What he doesn't
say about his career year--and what few people realized as it played out--was
that it almost never happened.
Sipping a caramel
latte in a Hollywood caf�, Zach Thomas's little sister probably wishes she'd
ordered a decaf. That's because, in Zach's words, "everyone in my family
talks too much, including Katina, and none of us thinks before we talk."
Now Katina is addressing an uncomfortable subject with a reporter, and she's
fairly sure her husband won't be thrilled about it. "It's ironic that he
had his greatest season after talking about quitting just before it
started," she says. A look of concern crosses her face, but she continues
tentatively: "He told me he was willing to give up his sport for his
family, to get things straightened out. My response was that quitting football
wouldn't be the answer."
telephone conversation between the Taylors occurred a little less than a year
ago, as Jason was preparing for training camp and struggling with the couple's
separation. In March '06 Katina had filed for divorce, seeking primary custody
of the couple's three children (sons Isaiah, now 4, and Mason, 3, and daughter
Zoe, 16 months) and claiming in court documents that the marriage was
"irretrievably broken." Wichard says the relationship was strained by
"the trappings of celebrity, combined with all of Jason's outside business
interests and commitments and the challenges of raising a young family very
quickly. They both decided to refocus and reevaluate what was important to
Jason met Katina
during his second NFL season, in 1998, after she ran to embrace her brother
outside the Miami locker room after a game. Taylor assumed his lucky teammate,
already a star in only his third season, had scored a smoking-hot girlfriend,
but then Thomas introduced Taylor to his kid sister and over the next several
months played matchmaker. "Trust me--being in football, being in this
locker room, there wouldn't have been many guys I'd have set her up with,"
Thomas says. "But Jason and I were good friends, and I knew what type of
guy he was. And he was so damn shy. I tried to help."
began slowly. Jason and Katina, who lived in Texas at the time, talked on the
phone every day for eight months before they went on a date. "She'd call
me, and she'd do all the talking," Taylor recalls. "I know she was
sitting there thinking, What's the problem with this clown? I was intimidated
by her beauty."
grew stronger after the two started dating, and they married in June 2001. The
polished, poised, fashionable husband Katina sees now--the one she teasingly
calls "Rico Suave" and who cops to being a metrosexual (not that
there's anything wrong with that)--bears little resemblance to the diffident
guy she fell for. "His body language was completely different," she
says. "His posture was horrible. He mumbled." Thomas remembers a speech
that Taylor gave before his rookie season at a team banquet, a public event
that attracts hundreds of fans and sponsors: "Jimmy [ Coach Jimmy Johnson]
told him to get up and speak, and it was painful. At the end he mumbled, 'Thank
you,' and nobody clapped because nobody knew he was finished. The player beside
me said, 'Did you understand anything he just said?' I said, 'No. I needed a
translator too.' "
Taylor was just as
raw on the football field. Homeschooled through high school, he didn't play
football until his senior year (under special dispensation for Woodland Hills
High in Pittsburgh), after which he attended Akron. Four seasons of playing in
relative obscurity for a Mid-American Conference also-ran, plus his lanky
physique, made Taylor a dubious pro prospect. Wichard still remembers the
dismay he felt when Taylor, a guest at his suburban L.A. home in 1996, stepped
on a bathroom scale. "He was 229 pounds," Wichard recalls. "And
that was after Thanksgiving dinner."
had a plan. The man who helped orchestrate Brian Bosworth's transition from NFL
bust to B-movie action star believed that Taylor's good looks ultimately might
lead to off-the-field opportunities. In the meantime Taylor had to develop into
a force on the field, at a time when the ideal defensive end ( Reggie White and
Bruce Smith, for example) was a 300-pound mauler. Using dietary tricks such as
sodium loading, Wichard got Taylor up to 242 for the weigh-in at the Senior
Bowl and insisted that his client be used at his regular position, not at
linebacker. Taylor, playing end, had two sacks and was named defensive player
of the game.
The Dolphins took
him in the third round of the '97 draft, and in 11 starts as a rookie Taylor
had five sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He had nine sacks
the next season but only 2 1?2 in '99. Yet beginning with his breakout season
in 2000 (14 1?2 sacks, first-team All-Pro) Taylor has more sacks, 891?2, than
any other player in the league over that period. Taylor has returned seven
interceptions for TDs, tying former New York Giants end George Martin for the
alltime lead among defensive linemen. He could wind up in the Hall of Fame.
Though he's listed
at a misleading 255 pounds, Taylor, who plays about 15 pounds lighter, was a
trailblazer for the league's less-is-more brigade. His success helped pave the
way for undersized speed rushers such as Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney to
thrive as 4-3 ends--and, yes, the 272-pound Merriman, as a 3-4 outside
linebacker. And though Taylor gives up 60 pounds or more to most of the men who
try to block him, no one considers him a finesse player. "He's very, very
good against the run," says the Titans' Fisher. "He uses leverage and
holds the point of attack, and he chases down plays too. He's one of those
smaller ends who caused us all to rethink the position."