HOUSTON — The one-dollar bills are tucked away to this day, nestled safely between the pages of a Bible gifted from a mother to her son.
“I take those two dollars everywhere I go,” Taylor Gabriel said.
From his perch atop a podium, surrounded by cameras and the spectacle of Super Bowl week, the speedy Falcons receiver recalled the last moment he saw his mother alive.
It began as a regular day, no different from the others. Gabriel’s mother, Kimberly, had taken her son to school that morning, and before she left, she handed her 15-year-old some lunch money.
“I got a call like an hour or so later saying that she had passed away from a brain aneurysm,” Gabriel, 25, said this past week. “That was the last time that I had ever seen my mom when she was dropping me off for school.”
His life was irrevocably changed that day. Without his mother, nothing else seemed to matter. Not even football.
“I didn’t want to do anything,” said Gabriel, who grew up in Mesquite, Texas. “I was sad and depressed . . . I had a lot of emotions going on. Football wasn’t something that I wanted to do anymore because my mom wasn’t here to cheer me on when I was going to be there playing.”
But in time, football saved him.
A month after quitting his high school team, he returned to the field.
A decade later, Gabriel believes it was the best decision he could have made.
“Me getting back on the field for that first time and feeling her out there and feeling her presence . . . It was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
Because of his size, Gabriel (5-8, 170 pounds) went undrafted out of Abilene Christian University in 2014. He was signed as a free agent by the Cleveland Browns and played for two seasons before being released on Sept. 3, 2016.
However, his blazing speed (he unofficially ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash at his college pro day) made him attractive to Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He had held the same position for the Browns in 2014 when Gabriel averaged 17.3 yards on 36 catches as a rookie. Atlanta claimed him off waivers on Sept. 4.
Now he’s emerged as a vital piece of the Falcons’ high-octane offense alongside wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
“We push perfection with everything we do,” Gabriel said of their new-look receiver group. “I feel like that’s why we’ve been so good this year, because there’s no cracks and there’s no weaknesses in our receiver corps.”
And tonight, football fans will get a taste of “Turbo Taylor” in action.
“It speaks for itself,” he said of the nickname given to him by fans. “ ‘Turbo’ is just a button that you use every now and then.”
Gabriel may be small, but he’s not being overlooked by New England.
“I don’t know why he’s [considered] a sleeper,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said.
Although he’s garnered more attention and opportunities while playing in Shanahan’s system, Gabriel will never lose the proverbial chip on his shoulder.
“You want to get drafted,” he said. “You want to see your name called and come up to the screen, but at the same time, I felt like the journey that I was on and the journey that I have been going on was something that needed to be done. It’s gotten me here today.
“I’ve had a lot of doubters through my whole NFL career with my height and my size and things like that. You have to carry that chip on your shoulder just to make sure that you do that extra and above to make sure that no one else is working as hard as you.”
Gabriel called being waived by the Browns “heartbreaking” but now feels “blessed” to be a Falcon and have a chance to play in the Super Bowl. He also credits his mother for pushing him toward football again.
“That is why I go so hard to stay in the NFL and to be in this limelight,” he said, “so I could be closer to my mom when I’m out there.”
And when he takes the field tonight at NRG Stadium, Gabriel will be thinking one thing.
“Mom, I made it.”
Taylor Gabriel in 2016
Yards per catch