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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."