Jason Taylor stood on the field of University of Phoenix Stadium before Sunday’s home opener, talking about the previous week of his life, and couldn’t stop using the word “amazing.”
A fair description, after the long-time Cardinals fan was flown to and from Green Bay by team president Michael Bidwill to take part in the NFL’s pre-game festivities, then three days later walking out a team flag during the Cards’ first regular-season introductions.
It was a fan’s dream, all coming from a personal nightmare.
Taylor was shot in the head March 26, in the wrong place at the wrong time in a random act of violence that could have taken his life. Instead, Taylor, less than six months later, rehabs his body and his mind with an outlook stunningly sunny.
“I tend to see the brighter side of things,” Taylor said. “I am more of a positive guy. These opportunities wouldn’t be here if what happened to me didn’t happen. So I am getting better. One day I will be 100 percent, but to be here, I am honored.”
He won’t feel sorry for himself. Far from it. His wife, Mandy, relayed a story that when Taylor was in the middle of his personal NFL experience last weekend, he joked the accident could have come sooner had he known such invitations were coming. That Taylor is able to poke fun at a situation in which no one would ever want to find themselves says much about the man.
Jason and Mandy were on a date that fateful night, having attended a Suns’ game in courtside seats given to them by a cousin, when they ended up in a Glendale bar afterward.
The Taylors were about to leave when Jason, overhearing a couple of men talking about the military, told them he had always wanted to join the military, probably with the Marines. One of the men, Jeremiah Pulaski, a 24-year-old Army veteran who had just returned from duty in the Middle East, suddenly pulled a gun and shot Taylor.
Pulaski fled, but was shot and killed later that night by police.
Taylor and his wife were left to pick up the pieces of his life.
“It was tough, you feel helpless,” Mandy said, choking up while recalling the emotions.
“He’s lying in the hospital room and you can’t do anything about it. You don’t know. There are so many unanswered questions. How is it going to affect him? What’s he going to be like? How he will recover? How it will affect him emotionally?”
As his wife speaks, Jason Taylor puts his hand on her shoulder. “Thank goodness he is the kind of man he is, so positive,” Mandy said, looking at Jason. “He really made it easier for me.”
The Cardinals were made aware of Taylor’s situation soon after it happened. At the time, Bidwill and the organization wanted to make sure they brought him around the team once he was well enough to do so. A few months later, the Taylors came up to training camp in Flagstaff as guests of the team.
Then came the NFL’s decision for a special “Back to Football” presentation in Green Bay prior to the Packers and Saints playing in the first regular-season game of the year. Each team was represented by an alumnus, which for the Cards was former Pro Bowler and current radio analyst Ron Wolfley. Those players would hold a flag of their team during introductions.
Bidwill and the Cards decided to take Taylor on the trip. It would be part one of a two-part plan, with Taylor getting the flag from Wolfley and then being the one to march it out during the Cardinals’ first introduction of the season back in Arizona. Taylor would be the representative of the fans.
Bidwill called Mandy first, making sure Jason was up for the travel. Then he extended the invitation to Jason.
“I couldn’t believe I was talking to Michael Bidwill on the phone,” Jason said.
“I couldn’t think of a better guy to invite to symbolically carry that flag back to start a great football season,” Bidwill said.
Taylor said he had been a Redskins fan when the Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988. He was only 10 then, and it made sense to him to convert. When he got older, he bought season tickets at Sun Devil Stadium, and has had them since. “Every year I bump up my Cardinal fanship a little bit,” he said.
Bidwill said he felt like he was Taylor’s buddy after all the time they spent together. Taylor couldn’t get over all the people he was able to meet – in Green Bay, Bidwill introduced him to the executives of the Packers and Saints, sportswriter Peter King and commissioner Roger Goodell, and back at home he was able to meet his favorite Cardinal,
“For a football fan, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Jason of his star-studded meet-and-greet. “I am just happy to be alive. So whatever I am able to do, it’s great.”
“I’m so ecstatic for him,” Mandy said. “He is the biggest Cardinals’ fan in the world. It’s sad it took something tragic for this to happen, but it’s good to see something good come out of it.”
There is still work to be done. Already, Jason Taylor has a happy ending to this particular story, but he wants to make the ending better. His recovery is far from over. In another week or two, Taylor will take part in “Rehab Without Walls,” which will work with him six hours a day Monday through Friday so he can transition back to working life and back to driving a car.
He wants to at least try to get back to the “normal” life he had before the accident, the one where he and Mandy and 2-year-old daughter Alivia weren’t thinking about gunshot wounds and the wreckage they create.
“I just want to make sure I do everything in my power that I am working as hard as I can,” Taylor said. “We will let the chips fall where they will, but I don’t want it to be because I didn’t work very hard.”
For the overwhelming hospital bills – and with Jason still unable to return to work – there is “Jason’s Donation Account” at Wells Fargo bank, opened after Taylor’s accident. The account number is 2606307102.
In the meantime, he’ll be following the Cardinals, of course. The football team is now an even bigger part of his life, which at one point was hard to imagine. When he first came to after being shot – unable to speak because of a tracheotomy tube – one of the first things he scribbled on a white board for Mandy to see was the message “APRIL 15 DEADLINE FOR CARDINALS TICKETS.”
That he was still alive to be able to use them was all Mandy cared about.
Perhaps it’s fitting Jason Taylor liked using the word “amazing” when talking about getting to take part in everything NFL last weekend.
There probably isn't a better word to describe him, either.