Every fall and winter the sugarcane fields in southeast Florida are set ablaze to burn off the plants' prickly leaves so the cane can be harvested. In the poverty-stricken town of Belle Glade, near the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, the thick, black smoke mixes with the already soupy air, forcing the town's older folks indoors while children wait at the edge of the fields with pointy sticks for rabbits and various rodents to be driven out by the fire. Besides being known for its sugarcane, suffocating humidity and high crime rate, Belle Glade also has one of the nation's highest per capita incidences of AIDS. For 22 years this was home for Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Fred Taylor.
Since he was in the seventh grade, Taylor had promised to move his grandmother, Rosetta Lusane—who raised him after he was born to Rosetta's 15-year-old daughter, Sharon—out of her tiny duplex apartment and into a house of her own. Last July, after the Jaguars had chosen him ninth overall in the draft, Taylor made good on that pledge, garnering a six-year, $15.7 million contract (including a $5 million signing bonus) and then closing on a three-bedroom colonial in West Palm Beach. "Three bathrooms and lots of air conditioning," says Lusane, who while living with Sharon and Fred supported them and several other grandchildren by working at a radish-packing plant. "Since Fred was a little boy, he always seemed to be striving to make a better life for himself. He's had setbacks, but what's kept him going was that he didn't want to end up another nobody, back in Belle Glade, standing on the corner."
With his No. 1 goal taken care of, Taylor enjoyed a debut pro season—1,385 yards rushing plus 44 catches for 421 more yards—which, in other years, might have won him top rookie honors. Instead, shortly after Taylor ran for 162 yards in Jacksonville's 25-10 AFC wild-card playoff win over the New England Patriots on Sunday, it was announced that Minnesota Vikings sensational wideout Randy Moss was the runaway pick as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Taylor's teammates beg to differ. " Fred Taylor is the NFL rookie of the year," says Jacksonville right guard Ben Coleman.
"Taking care of my family, that's the thing I live for, that's what I was put on this earth to do, not just play football," says Taylor, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards at Florida, including 1,292 in his senior year. "Randy has been through so much that people doubted him. I think everyone just expected me to be this good."
Not quite everyone. After failing to trade up in the draft to snag Penn State running back Curtis Enis (who was taken fifth, by the Chicago Bears), the Jaguars, who seemed set at running back with James Stewart, were widely criticized in the Florida media for choosing Taylor. He was described as a fumble-prone back (he had 26 drops in 38 games with the Gators) who also had been suspended for one game as a sophomore for sharing a pizza ordered with a stolen credit card, and suspended for three games as a junior for using a book bag that he said he didn't know was stolen (in neither case was he charged with a crime). But coach Tom Coughlin had a plan. Last year Jacksonville was run out of the playoffs in a wild-card matchup with the Denver Broncos, who controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes by bulldozing the Jaguars for 310 yards on the ground and holding them to only 50 rushing yards in a 42-17 blowout. Coughlin called the loss "demoralizing" and committed himself to bolstering the team's running game. In the process he restructured the ground attack to include Denver's seal-blocking schemes and the deep handoffs that allow the Broncos' Terrell Davis to pick his own holes. That system was a perfect fit for the six-foot, 231-pound Taylor, who has 4-35 speed, a knack for slipping through cracks at the line and the kind of power that leaves defensive backs spinning in thin air like weather vanes.
Taylor entered the lineup in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens after Stewart suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament that ended his season. On his first carry Taylor ripped off a 52-yard touchdown run. He went on to break seven more runs of 30 yards or longer during the regular season (including a 70-yarder that beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 15), score 17 more touchdowns, set 22 team records and get named AFC Rookie of the Month in September and December. After each big run he returns to the huddle and thanks his linemen with a smile so full of gold it looks as if he's sucking on a Krugerrand.
"What I really want in the next few years is to be considered with the league's elite backs, Terrell and Barry [Sanders]," says Taylor, who has fumbled only three times in 308 touches this year. "I wouldn't have said that at the beginning of the season, but now it's not such a bold statement."
On Sunday against New England, Taylor's rushes spoke eloquently. Midway through the second quarter he sliced his way to a 46-yard pickup that set up the second of Mike Hollis's four field goals. Later in the half, behind a crushing block by left tackle Tony Boselli, Taylor scampered 13 yards for the score that put Jacksonville up 12-0.
"You fall asleep for one second playing against someone like Fred Taylor, and, boom, he kills you," Jaguars defensive tackle John Jurkovic said after the game. "That kind of threat puts constant tension on a defense. It's like Chinese water torture. The whole game it's just drip, drip, drip—then, bam, he's gone."
With Taylor, Jacksonville rushed for 25.5 more yards per game than in 1997. Controlling the clock with an improved ground attack has helped keep the Jaguars' injury-depleted defense, the lowest-ranked unit in the playoffs, off the field. Furthermore, with starting quarterback Mark Brunell rusty from sitting out the final three weeks of the regular season with a sprained left ankle—in the first quarter against the Patriots he overthrew wide-open receivers in the end zone on consecutive plays—it was up to Taylor to carry the offense. "I really don't feel extra pressure," Taylor says. "Someone told me, 'Treat this game like it was Tennessee, treat the next one like it's Florida State, and treat the one after that like the SEC championship, and, before you know it, you'll be in the bowl game you want.' "