Longform

THE TRAGEDY OF ERIC TAYLOR

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But his destiny was as unstoppable as his force. As his friend Darryl Williford later said, "I think Eric did it on purpose. I think he didn't want to live without his wife and kids."

@rule:
@body:Camden, New Jersey, is a withered old city that clings to the Delaware River like flotsam washed up by Philadelphia's stormy urban overflow. Eric Taylor was born there in 1968 into a family that was so fractured that the coaches who virtually raised him and his brothers didn't realize there were sisters in the family until they met them at Taylor's funeral. All of the children grew up in separate foster homes.

Though Taylor usually characterized himself as a former street kid, his foster father, Floyd Watson, with whom Taylor stayed from ages 10 to 17, describes him as a polite child who came to him already in possession of a basketball.

"He was a very good child as far as I know," says Watson, who is a night custodian at Woodrow Wilson High School, Taylor's alma mater. "But the older he got, he did not want to hear the rules in my home."
When Taylor was in 12th grade, he and Watson argued over curfew times and Taylor decided to go live where his older brother Jeffrey was a foster child.

Sports kept Taylor out of trouble. He was an even better football player than a basketball player, according to his coaches, heavily recruited for college scholarships, but his heart was in basketball. His basketball coach, Bill Smothers, had always used Taylor as a good example of perseverance, of why his players should work hard and get into college. Smothers was new to Woodrow Wilson High the year Taylor was a freshman, and he remembers in his first meeting with the team that none of the players had much to say except for one brash kid asking bold but pertinent questions. It was Eric Taylor. "Right then and there I said, 'That's my man in the middle.'"

As a sophomore, Taylor led the team to a state championship. Smothers and the school's athletic director, Joe McColgan, knew him as a hardworking but excitable kid, well worth the high maintenance cost. As Smothers remembers, he was "one of those kids with a light in his eyes who needs someone to turn it on." If Taylor was contentious, Smothers says, "I like my players like that."

When Taylor was truant, Smothers would go to his house and drag him to school. Once when Taylor came late to practice, Smothers told him to run ten laps around the football field. Taylor refused and Smothers said, "Well, I guess you'll have to go home."

Taylor started jawing and cursing. Smothers turned to the team manager before he walked away and said, "When he's done yapping, tell him he's still got ten laps."

Taylor ran the laps, then came to Smothers to insist he'd run them for himself and not for Smothers. Smothers just said, "I'm glad you did do it for yourself--now get in there and practice."

And when it came time for Taylor to think about further education, Smothers told him outright, "You're going to college if I have to hit you over the head with a chair."

He didn't make it to college on the first try. After a few weeks at a junior college in Texas, a homesick Taylor came back to Camden to find a job. He also found the first of his troubles.

@rule:
@body:Rick Barrett runs a weekend and summer basketball program for disadvantaged youths in South Jersey. It is sponsored by the AAU and the Adidas footwear company and mixes equal parts of basketball, SAT study classes and visits by motivational speakers. Barrett has been another mentor for Taylor.

"Eric had a problem with girlfriends," says Barrett. "He was real dominant."
His brother Jeffrey, his foster father and McColgan, the athletic director, all remember vaguely that Eric had beaten up girlfriends. In the fall of 1987, when he was 19, he was so enraged by one girl that he kicked in her front door and was arrested.

Joe McColgan went with him for his court appearance. The judge ordered Taylor to pay $100 in damages, and since neither Taylor nor McColgan had that much money with him, as McColgan remembers, "They put him in a holding cell and he started crying."

It was just as troubling for McColgan that many of the other inmates in the holding cell had been his students. "It was like old home week," he remembers, and they called out greetings to him. He borrowed the $100 and got Taylor out as soon as he could.

Near the end of the year, Taylor was in trouble again. He'd gotten a job in a Montgomery Ward warehouse. One night he tangled with his boss over how long he had been on break. The boss allegedly pushed Taylor, and in return, Taylor beat the man so badly he lost an eye. Taylor was sentenced to a year in prison.

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Michael Kiefer