Derek Redd: Healthy or not, Herd's Taylor happy for the opportunity
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jeremiah Taylor has played several roles since he first joined the Marshall football team's roster in 2010.
He began his Thundering Herd career as a pudgy, 300-pound telemarketer-turned-walk-on offensive lineman. Since then, he's chiseled away at the fat, revealing underneath a 255-pound team captain and Hendricks Award watch list member at defensive end.
The last thing he wanted to be in his final season, though, was a spectator.
That's what he had been for the last 10 games, stuck on the injury list with a fractured vertebra, unable to take the field as the Herd barreled its way into the Conference USA title game. Yet, like much of his journey as a college football player, after plenty of twists and turns, Taylor will finish in a happy place.
He'll finish his Marshall career on the field, cleared to play for the Herd's Dec. 27 Military Bowl match-up versus Maryland in Annapolis, Md.
There was a time, though, when that comeback wasn't a guarantee. The pain in his back became too much to bear during the Herd's loss at Ohio. He was out for a punt when the returner cut back and ran by. Taylor turned against his body, and he knew something was wrong.
A doctor's trip confirmed it: a fracture to his L5 vertebra, the one closest to the pelvis. When Marshall Coach Doc Holliday announced that Taylor would be out, he didn't offer a time frame. But the tone of his voice made it clear it wouldn't be short.
"There was a point about halfway through the season, when I got my CT scan, they were saying you might have a chance to come back and you might not," Taylor said.
Taylor didn't want his college career to end on the sideline. He didn't quit the $10-an-hour job at Sitel to walk on to the Herd's roster and transform himself into one of the most crucial members of the defense just to finish that journey in a warm-up suit rather than shoulder pads.
He persevered with the help of his family -- including the South Point, Ohio, native's wife Nakita, the mother of his two children - and his team. Some of the most sage advice came from fellow defensive lineman James Rouse, who missed nearly all of the previous two seasons with back and Achilles tendon injuries.
Rouse was in the exact predicament Taylor found himself - waiting for his body to heal and wondering whether he'd ever return to the field. It turned out all right for Rouse. In Rouse's first healthy season since 2010, he tied for fourth in the conference in tackles for loss and was named to the all-C-USA first team.
"Early during the season, when he first hurt his back, I was just letting him know that it's all going to be all right," Rouse said. "Everything happens for a reason, whether it's good or bad. You just have to try to push through it."
While Taylor might have been relegated to observer, he was anything but a casual one. He became another coach, working with the defensive roster as it totally reversed its fortunes from a dismal 2012 season.
During games, he would signal in the defensive calls. While not an active player, Holliday said, he never stopped being part of the team.
"He never missed a practice and never missed a meeting," Holliday said. "He never missed a trip, hotel or meal. He was out there the entire time. He's just a great kid. Our coaches and players have great respect for him. It's going to be fun to have him back out there."
The joy of learning he could return for one last game was indescribable, Taylor said. Now comes the work to return to game shape. He hasn't been back in the weight room or on the practice field for long, and he admits his body tires quickly. But when physical fatigue sets in, Taylor says his mind snaps him out of it.
"Thinking about having one more opportunity, being tired and all that leaves your mind," he said. "You don't even focus on being tired. You're just worried about coming back."
After the final seconds tick off the clock at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and Taylor walks off the field for the final time, he'll then have to decide his future. The time he spent as a player/coach was so fulfilling, he said, that he might put that option on the table.
"I think it broadened my horizons," Taylor said. "There could be some more things I could go to after football besides going straight to work. Maybe I could take this coaching shot and go with that."
No matter his decision, he'll be able to say he walked across the stage to receive his degree in business management. Nakita soon will graduate with a nursing degree. And Taylor can smile knowing that his long journey in college football has given him and his family the opportunities to build the life so many yearn for.
"I can say I haven't had the paved road that most student-athletes have," he said. "I'm just thankful that I had a road. It might have been a dirt road with no lights, but at least I had a path to go on, and I'm grateful for that."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.