'Who the hell is this reject?' Delaware State star, Super Bowl hero rose from obscurity

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

Among pro athletes with ties to the state of Delaware, John Taylor is among the truly noteworthy but also among the most unlikely.

His name lives in Super Bowl lore.

But as humble beginnings go, few are more modest than Taylor’s.

He wasn’t even in the game program and coaches didn’t know his first name when Taylor caught his first pass for Delaware State in 1982. 

Former San Francisco 49ers players Roger Craig, from left, Joe Montana and John Taylor gather before a halftime ceremony during an NFL game between the 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals in Santa Clara, California, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015.

Yet, Taylor went on to star for the Hornets, then became a household name in San Francisco. He snared the winning 10-yard pass from Joe Montana with 34 seconds left as the 49ers defeated the Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII on Jan. 22, 1989, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.

Seven years before that, Taylor was a redshirt freshman walk-on at Delaware State who spent practices on the scout team while being mistakenly called “Jake” by coaches.

When he caught his first pass as a Hornet on Oct. 23, 1982, in a homecoming duel against Virginia State, the Alumni Stadium public-address announcer, those providing radio play-by-play accounts and newspaper reporters had no idea who he was.

It was an 18-yard touchdown catch with 1:31 left that pulled Delaware State within a point. Quarterback Rod Lester then ran for a two-point conversion to give the Hornets a 15-14 victory.

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“They said, ‘We’re gonna run that slant we ran in practice,’” Taylor said in a recent phone interview, recounting how he had dazzled coaches by catching a couple touchdown passes in a practice leading up to the game. “I said, ‘Works for me.’

“That’s when they finally found out I could play.”

New Castle's Frank Burton Jr. was a Hornets wide receiver and cornerback who’d been defending Taylor when he ran those slants in practice.

“That’s when he got recognized; that’s when he started going crazy,” Burton said.

Taylor was among those recently enshrined into the Delaware Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2019.

He set DelState career records with 100 catches (which now ranks 11th) for 2,426 yards (now third) and 33 touchdowns (which remains tied for No. 1).

That 24.2 yards per catch set an NCAA record and his 93- and 97-yard TD catches were the longest in MEAC history.

“I don’t think it’s an argument that he’s the greatest football player to ever come out of Delaware State College and University,” said Joe Purzycki, who was DelState’s head coach from 1981-84. “They’ve had some other players who played in the league but nobody like John.”

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Taylor was an NFL third-round pick, 76th overall, by the 49ers, with whom he played nine seasons and caught 347 regular-season passes for 5,598 yards and 43 touchdowns.

His big-play prowess was notable, especially when Taylor became the first NFL player to have two 90-plus yard receptions, both for touchdowns, in a game in a 30-27 Monday night win over the Rams in 1989. The two-time Pro Bowl selection also led the NFL in punt return yardage in 1988.

Taylor had 46 postseason receptions for 734 yards and six touchdowns, including a TD in the 49ers’ January 1990 Super Bowl win over Denver, and four catches in the January 1995 Super Bowl triumph over San Diego.

“I remember my frustration with the scouts when they would come through,” Purzycki said. “They still felt because we were an HBCU school running the Wing-T offense, how good could this kid really be? They were very skeptical. We were saying ‘This guy is the real deal.’”

A stellar career as a wide receiver hardly seemed likely considering Taylor played safety at Pennsauken (N.J.) High, his favorite sport was actually baseball and he hadn’t initially attended college after graduating high school in 1980. Taylor was making good money working at a liquor warehouse in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, near where, ironically, NFL Films is now located.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana (16) and wide receiver John Taylor (82) clasp hands after Montana's pass to Taylor at the end of the fourth quarter resulted in a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Super Bowl XXIII Jan. 22, 1989 in Miami.

“Why do I need to go anywhere?” he said of his thoughts at the time. “I’m living with my parents. No kids. No bills. Then I start hanging around with the wrong crowd and I knew I didn’t want to do that so I said to my dad, 'I just want to get outta here because if I don’t I think I’m gonna end up no good.'”

A family friend suggested Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, so off Taylor went in 1981.

He was cut from the football team in preseason camp after one scrimmage.

“Any time you’re a northern player that comes down to the south you automatically got a strike against you,” said Taylor, a 2005 Delaware Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “They pretty much don’t even look at you. They put a bunch of us in for one play. That’s all I got in, for one play.”

On that play, Taylor lined up as a wide receiver and the football was handed to a running back.

Taylor spent the entire school year there and stayed on top of his academic work while considering transfer destinations. He pinpointed Delaware State because Dover was midway between his New Jersey home and he had relatives on the Eastern Shore in Maryland and Virginia. Taylor was born in Salisbury.

As he was touring Delaware State on a visit, he and his parents ran into Hornets athletic director Nelson Townsend, with whom they’d attended high school. Townsend took them to meet Purzycki, whose hiring as a white football coach for an HBCU program after the 1980 season made headlines and stirred emotions on campus.

“I can’t take any credit for recruiting him,” Purzycki said.

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Those rural roots – Taylor’s grandparents had a farm – would actually earn Taylor another nickname that many of his teammates still call him, Burton said: “Jed Clampett,” after the Beverly Hillbillies TV show patriarch.

Taylor, as a walk-on whose parents were paying for him to attend school, wasn’t invited to preseason camp and arrived to join the team after classes started.

“I had a helmet that was too big, shoulder pads too big, droopy pants,” he recalled of his first practice. “Here I come across the field and everybody turns around. They’re my best friends now. Eldridge Comer, we used to call him ‘Ace,’ he said ‘I saw you across this field and the first thing I said was, ‘Who the hell is this reject?’”

The 6-foot-1 Taylor weighed no more than 170 pounds. He wanted to be the player eluding tackles, not making them. That's why he preferred playing wide receiver to defensive back, which is where Purzycki initially wanted to play him.

Plus, he and his friends in New Jersey often couldn’t play football in nearby parks when they were growing up, he said, because they were strewn with broken bottles. So they’d move their games to cemeteries, where there were different obstacles.

“You learn real quick that tombstones don’t move,” said Taylor, who developed his elusiveness there.

As an example of those open-field skills, Purzycki would show NFL scouts tape of Taylor returning a punt for a touchdown in a game against James Madison. DelState was trying to block the punt, leaving Taylor with few blockers.

He first made the travel team for an Oct. 16 visit to MEAC rival North Carolina A&T. Taylor recalled slipping into his red sweatsuit and walking from his hotel room to a team dinner.

Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver John Taylor, foreground, poses for photos in front of former teammates before an NFL game between the 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, California, on Oct. 21, 2018.

“I hear guys going, ‘Who’s that?’” he said. “They don’t know me.”

A week later came his debut and the clutch touchdown catch for his first reception against Virginia State. After the game, Purzycki explained to the media that number 82 who caught the touchdown pass was Jake Taylor.

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“That’s when we looked at this kid and said, ‘We really have something special here, this guy is a player,’” said Purzycki, who details much of that in the book “Mr. Townsend & The Polish Prince” about his hiring and years coaching at DelState.

 Since arriving at Delaware State, Taylor had been going by the initials “J.T.”

“We were in practice one day and Purzycki asked [wide receivers] coach [Walter] Tullis ‘What’s J.T.s first name?’ and he goes, ‘I think it’s Jake,’” Taylor recalled. “I didn’t say anything. I heard him say it. I didn’t say one word.”

Eventually, Taylor spoke up and corrected his coaches. “My name’s John,” he said.

By that time, he’d already made a name for himself on some of Delaware State’s finest teams.

The Hornets went 7-3-1 when Taylor was a sophomore in 1983, 8-2 in 1984 and 9-2 in 1985, when Bill Collick became coach after Purzycki’s move to James Madison.

Taylor’s only regret from his DelState days is his teams never got the chance to take on the University of Delaware, which had mysteriously canceled scheduled 1983 and 1984 games with the Hornets.

A strong student who graduated with a business degree, Taylor operates a trucking company from his home in Clovis, California, near Fresno. He often drives cross-country himself for various poultry industries. It was an easy decision as several family members operated similar businesses and Taylor, when he was a college student, would sometimes ride with them as they passed by campus on Route 13.

Soon after deciding to attend Delaware State, Taylor had told a friend in New Jersey of his plans.

“He said, ‘Don’t you know that’s the damn school that got beat 105-0?’” Taylor said of the Hornets’ loss at Portland State in 1980. “‘What, in basketball?’ ... I was like, ‘That’s before me, man, things can change.’  

“That was the fun thing about it. We didn’t have any big-name guys. We just had a bunch of scrappy guys who could go to war.”

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.