Lawrence Taylor is sitting in a back booth at L.T.'s, his glittery restaurant- bar in East Rutherford, N.J., a mile north of Giants Stadium. Taylor has already heard one business proposition, from a guy who said he was an Indy Car driver, something about marketing; and he has shaken hands with a guy who says he played against LT, as a tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals, but whom Taylor doesn't remember; and he has signed a few autographs. Not many, not as many as you would think. The staff at L.T.'s is protective of the boss when he's having dinner.
It is a Thursday night in July, and the place is packed. Music seems to be coming from three directions. TV monitors built into the walls are bringing in four sporting events. A knot of people is gathered around one of those shoot- a-basket games, watching a woman fire shot after shot that hits the back rim . . . back rim and out, back rim and out. An action place.
Now Taylor is fingering the little silver cross dangling from his left ear and talking about the thing that has become his passion: golf. "I'm playing in this tournament," he says. "I'm playing in a foursome with Jack Nicklaus and the Shark, Greg Norman, and a pro I don't know. I got an exemption as an amateur. Nicklaus and Norman and I have a little side bet going. They're giving me two shots a round, and I'm still six or seven strokes behind.
"And all of a sudden in the last round I catch fire. I'm hitting nothing but birdies, four, five, six in a row. Nicklaus and Norman can't believe what they're watching. Now listen to this: I birdie every hole on the round, 18 straight, and the next day I quit football and turn pro."
He pauses to let the story sink in. "And then I woke up," he says. "I'd had another golf dream."
Golf dreams. When he arrived in the NFL like an emissary from another planet in 1981, shaking up a sleeping franchise that had put together two winning seasons in the previous 17 and leading the New York Giants to their first playoff berth since '63, Taylor would dream about football. Sundays were all wildness and destruction -- the vicious, swooping blind-side hits on opposing quarterbacks; the sideline-to-sideline gallops; the way he sliced through the Washington Redskins' massed power surges; and the time he hurdled two Atlanta Falcon blockers to make a tackle, leaped clean over them. It was football played with the volume turned up to the max. "Jumping and diving into people," says Taylor, "making everyone else around me crazy too."
He would do it on Sunday, and then he would go home and dream about it at night. "The passion I had for football," he says, "is the same passion I now have for golf. It's something new, something exciting, something where you never know what's going to happen. You feel great, you play bad, you swear you're going to put your sticks up and quit. Then at 6:30 the next morning, you're going at it again."
Listening to LT, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 pro seasons, who created a new position, the rush-linebacker, and is the greatest ever to play it -- listening to him talk about his passion for golf, well, it's like hearing a tiger describe his taste for strawberries. Perhaps this is the new LT, softer, more reflective. Maybe golf is a symbol of something more social in him, even a polite nod to the establishment. Maybe this intrusion of a new passion is an indication of something that was widely suspected and occasionally written about at the end of last season: that the level of his play had declined, that for much of a Sunday afternoon he was a mere mortal, husbanding his strength, choosing a dozen or so moments in the game to turn himself loose and supply the burst of energy that he once unleashed on every play.
His postseason numbers were unimpressive: five tackles, two assists, half a sack in the three games. The Buffalo Bills single-blocked him for much of the Super Bowl. Even when the Bills' Bruce Smith claimed to have taken the mantle from LT as the game's most dominating defensive player, Taylor didn't disagree. "Last year he was," Taylor says. "In the last few years you could have made the same case for Reggie White, or Chris Doleman, or Keith Millard, or Derrick Thomas. There are so many great players in this league. But please, don't judge me on one year or even two. I'm not in competition with anybody, but over a 10-year period I'll put my statistics and honors against anyone's." Single-blocked by the Bills? No sacks in the Super Bowl? Taylor says it can happen when you face a quick-drop quarterback like Jim Kelly, who gets the ball away before the rush can form. Same thing with Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. As for a general decline, well, Taylor admits he doesn't do the things he did in his first few seasons. "In those early years I felt that anything I wanted to happen would happen," he says. "I was jumping over guys, and they wouldn't touch me. Now? I wouldn't even think of it. Hell, no. Someone would cut my knees."
Last year, he says, was unique. He missed 44 days of training camp while holding out for a new contract. (He wound up with a three-year, $4.5 million deal that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL at the time.) He says he felt the effects of the lost practice time during the season. And the Giants' defensive scheme was different. He says he was locked into a set position more than he had been in the past. He couldn't pick his spots as he had done. "Can't really argue with the system," he says. "We had a great defense, and we won the Super Bowl playing that defense. Good for the Giants, bad for LT."
He says his goal in 1991 -- playing, he hopes, in a system that will allow him more leeway -- is to recapture his status as No. 1 in the game. But you get the impression that he thinks that's almost too much to ask of a player who has been hammered by double- and triple-team blocking for 10 years, who has taken the field with injuries that would have put most other players on the reserve list. Says Taylor's close friend Beasley Reece, a former Giants safety, "The thing I remember best that he said to me is, 'It's tough being LT. People just don't know.' "
"One bad thing about playing on such a high level for so long is that you have no place to go but down," says Taylor, who has one sack after the first two weeks of the '91 season. "I've heard the rumors that I'm getting too old, that I can't play the way I used to, that I don't have the same burst that I used to. What player has the same burst at 32 that he had at 22?
"Put it this way. How many linebackers are there in football? Figure six per team, maybe more, so that's 170 or so linebackers, right? O.K., where would you rank me among those 170? Top 10? So if you're a coach, wouldn't you want one of the top 10 players out of 170?"
At one time, any questions about his mortality, of his decline, would have drawn a glare and snarl from LT. Now, though, it seems that Taylor is searching for some sort of focus on the decade he has spent in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, some kind of definition. The close friends he made among the Giants -- Reece, George Martin and Harry Carson -- are gone. So is Bill Parcells, who had been with LT since the beginning, first as New York's defensive coordinator and then as the head man. Parcells shielded Taylor from the press when everything was falling apart, back in March 1986, after the story came out that Taylor was in drug rehab. During the '84 season, there was suspicion that he was drinking heavily, and possibly doing drugs. The next year players occasionally went to Parcells and told him of their concern for LT. Parcells said he would deal with it. And he tried to.
"Our relationship suffered," Taylor says. "I couldn't get too close. I didn't want him to see what I was getting into. Even though I knew he'd always be there for me, I kept him at arm's length." The writers knew what was going on; some of them had been out drinking with LT during his first couple of years in the league. He'd been a fun guy, chatty, friendly. They liked him, and as he sank deeper into his personal turmoil, as he turned nasty and unpredictable, they began to fear him -- the glare, the muttered "Get out of my face." But the story was never written. "The reason why nobody wrote it was that they didn't have any proof," Taylor says. "There's a thing called libel."
When the story broke that Taylor was in rehab, the Giants at first denied it and then confirmed it five weeks later. Since then, Taylor's relations with the press have been ambivalent -- friendly one day, silent the next, depending on his mood.
"The reason why I got so ticked is that I'd decided on my own to get my problem corrected," he says. "I got into it on my own; I was going to take care of it on my own. For years I was the man around here, could do no wrong in the media's eyes. Then all of a sudden they're writing that LT's got a problem, so he snuck off by himself. It made me look like a dog. It hampered my treatment.
"Sure, there were writers I liked, but there were some weasels, too. When you're dealing with a bunch of media, you can't say, 'I'll talk to you but not to you.' So I stopped talking to all of them. When I came to camp in '86, Bill kept the media off me. He told me he'd always be there, he'd always be with me 100 percent. We'd go through it together.
"When Bill retired this year, the radio station WFAN came on the night before and said there would be big news breaking with the Giants tomorrow. And wouldn't you know that people were speculating all over the country that LT must have flunked a drug test. That's the atmosphere that existed. They were calling the league office, which denied it. Everyone was waiting for that third strike."
The second strike had come in 1988, when Taylor was suspended for four games at the start of the season for substance abuse. The third strike could mean a / lifetime suspension, reviewable and revocable after one year. LT has lived under this sword of Damocles for three seasons, and he says there are people out there just waiting for it to fall.
In March 1989, New Jersey state troopers arrested him after finding him asleep in his car on a shoulder of the Garden State Parkway. According to Taylor, he had begun to feel ill while he was driving, had pulled off the highway and thrown up and then had gone to sleep to recover. DWI, charged the authorities. Strike three? Then the results of the urinalysis came in. He'd passed. There was a trial. Two New Jersey doctors testified that he had suffered acute food poisoning. Not guilty.
"I was doubled up in a knot when the cops took me to the station house," Taylor says. "I was in agony. They figured I must be drunk. They couldn't believe a guy could be that sick. But there were newspapers that had already convicted me."
There's another reason for Taylor's periodic hostility toward the press. It involves something he has felt ever since he arrived in the New York area, but only came to understand during what he calls "the time of my troubles" -- the hypocrisy, in his view, of a white society that accepts blacks as athletes but will not grant them equal justice off the playing field. Taylor's resentment has been bubbling and seething, and now he's willing to make it public.
"There has always been a wild and crazy fringe in the NFL," he says. "Ted Hendricks, John Matuszak, guys who got drunk and raised hell. But no matter how drunk and crazy they got, it didn't really mean much in the eyes of the fans, because they were white guys. But let a Lawrence Taylor get out of line, and, hey, it's a little different. I don't want to get into a black-white issue in the world of pro sports, but it speaks for itself.
"I appreciate what sports has given the black athlete. It's as close as you can come to true equality. But in people's perceptions, there's still a subtle difference. A white player takes a position on something, something not in sports, some social issue, and it's one thing. But if a black guy does it, it's different. So what do you do? You smile and go along with it, unless you want to take a position and cause some trouble and strife.
"Ever since I've gotten to New York, I've had to hold everything back. I'm playing in a white man's world. I know that. So I've held it back -- until now. I've seen things in New York that are 100 times worse than anything I ever saw in the South, in Virginia, where I grew up. New York is on a time bomb. I wouldn't want my kids growing up there. If something doesn't happen soon, it's going to be a hellhole."
Some players spend a career in a city and never notice anything but the route to the stadium. But the steady drumbeat of newspaper headlines screaming about racial incidents in the New York area in recent years has had an impact on Taylor.
"You look at a guy like ((the Rev.)) Al Sharpton. Every time something happens, he's in there hollering discrimination. Even though he's a showboat, even though he's blowing smoke, at least he's making noise, and who knows? Without him, maybe this stuff wouldn't get the same attention."
Listening to Taylor unburden himself of something that's obviously been bothering him for some time, you wonder why these feelings have never surfaced before. "Nobody's ever asked me," he says. "You know how many times I've wanted people to ask me about this case, or that one. People think I live sports 24 hours a day. I don't. I watch the news on TV; I don't wait till the sports comes on. To hell with the sports pages in the paper. I don't read sports, I play it. But ask me about South Africa, yeah, I'm interested."
The nagging question is: If he's so concerned about social issues, how come he hasn't stepped forward to try to change things? "Look, I'll tell you the way it really is," Taylor says. "A lot of people, myself included, don't want to give up their status in white America. You learn how to deal with certain situations, how to play the game. A lot of athletes, especially the white ones, take some sort of stand, but they do it after they're through, when they're not worried about their status. They don't want to make waves while they're playing.
"For years I believed that because I was successful in the white man's world, I'd never be touched by prejudice. It was a false sense of security. It's all around you. Clubs are always inviting me to play on their golf courses, but I've been denied membership in prominent country clubs here ((in New Jersey)).
"I'm a member at courses all over the country, and I can't get a membership in the area where I live. Is that wild? But, of course, they all want you to play in their tournaments, and when I'm there, the only other black person I see is the cook. Yeah, they love me there, but it's all a facade. It's all for show."
( New York fans are a notoriously hard-eyed lot, eager to cheer someone who strikes their fancy, almost as eager to turn on him when things go bad. Two things about Taylor, though, have brought him close to their hearts: his remarkably high pain threshold and his sense of drama, the way he can isolate the few big moments in a game, when everything is on the line, and turn up the burners to their highest.
"There comes a time in a game when you know a key play is coming up," Taylor says. "You can just feel it in the air. It might be when you're up by 17 points, but you know if the other team scores on that play, it's back in the game. It could be a play at the end of the game, or a chance to put a team away for keeps early. Maybe you'll have six or seven situations like that in a game. There are guys who shun those moments. It's like in basketball. There are guys who want to shoot that last shot, and others who want to pass off. I want that last shot. There are times when you have to find a way to make the play, and as you get older it might mean conserving your energy until that moment comes."
The pain? On Nov. 27, 1989, the 49ers' Wesley Walls sent Taylor off the field on a cart when he took Taylor down with a cut block, away from the play. What was thought to be a severe ankle sprain was later determined to be a hairline fracture at the base of the right tibia. A New York Times story on Dec. 1 carried the headline: TAYLOR'S ANKLE IS BROKEN, BUT HE FEELS BETTER. He played the next Sunday. Then there's the most famous example of all, in a Sunday night game against New Orleans in 1988, when his right deltoid muscle was torn and Taylor kept stripping off his shirt on the sideline to adjust his shoulder harness. He was in on 10 tackles, got two sacks and forced two fumbles, and the Giants won by a field goal. "Phil Simms was out, Carl Banks was out," says Parcells. "The Saints were 9-3, and the game was at their place. After the game I went over to LT, and we touched foreheads. He knew and I knew, but no one else knew what he had gone through. I told him, 'You were great tonight,' and he said, 'I don't know how I made it.' I will never forget that."
"Only once in my pro career have I gotten a shot for pain, and that was when I had the cracked ankle," Taylor says. "Bill didn't believe in shots, and our doctor, Russ Warren, wouldn't give them, so I had a guy I know shoot the ankle. I had to wash it and slap some tape on it quickly, because I knew | Russ would check it. I didn't want him to see the blood. The ankle was shot in four places. Playing in pain is like forcing yourself to play when you're tired. You've got to trick yourself."
At the outset of his 11th NFL season, Taylor says he feels fine physically. Emotionally? Well, things are tough. The specter of strike three, the third substance-abuse finding, is always there. Parcells is gone, and LT wonders if his skills are going too. Finally, he must deal with his on-again, off-again marriage to his wife, Linda. "It's a precarious situation, and I don't know which way to turn," Taylor says. "It's hard on our three children, hard on everybody. It's turmoil."
"I think the big change in LT is that a feeling of mortality is starting to creep in," Reece says. "For the first time he's starting to think about what life might be like without football. I don't know how long he'll play. He has such a fear of not being the bull in the woods. Some guys hang around too long. I don't think LT will play much longer. I don't think he ever wants to be average." "The important thing is to avoid injury; that's the key," Taylor says. "I've kept my weight down, I haven't gotten too far out of shape. I even reported to camp on the first day. You always have to find some reason to play, some way to motivate yourself, and now it's: Am I still the best? Can I still do it? It's like trying to win back a title you've lost.
"I want to answer all those people who are asking if I can still do it. All right, you guys. Since you've asked the question, I'll answer it. I'll answer the call one more time, and maybe you'll shut up. After 10 years, that's what I want to do -- answer the call, shut 'em up and end my career with class."