
Davion went to a bathroom stall at halftime and sobbed, knowing his mother was done making allowances. Once again, she did not attend. She broke the Sabbath just once to see him play at Colorado, against Washington State in 2018, and he gave her a show with 13 tackles, 12 solo.
"She said she felt bad about going," Taylor said. "I told her not to worry about it -- you'll be able to come when I'm playing on Sundays."