Taylor details journey from walk-on reject to 49ers’ Super Bowl hero

Taylor details journey from walk-on reject to 49ers’ Super Bowl hero originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO – John Taylor is bouncing about the ballroom floor while reliving his odyssey from college walk-on reject to San Francisco 49ers draft pick to snagging A Super Bowl-winning catch.

Taylor, at 62, now is gray but still looks as fit as during his days as a wide receiver. Though dressed in a suit and tie – he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame this week – he’s wrapping himself in the nostalgia of Jan. 22, 1989 and the final moments of a comeback that gave the 49ers a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

In the wake of a 40-yard field goal by Jim Breech, giving the Bengals a 16-13 lead with 3:44 remaining, San Francisco began its drive 92 yards away from the end zone. With quarterback Joe Montana completing 7-of-8 passes, the 49ers went 82 yards in a little more than three minutes to reach the Cincinnati 10 with 39 seconds left.

“After we got down there, we called timeout,” Taylor tells NBC Sports Bay Area. “We’re all standing in the huddle like this (spreads his arms), and Joe comes back. He goes, ‘JT we gotta run that play we put in.’ I said, ‘OK.’”

The play is “X up.” Taylor, San Francisco’s “X” wide receiver, had not caught a pass all day and wasn’t even targeted during the drive. The team’s “Z” wideout, superstar Jerry Rice, had caught 11 passes, including three on the drive.

Now it’s time for the X man to shine.

“We saw when (teams) got in the red zone (the Bengals) had a tendency to leave that middle open,” Taylor says. “So, the game plan was to flood the left side, make everybody come out (to the left) and just send one person back across (to the right).”

Taylor was that “one person.” The play designed by legendary head coach Bill Walsh was installed, Taylor says, three days before the game.

The huddle breaks and the 49ers move up to the line of scrimmage. Taylor lines up on the left side, in tight-end formation. He had one wish, and it was unwittingly granted by Bengals right defensive end Jason Buck.

“So, I get up there and I’m like this (crouches) and I get down in my stance,” Taylor says. “And it’s almost like I said to myself the defensive end (Buck) is almost head up on me. And I’m like this (crouches). I get down and I say to myself, ‘Damn, if he would just move a shade to my left.’

“And it was like he heard me. He was down like this (crouches). And when I said that (to myself), he got up and moved out here (to Taylor’s left). And the first thing I said I said ‘Oh this s—t is wide open. It’s going to wide open.’ ”

Buck shifted to the right. As Rice went in motion right to left, safety Ray Horton – who had lined up off Buck’s left shoulder – followed. Taylor bolted off the line unimpeded.

“Joe put the ball exactly where it had to be put,” Taylor says. “That was it.”

That touchdown, with 34 seconds remaining, was the pinnacle of Taylor’s career. It was the stuff of dreams that not so long ago might have seemed unreachable for a scrawny but plucky kid from Pennsauken, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Though the 49ers selected Taylor in the third round (No. 76 overall) of the 1986 NFL draft, they loved his raw skills but considered him a project. He had good hands, good speed and superior shiftiness. He needed time. There was no rush because San Francisco had Dwight Clark and Rice, both Pro Bowlers, in the starting lineup. That had Mike Wilson and Ken Margerum as backups.

Taylor had to wait. No biggie. All he wanted was a chance, something he did not always have. Coming out of high school, he “had no intentions” of going to college, so he took a job at liquor warehouse.

But football still tugged at his soul. Thinking he’d find a school that could use him, Taylor enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University, a private historically black school in Charlotte, N.C. No scholarship. No promises. He’d walk on.

“Whenever you come from the north and you go down to the South to play, you automatically got a strike,” Taylor says, convinced he was prejudged. “Whether you like it or not, it’s a strike, right? So, I’m not supposed to be able to play.

“I go out and go through practice all the time. We finally have a scrimmage. They put me in for one play, and about five other guys in for one play. Blocking plays. The next day they have a cut. We all were released.”

So, Taylor tried another HBCU: Delaware State. Being about 75 miles south of Philly, he was closer to home. He still had to prove himself worthy to skeptical head coach Joe Purzycki.

“He looked at me,” Taylor recalls, “and he goes ‘Just come back when school starts.’ I already knew what he was thinking: ‘Oh, he’s too small. He’s not going to make it.’ I said, ‘OK no problem.’

“Went home. Came back when school started.”

Persistence paid off. He caught 42 touchdowns at Delaware, averaged 24.3 yards a catch and was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a senior in 1985. This presaged an NFL career during which he became a terrific punt returner, caught 43 regular-season touchdowns and six playoff touchdowns for San Francisco – including the biggest one of all. The one that secured Super Bowl XXIII.

Though he eventually grew to 6-foot-1, 185 pounds in the NFL, Taylor didn’t look like much. That was, until he had the ball. That’s when his kinetic energy, which still lives within, made believers out of doubters.

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