He has been granted an unexpected Thursday off in the middle of January, and to revel in this bounty, little Johnny does what any normal, carefree kid would do. He wakes up early, gobbles down breakfast and bops over to the bowling alley. He bowls, inhales some greasy food at a Chinese restaurant and rushes off to the Malibu Castle Golf and Games for some hacks in the batting cage, battling 90-mph fastballs in his Dodger-blue helmet. He dashes home and jumps on his bicycle for a ride through the park.
It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and John Taylor, 32 going on 11, intends to enjoy every minute of it.
"Check out all my video games," Taylor says, pointing to a collection lined up under a display of football mementos and opposite a fish tank filled with piranhas in his den. "I'm in here playing all the time. This is sort of like the boys' room."
Taylor, the San Francisco 49ers' hyper, happy-go-lucky, heretofore private wide receiver, is a child inside a grown man's body who has found no compelling reason to relinquish the tastes and pace of his youth. An intelligent and thoughtful soul, a determined husband and father, a respected presence on a team of glamorous icons, Taylor has all the markings of successful adulthood. The only catch: "He's Dennis the Menace," says 49er president Carmen Policy. "If he were eight years old, you'd say he's 'all boy.' "
Taylor is Tom Hanks in Big—with much cooler wheels. As he speeds around San Mateo County in his bright yellow '32 Chevy Coupe, setting off car alarms with its 486-horsepower engine, there's a gleam in his eye that seems oblivious to the responsibilities of manhood. That same sense of abandon has helped Taylor forge a prosperous career, one that featured the winning catch in Super Bowl XXIII and now seems destined to include a third Super Bowl ring.
When he lines up against the San Diego Chargers this Sunday at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, Taylor won't be so anonymous; this month he gave his first extended interviews in more than five years, a step that could erase some misconceptions. "You see him portrayed as a mellow, low-key guy," says John's wife, Elayne. "That persona is a farce. I find myself having to prepare an hour before he comes home because once he opens that door, he blows through like a hurricane."
The hurricane is out in the open now, thanks to a combination of Elayne's prodding and John's maturity. Five-and-a-half years ago, in the aftermath of reports about a drug suspension he still disputes, Taylor stopped talking to journalists, relenting only occasionally. On Jan. 15, after the 49ers' 38-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, Taylor made news by blabbing away—and that was only the beginning. In the ensuing days he had a revealing discussion with New York Times reporter Thomas George and then enthusiastically engaged in a daylong interview with SI.
"I guess I'm out of my shell," Taylor said. "It's funny because I always knew that people thought that I couldn't do interviews, or maybe 1 didn't know what to say. I would sit back, and I knew that wasn't the case, but they didn't know that wasn't the case. So it was kind of mysterious...kind of like the Steve Carlton thing. And it was kind of a goof."
It is funny now, listening to John Taylor speak, because his words seem so effortless. Talking comes easily to Taylor, as most endeavors do. The man who lines up at the opposite end of the line from Jerry Rice does so in a figurative sense as well; Rice is the hardest-working man in throw business; Taylor, the possessor of limitless natural talent, is hardly working. "A lot of things just come natural to him," says New York Giant receiver Mike Sherrard, Taylor's friend and former teammate. "I don't know what JT's not good at."
Deion Sanders may be the best athlete on the 49ers, or on any team, but Taylor can dance on the same floor. An avid bowler, Taylor carries a 205 average, has a high game of 289 and casually bowled a 247 game while being photographed for this article. He also loves baseball—he played second base in high school—so much that in two years he plans to retire from the NFL and make a Michael Jordan-type run at the major leagues by way of the San Francisco Giants. The star of the Niners' off-season basketball team, the 6'1" Taylor has been known to bank a free throw off the backboard, catch the rebound and dunk it before opponents can react.