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FRED TAYLOR recently led a crucial team meeting to address the Jacksonville Jaguars' shower habits. He stood in the front of the locker room, a portrait of perfect hygiene. The running back said that he wakes up every Sunday exactly five hours before a 1 p.m. kickoff, walks into his bathroom, lays out his towel, turns on the water and finds just the right temperature on the dial, a tad warmer than warm. Then he turns off all the lights.
"I stand in the shower with my eyes closed and the water falling down on me, and I imagine this great white light," Taylor says. "Then I see our team on the field. I think about every play we are going to run, how each one is going to work. It's like I play the whole game right there in the dark. And it's always the perfect game."
He sees himself taking a handoff and bulldozing 300-pound defensive linemen for a first down. On the next play he slides out of the backfield and snags a swing pass on the run. On the next he gets a pitch, shakes a linebacker and dusts a safety on his way to the end zone. Only after the Jaguars have won the game does Taylor step out of the shower and turn on the lights, finally ready to play.
Taylor told teammates about his ritual not because he wanted them to mimic it but because he wanted them to share his vision. He does not know how many Jaguars are now showering in the dark—"It's not like we do it together or anything," he says. He only knows that they are playing exactly the way he imagined they could.
Jacksonville ran down the Carolina Panthers 37--6 on Sunday, improving its record to 9--4 and bolstering its case for an AFC wild-card berth. For the first time since 2004, Taylor had a third consecutive 100-yard game, capping his 132-yard day with a career-best 80-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars are built for the playoffs: First quarter or fourth, they hand the ball to Taylor or fellow running back Maurice Jones-Drew and push defenders out of the way.
Taylor has been a Jaguar for 10 of the team's 13 years in the league. During that decade he has become known mainly for his balky body parts: shoulder, hamstring, thigh, ankle, foot, groin, back, hip, knee and other knee. Impatient fans have called him Fragile Fred. So what should they call him now that, at 31, he has 10,457 career rushing yards and ranks 17th on the alltime list of running backs in yards and ninth in combined rushing and receiving yards per game? Future Hall of Famer, perhaps.
At the very least Taylor is an overlooked star. Of the top 49 rushers in NFL history, he is the only one never to have made the Pro Bowl. He is not even the most celebrated running back on his own team, often overshadowed by his supposed understudy, Jones-Drew. But, as Jones-Drew himself puts it, Fred Taylor "is the Jaguars."
THE JACKSONVILLE locker room is unlike any other in the NFL. The stereo blasts Rick James. Half the defense sings along to Mary Jane. Wideout Reggie Williams gyrates next to a laundry basket. Brett Hawkins gives fellow defensive end Kenny Pettway a face full of baby powder. And a shirtless intern parades around in cutoff black spandex shorts, dark sunglasses, a construction helmet and a giant grin.
"So it's not like this in New England?" defensive end Bobby McCray asks. With baby powder floating all around him, Taylor does his best impersonation of a Patriot. He sits silent and stone-faced at his locker, nose buried in a laptop computer. He seems oblivious to the powder and the spandex, but more likely he is recording it all for posterity. "I like to take notes," he says, "for my book."
There may not be an audience for his memoir, but he certainly has the material. Taylor was born in Belle Glade, Fla., to a mother who was 15. He thought of her as his sister, his grandmother as his mom. The family lived in the upstairs of a duplex apartment, five people crammed into two bedrooms. In the summer the teenage Taylor worked in the sugarcane fields. "The mosquitoes," he says, "were big enough to pick you up and take you away."