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Steelers

Late bloomer Jason Taylor finishes journey from Turtle Creek to Canton

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Aug. 4, 2017, 6:24 p.m.
Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, a Woodland Hills product, sacks Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe on Dec. 21, 2003.
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Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, a Woodland Hills product, sacks Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe on Dec. 21, 2003.
FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2009, file photo, Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor (99) walks onto the field during the second quarter against the Houston Texans in an NFL football game in Miami. First-year eligibles LaDainian Tomlinson, Hines Ward, Jason Taylor and Brian Dawkins are among 26 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2017.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2009, file photo, Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor (99) walks onto the field during the second quarter against the Houston Texans in an NFL football game in Miami. First-year eligibles LaDainian Tomlinson, Hines Ward, Jason Taylor and Brian Dawkins are among 26 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2017. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

When George Novak came home from work one fateful day in 1990, the kid working on his neighbor's driveway hollered at him.

“Hey, coach, remember me?” the young man said.

“Yeah, I remember you,” said Novak, who was football coach at Woodland Hills at the time but still recalled the face from his days at Steel Valley four years earlier.

“I live in your district now, Turtle Creek,” the kid said.

Novak, who recently retired after a 40-year coaching career, knew a football player when he saw one and didn't want this one to get away.

“Why don't you come out for the team?” he said.

Jason Taylor said yes, and so began his journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Taylor, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, will be inducted Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, along with Kurt Warner, LaDainian Tomlinson, Kenny Easley, Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis and Jerry Jones.

The encounter with Novak occurred before Taylor's junior year at Woodland Hills. He hadn't played football before then because he was home-schooled and believed he was ineligible.

When Taylor showed up at the Wolvarena, Novak told him to run onto the field and catch a pass. He did, and Novak said, “You made the team. Go get some spikes.”

Taylor, who will be the 21st defensive end inducted, played safety and tight end at Woodland Hills.

“It was a learning experience,” Novak said. “He never had a helmet on, never got in a stance, never played with full equipment, never tackled anybody with equipment on. But he had a thirst for the game and got better at every practice.”

After a collegiate career at Akron, Taylor became one of the NFL's all-time great sack artists, recording 139 12 in 15 seasons — 13 with the Miami Dolphins. He also holds the NFL record for fumbles returned for touchdowns (six) and shares the opponents' fumble recovery record (29) with former Pitt and New Orleans Saints star Rickey Jackson.

“He always was around the football,” Novak said, recalling a game against Youngstown Cardinal Mooney when Taylor recovered four fumbles.

In a game against Central Catholic, Taylor had two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and caught a touchdown pass.

“That meant more to him after he met (Dan) Marino in Miami,” Novak said.

Taylor, who became a six-time Pro Bowler and four-time Dolphins MVP, was lightly recruited by college coaches. When Novak was talking to Akron defensive coordinator Bob Junko (now Pitt's director of player development), he said, “Bob, just come and watch him play basketball.”

“He did and offered him a scholarship on the spot,” Novak said.

When Taylor retired after the 2011 season, he said, “I'm here today because of George Novak.”

“He started this journey off, when I knew nothing about football. They'd throw a flag, and I didn't know what the signal was. I'd watch my teammates, see where they walked, because I didn't know what the heck to do. I didn't know Cover-2 from Cover-3 from Cover-1.

“I was a safety, and he told me to stay deep. That's kind of how I learned how to play. So, I owe George Novak a lot, my old high school football coach. He was the best and still is the best.”

Taylor, 43, is one of 15 Woodland Hills graduates to play in the NFL. He's the first to go into the Hall of Fame. He's also just the second player from the Mid-American Conference to enter the Hall, following Steelers great Jack Lambert of Kent State.

“I'm proud of everything he's done outside of football,” Novak said, pointing to Taylor's 2007 Walter Payton Award and a runner-up finish on “Dancing With The Stars” in 2008. “My wife was voting for him with five or six phones.”

Novak and his longtime assistant Harvey Inglis will be in the audience when Taylor is presented for induction by former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, who drafted him in the third round in 1997 (73rd overall).

“When I came in in 1997, it wasn't in vogue to be a 240-pound defensive end,” Taylor said. “It was kind of unheard of. There were a lot of questions whether I could survive and thrive at that weight.”

Now, he marvels at the impact he made playing a game foreign to him for the first 16 years of his life.

“You see the look on people's faces, adults and kids alike,” he said. “That's the best part of it. It's having the ability to make a kid smile. Those are the coolest moments. Those are the most special moments.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com )or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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