THE RUNNING joke went like this: The 2011 Georgia baseball team should've played five infielders and let Zach Cone and Johnathan Taylor patrol the entire outfield. The two juniors were that good. Otherwise, though, they cut different figures. Cone, the son of an NFL player and younger brother of another, was built like a vending machine, 6'2" and 202 pounds, and was pegged as a solid major league prospect. Taylor, a 5'8" lefty, was strong but more sinewy and blessed with a talent for making plays and getting on base when it was crucial. The two were among the fastest players in the SEC, if not all of college baseball, stealing bases in bulk and depriving batters of what would otherwise be hits.
So when a Florida State hitter sent a pitch whistling into the gap between left and centerfield, a liner that seemed to pick up speed as it cleared the shortstop, there was no guarantee it would drop for a hit. It was the top of the third inning of an afternoon game on March 6, 2011. Georgia was hosting the Seminoles, one of the country's best teams. The stands were dotted with major league scouts, a fact that—who knows?—might have given Cone and Taylor even more incentive to chase that damn ball. With singular focus they took off as if propelled by jets, blazing a trail toward each other.
Cone was in left, Taylor in center. Neither had time for an "I got it!" or a "Mine!" As Cone lay out to make a diving catch, so did Taylor. They were two vectors intersecting. Taylor's head smashed into Cone's left hip. Cone caught the ball and held on to it. On the ground neither player moved. In the stands there was silence, partly because no one was sure what had just happened.
ZACH CONE and Johnathan Taylor had been in the same recruiting class in the fall of 2008, and as freshman competed for a starting spot in the Bulldogs' outfield. If that wasn't enough to put some space between them, their backgrounds didn't promise much of a connection. Cone grew up in suburban comfort in Stone Mountain, Ga. His father, Ronny, once a football star at Georgia Tech and briefly a running back for the Jets, worked as a manager at Kraft Foods in Atlanta, while mom Janet taught preschool. Zach's brother Kevin was a wide receiver at Tech and is in camp with the Falcons this summer. Zach arrived in Athens with a quiet self-confidence.
Taylor was more eager to ingratiate himself—"I've always wanted to be the guy everyone likes," he says flatly. A smile and a joke were his default mode as he walked campus. He came from working-class Acworth, Ga., outside Atlanta, the oldest of three brothers raised by an indomitable single mom, Tandra, who worked as a bookkeeper and held a second job cleaning offices after hours. While J.T., as he's always been known, never wanted for anything, there weren't a lot of luxuries. During one of Taylor's first weeks at Georgia, baseball coach David Perno noticed that the freshman was walking funny. The players had been given new cleats, and Taylor's were two sizes too small. Simply grateful for the shoes, "J.T. didn't want to complain," says Perno. "So he kept wearing them."
Almost immediately, though, Cone and Taylor became bracketed together, their similarities far surpassing their differences. Living in the same residence hall on East Campus, they hung out in each other's rooms playing video games (Taylor invariably winning) and talking about girls, and they went to parties together. "The usual college things," says Taylor. "Lots of fun but nothing too crazy."
Beyond the overlapping interests, they had similar dispositions. Both took school seriously. Both were social but could also be low-key. They identified as baseball players but had plenty of friends who were on other UGA teams or didn't play sports at all.
As freshmen Cone and Taylor won starting jobs, alternating between leftfield and centerfield, neither preferring one position to the other. They warmed each other up before games and played catch between innings. On road trips they always roomed together. The summer after his freshman year, Cone played for the Cotuit Kettleers in the famed Cape Cod League. The next summer he took his buddy with him. They both played on the Kettleers and stayed with the same host family.
Even their moms became fast friends. Janet Cone and Tandra Taylor would gravitate toward each other at baseball functions and games. Soon that wasn't enough. They talked and texted and met up for lunch in and around Atlanta and made plans to visit Cape Cod in the summer so they could go to the beach and watch their boys play together.
NOW, THOUGH, on this Sunday afternoon in early March, their boys were both sprawled on the outfield grass of Foley Field. From the dugout it looked as if Cone, whose hip Taylor had slammed into, had gotten the worst of it. He got up slowly and teetered like a zombie. He had cuts behind his ear and would be found to have a concussion.