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40 years later: Lawrence Taylor and Giants were fated in 1981 NFL Draft

Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor against Washington on Dec.

Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor against Washington on Dec. 17, 1983. Credit: AP/Al Messerschmidt Archive

Forty years ago this week, the Giants made the most impactful draft pick in their history.

Also 40 years ago this week, that player asked them not to.

It’s just one of the ways the union between the Giants and Lawrence Taylor — an often rocky marriage that turned around a foundering franchise, produced a pair of Super Bowl titles and gave the organization its greatest player — was nearly scuttled before it came together.

Looking back from four decades later, the most impressive aspect of the Giants’ use of the second overall pick in the 1981 draft is not that they had the foresight to pick Taylor but that they overcame all of the obstacles — running over and around them much the way Taylor would against potential blockers for the next 13 seasons — to select a player who would bring them so much success yet also so much heartbreak.

It’s as if Taylor was always destined to be a Giant.

But on April 27, 1981, the day before the draft, Taylor felt otherwise. That’s when he and his agent fired off a pair of telegrams to Giants general manager George Young and head coach Ray Perkins, telling them that if they selected Taylor, he would not play for them.

In the weeks leading up to the pick, as Taylor became more and more of a potential target for the Giants, many players on the team began to grumble about his potential arrival. They felt they already had a pretty good defense, and some of the veterans voiced agitation that some hot-shot rookie would walk into the locker room with a million-dollar contract, making more money than they were. There even was talk of a walkout by the established players if the team selected Taylor.

Feeling unwelcome before he even arrived, Taylor sent those strongly worded messages.

The reaction of the Giants’ brass?

"We drafted him anyway," Bill Parcells, then the Giants’ first-year defensive coordinator and one of the coaches who scouted Taylor, told Newsday. "That’s what the reaction was."

Taylor quickly apologized for his threat.

"I don’t want to cause any problems with the team," Taylor told reporters once he was selected by the Giants. "I told Coach Perkins that it was a mistake on my part to send the telegram."

He still had to win over his teammates, though. For that, all he had to do was take the field.

"He had agility, speed, quickness," Harry Carson, then the dean of Giants linebackers, recalled of first seeing Taylor in action. "When we got into the actual drills, we got to see firsthand why the Giants chose him . . . He went from like third team to first team before the first practice was over."

"The players welcomed him," Parcells recalled. "That was one thing with the Giants. They were for anybody who could help. That’s the way it was the whole time I was there. You can help, come on in. If you can’t, get out."

Up to the Saints

The Giants had the second pick in the 1981 draft, which meant they had to wait and see if Taylor would even be available. The Saints and their new head coach, Bum Phillips, had the first pick. They liked Taylor. But they had other ideas about how to rebuild their team. For that, the Giants can thank a Hall of Fame running back.

"We had some success in Houston because we had Earl Campbell," then-Saints defensive coordinator and future NFL head coach Wade Phillips -- Bum’s son, who had come to New Orleans from the Oilers with his father -- told Newsday. "I think that was a big part of it. My dad wanted to run the football and has just had Earl and we had a lot of success, so I think he wanted to follow the same pattern."

For that reason, the Saints selected running back George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner out of South Carolina.

Not everyone associated with the Giants at the time celebrated the opportunity that decision brought to the team. John Mara is now the co-owner, president and CEO of the Giants, but in 1981, he was practicing law and not working for the organization. Still, he was the oldest son of owner Wellington Mara, so he was paying as much attention as he could to the proceedings.

"I remember walking over to the ballroom of the Sheraton in Manhattan and standing at our table waiting for the pick," Mara said. "I remember foolishly hoping we would take George Rogers because we had no running back at the time and we desperately needed a running back and I had seen him on TV. I had never seen this linebacker from North Carolina everybody was talking about, I had never seen him play. So Rogers gets taken, we take Lawrence, and I remember feeling kind of ambivalent about it at the time. I remember George [Young] saying, when I asked him about it at the time, he said: ‘Just wait and see.’ And sure enough, he becomes the greatest player in the history of the franchise."

The Saints had no regrets. Taylor had a strong debut for the Giants, winning defensive rookie of the year, but Rogers was named offensive rookie of the year after rushing for an NFL-best 1,674 yards.

Though the Saints were impressed by Taylor, Wade Phillips said they had about six linebackers they liked near the top of that draft. By the time they were on the clock for their second-round pick, only one of them was left: Rickey Jackson.

"He’s in the Hall of Fame too," Phillips noted. "So we didn’t do too bad there, either."

Other players selected that year had Hall of Fame careers and led their organizations to titles: Ronnie Lott, Mike Singletary, Howie Long and Russ Grimm all made the journey from 1981 draft picks to Super Bowl champs to Canton. Kenny Easley, the fourth overall pick after the Jets took Freeman McNeil third, never won a Super Bowl, but he landed in the Hall of Fame, too.

But none of them had anything close to the immediate or long-term impact Taylor had on the Giants and, eventually, the NFL.

‘He just took off’

In 1981, the Giants had not been to the postseason in 17 years, had shuffled around the metropolitan area like nomads — calling Shea Stadium, the Yale Bowl and eventually a slab of cement in the middle of Jersey swampland their home — and were coming off a miserable 4-12 season. Taylor almost singlehandedly changed that.

"He just took off," Parcells said. "He was causing trouble right away."

He infused Giants Stadium with life, led the team to a 9-7 record with a defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league, had 9.5 sacks (although they would not become an official NFL stat until the following year), helped them reach the playoffs for the first time since 1963, and even led them to their first postseason victory since a 1958 win over the Browns. That was just a week before the overtime loss to the Colts in the NFL championship game, known better as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

Taylor became the cornerstone of teams that won the Super Bowl after the 1986 and 1990 seasons, redefined the way the linebacker position was played, and was one of the most ferocious players in league history. All of that was ahead for him and the Giants in 1981, but there were glimpses of that greatness throughout his rookie year.

"I still have never seen anything quite like that," Mara said.

Neither had Gil Brandt

Mara might have had to witness it all from a different vantage point had fate veered off course just a little bit before the draft. There was at least one other franchise just as determined to land the young game-changer . . . the Dallas Cowboys.

As the defensive coordinator, it was Parcells’ job to scout and write reports on all of the linebackers in the 1981 draft. One in particular caught his eye.

"He played on the right side for North Carolina in what we call an under defense and he was involved in the pass rush the majority of the time, even though he was playing in an upright stance," Parcells said of his first impressions of Taylor, the player to whom he soon would become so tightly linked. "He was primarily an off-tackle defender pass-rush guy and he did have some experience on pass defense because they did drop him in coverage, but I would say not very often. He wasn’t a total projection, but looking at him, experience-wise, I felt like he was going to need some work on pass defense."

Still, Parcells was impressed.

"He was very explosive," he said. "He was fast and he was explosive and he looked like he was strong."

The Giants weren’t going to draft Taylor based solely on the reports of their young defensive coordinator, though.

"I had just gotten there, so Ray Perkins trusted me," Parcells said, "but I don’t think too many other people did."

The man making the pick needed to see for himself.

On Nov. 8, 1980, Young traveled to South Carolina to watch Taylor and his UNC team face Clemson. Seated next to him in Death Valley was Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt.

"That particular day, Taylor was unbelievable," Brandt said. "He made plays all over the field. He made tackles on the line of scrimmage, behind the line of scrimmage, 10 yards downfield, 20 yards downfield. He made one play where he was lined up on the defensive left side and made a tackle on a running back 25 yards down the field on the right side, catching him from behind.

"It was like a man from Mars playing. It was unbelievable how he played."

The next day, the Giants and Cowboys happened to be playing each other, and Young and Brandt wound up on the same flight back to New York. Two of the most animated and loquacious executives in the league sat across the aisle from each other on the plane . . . in complete silence.

"Neither one of us said a word about the game we’d just witnessed," Brandt said. "It was a situation where two people recognized that the other person wanted someone and both were trying to outfox the other."

That cat-and-mouse game didn’t end when the flight landed.

For the next few months, Brandt worked hard to trade up to the top spot in the draft so he could select Taylor. The Cowboys had the 26th overall selection, but Brandt offered Bum Phillips all of his 1981 picks for that prized first one. Because the Saints already had 17 picks in that draft, they refused.

Brandt became a Hall of Famer himself, but for the rest of his career (he retired in 1988), his Cowboys had to face Taylor twice a season with the knowledge of how close they had come to landing him themselves.

"You’re never more disappointed than with the one that got away," Brandt said.

Still, on the morning of the draft, the Giants were concerned that the Saints would change their mind. When they had trouble reaching Taylor by phone, they feared the worst and started calling hotels in the Dallas area looking for him. At one point, they found a guest registered as "Larry Taylor" and connected with him, but it turned out to be a traveler with a coincidental name.

Eventually, they found the real Lawrence Taylor, who was not in Dallas. And they drafted him.

It was, unfortunately, not the last time they would have to search for Taylor.

The down side

While Perkins would call Taylor one of the "cleanest" players he’d ever scouted, the linebacker’s off-the-field life soon was among the most sordid in team history. In 1987, Taylor tested positive for cocaine use, and in 1988, he failed a second drug test that led to a 30-day suspension from the NFL. His lifestyle of addiction and recklessness brought him, as the title of his autobiography aptly put it, "Over the Edge".

His career was a paradox. Despite all the headaches he gave the Giants, he also brought unrivaled excitement and success to the franchise. He returned a dormant brand to glory, sometimes simultaneously sullying the organization.

He retired after the 1993 season with 1,089 tackles, 132.5 official sacks (plus those 9.5 unofficial ones from 1981), nine interceptions, 33 forced fumbles and a starring role in some of the most indelible images in Giants history, but the most memorable headlines he created often had little to do with his football playing.

Had the Giants known such demons existed inside Taylor in 1981, would they have drafted him?

It likely would have been just one more crevasse for the two to bridge 40 years ago, because with the benefit of hindsight, it is so clear they were always meant to be together.

With Bob Glauber

New York Sports