ASHBURN, Va. -- The magician asked a basic question to Phil Taylor, one that elicited a surprise answer for his wife. It was just small talk at the birthday party for the couple’s 1-year-old son last December.
Magician: “What do you do?”
Taylor: “I’m a retired football player.”
Or, as Taylor later heard it, “Get your ass off the couch, put the damn controller down and go work.”
Those plans, however, quickly disappeared, with no thanks to the magician but, rather, to a wife that preached perseverance and a phone call two days later. Taylor's agent, Peter Schaffer, told him a team was interested in signing him: the Washington Redskins.
A month later, the one-time first-round pick was part of the Redskins and has a shot at winning the starting nose tackle job. Taylor opened the first preseason game as the nose in Washington’s base defense; he worked there during the subsequent practices as well. It’s been two and a half years since he’s played in a game, leaving him on a difficult road that gutted him.
“Such a difference,” Dajana Taylor said. “To see him back, you could see he was depressed [before]. He never wanted to say he was depressed, never wanted to say he missed his love for the game. He loves this game. To see the smile on his face, to see him happy and joking around and having fun? That wasn’t him a year ago. He was down about everything.”
That’s because a career once viewed with promise had come to a sooner-than-expected halt. He hasn’t played in an NFL game since Nov. 6, 2014. He hadn’t appeared in a preseason game since Aug. 29, 2015. Last summer, he hurt his knee in Denver’s training camp, was placed on injured reserve and soon released.
That’s why he admitted even playing in the preseason opener last week meant something to him.
“It was emotional, man,” Taylor said. “It was surreal, just doubting yourself in the beginning, talking about retirement, not knowing if you’re coming back. It was emotional to finally be out there, see the crowd, come out of that tunnel again. Man, it was awesome.”
Taylor’s story is far from complete and though he played well last week, after the past two years he knows not to take anything for granted when it comes to football. Once upon a time he was a key part of Cleveland’s defensive line. Taylor started every game as a rookie in 2011, including two versus Cincinnati when Jay Gruden was the Bengals offensive coordinator.
Gruden said Taylor’s recent play reminds him of his earlier day.
“He looks very similar, he really does,” said Gruden, now Taylor’s coach in Washington. “I know what a force he can be at nose. He was tough to deal with, he really was. I think his body is finally back to where he feels really good. He’s moving around, he’s active, he’s strong, so I like where he is right now. He’s just got to continue to maintain it.”
Which means, of course, staying healthy. After his agent called on Dec. 10, Taylor left suburban Cleveland and headed to Naples, Florida, with one directive: get into top shape. He focused more than ever on routine maintenance for his body: yoga, stretching, cryotherapy, and massages. Taylor joked while doing yoga on the beach, others would place a towel on the sand. He brought a comforter.
“It was like, five people can be on it with me,” he said.
His wife enlisted a friend who was a chef to make fresh juices for him daily and drop them off at their home. She cooked organic foods.
“Anything to help him feel better,” Dajana said. “Just a support system to show him he wasn’t alone in this.”
It all helped. He also continued to receive support from his parents and his wife and motivation from his son, Phil Taylor, Jr. His wife preached a constant message.
“‘Don’t give up on yourself,’” Taylor said, repeating her oft-used words. “It’s hard being around football all your life and then go to sitting on a couch, waking up and getting on the video games. I’m a video-gamer and I love it. I can get crossed up and all that, but she kept me [focused].”
Seeing her husband abandon his dream hurt.
“It was heartbreaking to see,” Dajana Taylor said earlier this week in Richmond, Virginia, “him just laying around the couch and wanting to play video games and not leave the basement. I was like, ‘You’re better than this. There’s so much more in you and you have so much potential [not] to just give up and quit on yourself.’"
That’s why she was surprised to hear him tell the magician at his son’s party that he was retired. He hadn’t used that word to her, or anyone else. It just sort of spilled out, perhaps a natural thought after a season in which one team -- Washington -- worked him out. Not that Taylor was ready to truly retire and use his science and education degree from Baylor.
“I would never be at peace with it,” he said. “I always want to be on this field. Drag me off it. But it was me doubting my body was ready.”
His body turned out to have a little more left.
“It’s just a test of will,” said teammate Ziggy Hood, who made the Redskins last year after going through his own one-year injury odyssey. “When you think you don’t have nothing left, but you know you can perform and perform well -- that shows what character he has.”
A chat with a magician; a phone call from his agent; a nudge -- or three -- from his wife. And then the former Maryland high school standout returned home.
“It was hard to see him go from being so positive to being so down,” Dajana said. “He needed that push.”