In 1971, James Taylor arrived on the campus of the University of Alabama on a football scholarship. It had been less than a decade since Governor George Wallace’s symbolic attempt to "block the schoolroom doors," which ended segregation, but not racism at the college.
He came from the rural lands nearby the Indian reservation in Alabama where his family had been raised for countless generations. The few members of his tribe who had attended post-secondary institutions had primarily attended historic Indian schools such as Bacone, Haskell, and a few others. His MOWA Choctaw people had only recently been able to attend the public schools after generations of enduring a segregated system with separate accredited schools for whites and blacks and a third non-accredited educational system for area Indians. Black and white students lived in a black and white world, and asked him during these years, “What are you?” He found a way to endure. After his freshman and redshirt seasons, he earned a place on the field under the tutelage of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. The rest as they say is history. One National Championship and three SEC Championships would follow in the years 1973-75.
James would go on to become the proud father of four children after returning home to his beloved Indian community. From serving as tribal princess to obtaining college degrees to winning community awards, they would all achieve. One would pursue a career in football.
Lance Taylor grew up amongst his Indian people and eventually attended nearby Citronelle High School as had his father before him. By age six he had developed a passion for the game. Unlike his father who earned all-state honors, Lance was told by some that, at 5'9", he was too small for football. Nonetheless, he would play for three years and finish as class salutatorian with a 4.0+ GPA and zero school absences. He applied to only one college where he planned to walk-on.
Ask any member of his tribe about Lance's likelihood of success, and you'll get a familiar answer: When he sets his mind to something, it seems he not only accomplishes it, but he does it in such a way that it elevates and shows kindness to those around him.
As his father had three decades earlier, Lance experienced self-doubt during his first two years after making the team at the University of Alabama. He wrestled with the difficulty, he recalled to ICTMN, of practicing with the team each day but not being allowed to dress out and stand on the sidelines come Saturday. Instead, he watched the games in street clothes, from the stands.
But he didn't give up, and his forbearance paid off. During his last three years at Alabama, Lance played in 38 consecutive games. He served as special teams captain during his senior season, and he earned his degree. He went on to spend three years playing professionally in the Arena Football League, two years as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama, one year as receivers coach for NCAA D-I Appalachian State, and then an encounter with the NFL’s New York Jets.
Lance Taylor has just finished his third season in New York where he serves as Assistant Tight Ends Coach under Head Coach Rex Ryan.
My conversation with him about his 31 years spoke of his pride in being Indian, his desire to give back to Indian Country, his love of sport, his appreciation and love towards his parents, and lesser understood issues concerning his place as one of only a few Indians in both high level college athletics and the professional ranks. He remarked to me about how being diligent with the small things allows one to be provided with more responsibility and allows those observing to see the genuineness in one’s actions. Like his father, Lance has occasionally encountered individuals who pose the question, "What are you?" -- more so out of sincere interest than any negative agenda. For the most part his teammates and colleagues throughout his collegiate and professional career have been supportive and appreciative of the diversity he brings as an American Indian born and raised within his community.
He feels a great sense of honor in knowing that his people are back home rooting for him and that he can provide in a humble manner something positive to aspire to. During our conversation he consistently deferred his success and opportunities to others.
In the sometimes crazy world of sports where coaches are hired and fired day in and day out, Lance Taylor has become one of those stories that make athletics so endearing.
"What are you?"
His answer: "A man of faith, committed husband and son, proud tribal citizen, University of Alabama alumni, and member of the National Football League New York Jet’s coaching staff."
Not a bad resume for the Indian kid from Calvert, Alabama (pop. 280).