By Trey Williams
East Tennessee State’s football team will open its season at Vanderbilt on Sept. 4, three years to the day since Science Hill Hall of Famer and former Vanderbilt split end Bob Taylor died.
Taylor was the Commodores’ leading receiver in 1956, though he’d chuckle while telling you he achieved the feat by catching 12 passes (187 yards) that season.
But Taylor caught folks’ attention during the pass-unhappy era. He was drafted 69th overall by the Baltimore Colts in 1958.
Taylor snagged passes from Johnny Unitas in preseason games while running routes with Ray Berry. Fifty-years later, Taylor could still occasionally wonder what might have been.
“I basically went up there and tried out with a pulled hamstring from college,” Taylor said. “But I’d worked out at home at the Burley Bowl (Memorial Stadium) and was doing pretty well. I played in the Chicago Cardinals (preseason) game and the Philadelphia game and caught some passes. Unitas threw an easy ball to catch. But then I tore that damn hamstring.”
Most NFL players in that era – long before a players’ union – needed a second job in the offseason. So although Taylor gained the confidence he could play at that level, he wasn’t keen on sacrificing another year of his life while hoping he could remain healthy on the next go-round.
He also didn’t want a 1-A draft status, and decided to return to Vanderbilt to complete his degree and coach the freshman team.
The late Sidney Smallwood, Taylor’s basketball coach at Science Hill, would occasionally compare Taylor to another NFL receiver from the Mountain Empire, former Green Bay Packer Carroll Dale.
“I think Bob would have played a while (in the pros) if he hadn’t gotten hurt,” Smallwood said.
Smallwood’s high opinion of Taylor is understandable. Along with being the Big Five Conference player of the year as a senior, Taylor, a 6-foot-3 forward, started as a senior on Smallwood’s1953-54 basketball team. The Hilltoppers entered the state tournament undefeated (26-0) and ranked No. 1 in the state.
Smallwood was also the track coach. Taylor was state champion in the high jump as a junior and won the state in the high hurdles as a senior.
Smallwood liked to say Taylor and Ferrell Bowman could win a track meet by themselves. Bowman, who went on to play basketball at ETSU and played shortstop with the San Francisco Giants in the 1962 World Series, was the leading scorer and star guard on the basketball team.
“Let me tell you, Bob Taylor could rebound and run the court,” Bowman said when the starting five (including center Jerry Wolff, Phil Walters and tough-minded, athletic “Little” Bob Evans) reunited with Smallwood in 2009.
The 1953-54 ‘Toppers preferred running the floor to running plays.
“We could run a fast break,” Taylor said. “Ferrell was easily the fastest around and I wasn’t slow. I’d rebound the ball, throw it to him and up the court we flew.”
Taylor’s first impression of Vanderbilt was overwhelming. The state tournament was held in Vandy’s new Memorial Gym in ’54 and Smallwood took the Hilltoppers to watch Kentucky (Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan) and LSU (Bob Pettit) play a one-game playoff for an NCAA Tournament berth there the day before the state tournament game.
“I thought it’d be a good time,” Smallwood said, “for my boys to see how the game was played at the highest level.”
Instead, the bright lights seemed to blind his players’ for the next 24 hours, and an uptight Science Hill team missed 12 of 26 free throws in a 51-50 loss to Memphis Treadwell in its state tournament opener.
Worse yet, Guy B. Crawford’s Dobyns-Bennett Indians won two games and finished third in the state. Science Hill had beaten D-B four times that season.
“That gym at Vanderbilt was huge,” Taylor said. “I don’t know what it was, but usually the cotton in your mouth goes away after five or 10 minutes. That day it was there the entire game.”
Taylor’s teammates in basketball and football at Science Hill included Bo Austin, who graduated a year ahead of Taylor and Bowman. Austin was drafted by the Washington Redskins.
Austin was a fullback, but Taylor recalled him throwing a pass that Taylor didn’t catch during a scoreless tie with Elizabethton in ’52.
“Bo threw the ball perfectly over my left shoulder but I turned the wrong way,” Taylor said. “I would’ve scored and we would’ve won that game, but I looked over the wrong shoulder.”
Some 56 years later, Taylor visited Austin when he was dying from leukemia.
“I took him a card and I wrote on it that someday we’ll play Elizabethton again,” Taylor said, “and this time I’ll look over the right shoulder.”
Taylor could be self-deprecating. If you noted Austin being the 1957 Sun Bowl MVP after rushing for 98 yards in George Washington’s 13-0 defeat of Don Maynard-led Texas Western, Taylor might mention dropping a touchdown pass in Vanderbilt’s 25-13 win against Auburn in the 1955 Gator Bowl.
He also talked about fumbling away possession of the ball against Chattanooga around the Mocs’ 20-yard line after a long gain.
“We won but that touchdown would’ve covered a big pointspread,” Taylor said with a laugh. “I just dropped it. If I’m going to tell you about my petunia patch, I think I should mention my dandelions.”
Taylor’s efforts were usually coming up roses. The year after he looked over the wrong shoulder in the tie with Elizabethton, Taylor intercepted a pitch and returned it for a touchdown against the Cyclones.
He credited Science Hill assistant Cot Presnell’s scouting for making the TD possible.
“Cot said, ‘They’ve got this play where I think you can intercept the lateral and score,’” Taylor said. “And I did. I took off (after reading the key) and the ball was right there. Cot went crazy when I got that ball.”
Among Taylor’s highlights at Vanderbilt were punts he blocked against Georgia and Kentucky.
“Bob Taylor was a player,” Austin said when it was mentioned how he and Taylor were in NFL camps in successive years. “He could go haul ’em in.”
Taylor’s Science Hill teammate Bob May, who coached the Hilltoppers for decades, is a man of few words. So he seemed to say mouthful when asked about Taylor.
We had a star at Science Hill,” May said, “in Bob Taylor.”