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The Great Otis Taylor

 

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By Nick Athan

Last August, I lost my sports Hero, Len Dawson.  That man has been a part of my life for five decades, and as we get older, we lose more heroes, and Friday, we lost another great man in Otis Taylor. At 80 years old number 89, taller than life in the eyes of a young Chiefs fan, will forever be remembered as the greatest wide receiver in this storied franchise.

Before it was cool to be a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs, somewhere during the first Super Bowl, a five-year-old boy living in Prairie Village, Kansas, saw Otis Taylor catch a pass on his family’s Zenith Television. It was a glorious catch and run. Little did I know four years later, Taylor would catch a game-clinching pass from my Hero, Len Dawson, that would seal the Chiefs Super Bowl IV win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Yesterday, we lost Otis Taylor.

In my view, there would be no Harold Carmichael, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, or any other long-striding, tall, agile pass catcher we’ve celebrated for decades without Otis Taylor leading the road for the nontraditional receivers of his era.  Of course, the AFL was always different, and his story into the NFL is one that was both improbable and magical.

The Houston-born football player attended Prairie View A&M. A black college in Texas, Taylor was a 15th-round draft pick of the NFL Philadelphia Eagles in 1965.  However, the Chiefs selected him in the fourth round of the AFL Draft, and Founder, Lamar Hunt, and Head Coach Hank Stram knew he’d be a perfect weapon for Lenny Dawson.

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Taylor ultimately reached legendary heights with the Chiefs, but it almost didn’t happen.  Long ago, Stram told me a story about Taylor. After struggling much of his rookie year, Taylor was down on himself to the point he wanted to quit football.

After all his rookie season didn’t produce big numbers for the Chiefs, but Taylor had immense talent, even though he didn’t believe it at the time. Stram was aware of Taylor’s upbringing, and it didn’t include any male role models. In his second training camp in Liberty, Missouri with the Chiefs, it was obvious Taylor wasn’t practicing at the level Stram needed and he pushed Taylor very hard. Taylor regressed even further. Finally, after speaking to his mother about giving up football, she urged her son to talk to his fiery coach.

In that conversation, Stram told Taylor that he was hard on him because he loved him like a son and he told him he would be the best receiver in the NFL if they worked together. Those words hit home for Taylor. More than once Stram said to me their embrace after those words of encouragement and endearment was something he would never forget. In 1966, Taylor was an AFL All-Star and first-team All-AFL player.

Taylor had an amazing career for the Chiefs. He was the sort of weapon that division rivals such as the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos would build their rosters to defend. Taylor ran like a deer, had hands of gold, with a long stride and incredible agility, that took more than one defender to bring him down.

There are so many games in which Taylor made plays that defied the eyes. His one-handed Touchdown catch (on fourth down) against the Washington Redskins in Municipal Stadium remains my all-time favorite.

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For many Chiefs fans, they remember Taylor’s on-field encounter with Oakland Raiders defensive end, Ben Davidson. Before Taylor speared him in the back with his helmet, Davidson did the same to Dawson seconds earlier. After the brawl ended with nullifying penalties, Kansas City had to settle for a 17-17 tie in a meaningful AFC West showdown that cost them the division title and a playoff spot in 1971. To this day for the little boy sitting in the stands in absolute rage, that loss still stings.

Ultimately though through history that memory faded. On January 11th, 1970, Otis Taylor cemented his place as one of the greatest Chiefs of all time with a singular play that defined his career. In the fourth quarter with the Chiefs leading 16-7, Taylor caught a hitch pass from Dawson, avoided a Vikings defender and galloped over another for a game-clinching 46-yard touchdown. The Chiefs won Super Bowl IV, and Taylor’s touchdown was the final one scored by an AFL player. It was historic and poignant that it was this small-town kid from Texas who ushered out the AFL.

As the championship seasons disappeared in Kansas City, Taylor’s play began to diminish.  Though he was still putting up great numbers with Dawson as his quarterback, his body was wearing down.  In 1975, he retired from football.

After working for the Chiefs as an NFL scout, he left the game and lived a relatively normal life. However, in 1990 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In retrospect, the violent nature of the AFL probably contributed to his ailment. Sadly, his health would only get worse and for much of the last two decades, he was mostly unaware of those around him.

Making matters worse Taylor never received the recognition he deserved as one of the greatest wide receivers in the NFL. Though the Chiefs tried, his bust and name do not appear in the NFL Hall of Fame. It’s a shame, even though he would not have been able to participate in his enshrinement, the NFL Hall of Fame shamefully has not recognized Taylor for what he did for the game of football.

To this day, Taylor remains a God to me. Over the years, I met him a few times, and I have some signed items I’ll cherish forever.

In the end, though, the memories of him and Dawson drawing plays in the dirt and executing them in the game remind me of the chemistry they had then to what Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce have today.

Today we celebrate the great accomplishments of Otis Taylor and rejoice he’s no longer suffering from the disease that guided his life for the last twenty years.  Now he gets to play catch once again with his Hall of Fame Quarterback, Len Dawson, and the man who changed his life forever, Hank Stram.

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