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Though he has never played the position, Taylor is the 49ers' unofficial fourth-string quarterback, a function of his grasp of the offense and his sensational arm. "He knows what everybody's supposed to do," says former teammate Dwight Clark, now the Niners' coordinator of football operations. "He's right there with the quarterback, except he throws better than most quarterbacks. He throws the farthest, tightest spiral on the team."
It gets more obnoxious. "He's an awesome pool player, even better at Ping-Pong," says Los Angeles Raider tight end Jamie Williams, another ex-teammate. "Everything I've seen him do, he's good at."
Well, maybe not everything.
Taylor, who has an eight-year-old daughter, Jonelle, from a previous relationship, prides himself on his devotion to family, saying he prefers to stay home at night with Elayne and her nine-year-old cousin Natalie, because "there's nothing but trouble out in the streets." Taylor started dating Elayne, who is five years his senior, early in his career. They married in May 1990. Elayne has a master's degree in education and has spearheaded many of the Taylors' charity projects, including a fund that supports three programs serving disadvantaged children in the Bay Area. "Without her, I don't think I would have stayed in this league longer than a couple of years," John says. Their affection is unmistakable, but when Elayne is asked if anything does not come easily to her husband, she bares some scars.
"Should I be honest?" she says. "It was a struggle for him to be really committed. This subculture of football is very different for me. And it was a struggle, especially when he was in his 20's. I really have to say he has come a long way with his dedication and his commitment to relationships. His struggle was grappling with peer pressure and what's out there but yet being content and comfortable with what he had. And I think that's where a lot of his admiration or his respect for me comes from, that 1 knew that whatever it was was a phase. I think that his heart was always there. But from seven years ago up until now, he's made great strides."
In many ways Elayne has replaced the person who had been the strongest force in Taylor's life: his mother, Alice. Alice and her husband, John, had four children, and young John, the carefree one, was her playful pet. "Their bond was incredible," the elder John says. "He would tell her things that he wouldn't tell anyone else."
While growing up in Pennsauken, N.J., a modest suburb of Philadelphia, Taylor and his neighborhood pals were reduced to playing in a cemetery. Funeral Football produced five NFL players—John; his younger brother Keith, a Washington Redskin defensive back; Charger linebacker David Griggs; his older brother, former New York Jet tight end Billy; and Houston Oiler fullback Todd McNair.
After high school Taylor spent a year delivering liquor, habitually making time to sample the product. "All I did was drink," he says, "because it was so easy to get." Taylor then went to college, first at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., then at Delaware State, where he walked onto the football team. Drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 1986, Taylor remained fond of cocktails. One night during training camp, Clark and Joe Montana took him to a Mexican restaurant and ended up leaving him passed out in the bathroom. "I had 14 shots of tequila, and I was drinking pitchers of margaritas," Taylor recalls. "I fell asleep in the toilet stall, and the cleanup crew discovered me."
Two years later, before the 1988 season, Taylor tested positive for cocaine and was warned by the NFL. After a second test a few weeks later, he was suspended for 30 days. Taylor admits he used cocaine the first time, but he swears that the second result was erroneous. His attorneys, John Guheen and Brian McSweeney, appealed to the NFL and ultimately negotiated a settlement, one that Guheen says cleared his client's name. But the league never went public with that information and now declines comment on that episode. Taylor missed the season's first four games then returned with a bang, making the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. He capped the season by catching one of the most famous passes in NFL history, a 10-yard spiral from Montana with 34 seconds remaining in a 20-16 Super Bowl XXIII victory over Cincinnati—Taylor's last visit to Joe Robbie Stadium.
The following summer Taylor plummeted back to earth. On a family outing at the Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson, N.J., Alice suffered a brain aneurysm. She lapsed into a coma and died a few days later. John remembers the sickening feeling: Still nauseated from a roller-coaster ride, he ran to his mother and saw her vomit and collapse. He still relives the vision of her coffin being lowered into the ground.