Teammates say Charley Taylor could've been a Hall of Famer at any position. But his excellence – and toughness – at wide receiver set Taylor apart in his terrific career with the Redskins.
It was a Hall of Fame career that almost never was.
Charley Taylor racked up more than 10,000 net yards and 90 touchdowns during his 13-year career with the Washington Redskins, but had Taylor elected to undergo surgery after a freak neck injury suffered in college, he believes he would've never played a down in the NFL.
Fortunately for the RFK Stadium faithful, Taylor healed up just fine on his own.
He'd go on to revolutionize the wide receiver position, making the transition from running back – after being named rookie of the year at the position, no less – and retiring as the league's all-time leading receiver.
But, perhaps most importantly, Taylor left behind a legacy as a tremendous teammate; someone not afraid to get his nose dirty to send the occasional message to the opposing defense.
In other words, during a period in which tough guys were never tougher, Taylor not only thrived – he excelled.
"Charley is one of the greatest athletes to come through the NFL," said Redskins great defensive back Brig Owens, who played with Taylor from 1966 to 1977. "He could run, he could throw the ball if he needed to, he could kick off, return punts, return kickoffs, and could catch the ball. … I had never seen an athlete that could do the things Charley could do."
'Little Taylor'Taylor grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas, which sits a short 20-minute drive southwest of Dallas. Today, Grand Prairie boasts a population of about 175,000, but when Taylor was born in 1941, the town was home to just 1,500 residents.
In such a small town, Taylor's large family – his mother, stepfather, six siblings and plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins – certainly stood out. He remembers being challenged at an early age by his uncles, who pushed him into athletics.
Eventually, the youngster earned a nickname: "Little Taylor."
"They'd say, 'Come on, you're at bat. You're up,'" Taylor recalled of his early baseball games with his family. "I couldn't go out there and let my uncles see me strike out, so that's why I was a pretty good little baseball player."
Competitiveness sunk in early for Taylor. By middle school, he excelled in baseball, basketball and track. But when he got into high school, it was football that was "automatic" for the budding star.
High school football in Texas is serious business, which was certainly still the case in the late 1950s. Already as competitive – and more talented – as any other player on the field, Taylor said he learned how to deal with adversity when taking the field on Friday nights for Dalworth High School. "Friday Night Lights, Texas high school sports are a little different," Taylor said. "I remember going to school, playing in Texas, and when you go out to the field, come out dressed, and there'd be a casket with your picture in it.
"It was tough playing high school ball in Texas."
A little luckWith integration not yet becoming a trend among the major colleges in Texas, Taylor decided to attend Arizona State University, where he starred as a wingback, defensive back and returner for the Sun Devils' football team.
From 1960 to 1963, the team excelled under head coach Frank Kush, claiming the conference title in 1961 with a 7-3 record (3-0 in conference). By that time, "Little Taylor" wasn't so little – he was beginning to fill his chiseled 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame – and he pounded opponents both on offense and on defense.
In 1962, Taylor had a team-best four interceptions. In 1963, Taylor led the nation's fifth-best offense with 595 rushing yards (6.8 yards per carry), 217 receiving yards and 308 return yards. He was named All-Western Athletic Conference in 1962 and 1963 and was the Most Valuable Player of the 1964 College All-Star Game, which featured a matchup against the Chicago Bears.
But the aforementioned broken neck, suffered in a 1961 practice, almost derailed Taylor's entire college career.
Playing defensive back on a slick field, Taylor said he approached the ball carrier, who "got lower than I thought" upon the collision.
"So I went over him, my helmet hit the ground, stuck in the mud sort of," Taylor said. "Then my weight just rolled over."
Taylor was in a body cast for six months, the result of breaking at least three vertebrae. He said he declined surgery and couldn't move at all for two days after suffering the injury, but "all of a sudden" the feeling in his body returned.
"And here I am," Taylor said.
The 'enforcer'Taylor was dead set on joining his hometown Dallas Cowboys out of college. In fact, he thought it was a sure thing.
But the Washington Redskins won a coin flip against their rivals to earn the third-overall pick in the 1964 NFL Draft, deciding to take Taylor ahead of Dallas.
"I talked with Dallas … and I think I'm going back home," Taylor recalled of his pre-draft conversations with the Cowboys. "But it all worked for the best."
The Redskins immediately reaped the benefits of their selection. As a halfback, Taylor was named league Rookie of the Year after running the ball 199 times for 755 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 53 catches for 814 yards and another five receiving touchdowns that season.
Taylor also provided the Redskins' backfield with half of one of the more potent one-two punches in league history. Pairing with future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, Taylor was impatient, quick and violent, while Mitchell was patient, methodical and shifty,
Early in his career, teammates say Taylor wasn't too fond of waiting for his slower linemen to create a block.
"We'd say, 'No, no, no – you got to let this develop. He's got to block before you go,'" Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, who played with Taylor from 1964 to 1974, said. "He'd say, 'No, they're too slow.' He would just fly around the end, because that's the way he ran in college at Arizona State."
How would Taylor describe his running style? "I just ran for the opening," he said.
"We had linemen who weren't the fastest guys in the world so I would be ahead of them sometimes when they were slow to make a trap," he continued. "The guy they were trapping was the guy that was tackling me because I outran my blocker."
In 1966, in his first season as the Redskins' head coach, Otto Graham moved Taylor exclusively to wide receiver. Taylor at first wasn't too happy with the move. But after leading the league with 72 catches that season – and with the emergence of tight end Jerry Smith the next season – the Washington offense was clicking better than it ever had.
Upon his retirement after the 1977 season, Taylor's 649 career receptions were an NFL record.
He would be a major influence on the next generation of great receivers, like Roy "Sweet Pea" Jefferson, who amassed 208 receptions for 3,119 yards and 16 touchdowns from 1971 to 1976 wearing the burgundy and gold.
"Charley's pattern running was really – his cuts. I think I learned to really make sharper cuts in my patterns when I ran," Jefferson said of Taylor. "I thought I ran pretty good patterns but Charley could stop on a dime, so I had to teach myself how to stop on a dime to run the kind of routes that Charley ran."
But, most of all, Taylor was remembered not only as a tremendous athlete, but as a tremendous team leader – someone not afraid to get his nose dirty while defending his teammates.
"They tried to hurt you in those days, and it was legal too," said legendary Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer, who played with Taylor from 1971 to 1977. "So Charley had a mean mentality. He wanted to get back at them, and boy he did it. I've seen him crack on free safeties. After that, I know all the free safeties in the league started kept looking out for Charley."
Jurgensen said watching Taylor was a thrill in the film room.
"If a guy had taken a shot at Charley or Jerry earlier, they would go down the field and one would hit him high and one would hit him low. They would just work people over," Jurgensen said. "God, just to see it in the pictures, because they went after people. They would call him out and go after them."
But the real thrill, Taylor said, was playing that "enforcer" role for his teammates.
After all, "Little Taylor" was all grown up.
"You had running backs like Charley Harraway, Larry Brown, those type of guys, and you like to chip on people and help them out. So I didn't mess around. I'd go find somebody," Taylor said. "And guys were taking shots at me, so I had to retaliate."