LB Jermaine Taylor got some valuable playing time by heading over to NFL Europe this spring
Though the combination of its abbreviation (BC), mascot (Eagles) and colors (crimson and gold) might mirror that of a certain big-time program in New England, Bridgewater College is not especially known for its football program.
You'll find Bridgewater in Virginia, about 15 minutes south of Harrisonburg, which is home to the more well-known James Madison University. If you find it as a graduating high school senior, it's probably because you are looking for a respected academic institution with excellent student-professor ratios, and not an avenue to a career in professional football. In fact, no Bridgewater player has ever made it to the NFL, though the program is very competitive in the Division III Old Dominion Conference.
Of course, not every high school senior knows exactly what he or she is looking for at that point in life. Many have yet to pinpoint their exact strengths. University life can help with that search; in fact, such a thought is included within Bridgewater's own introductory statement.
"Recognition of one's capabilities," it reads, "is the beginning of wisdom."
Jermaine Taylor could very well become the first Bridgewater alum in the NFL, but that certainly wasn't what he had in mind when he chose the small, Christian college of fewer than 1,500 undergraduates. Somewhere along the way, he recognized a very serious capability – the scouts who started nosing around in his junior season were something of a tip-off – and he expanded his vision of the future to include the possibility of a career in the NFL.
"When I graduated from high school I didn't think I'd end up here, to be honest with you," said Taylor, the last player to trudge off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field after a recent team session. "My main focus was education and I wanted to go to a small college and get that one-on-one experience with the professors, which I did get at Bridgewater. I was able to excel in football and track while I was there – I was blessed with that – and that gave me an opportunity to become a free agent for Green Bay, which brought me to the NFL. I know it's pretty tough to get into and I was very grateful for the opportunity."
Taylor made it tough for the scouts to avoid that 15-minute drive down from JMU. Over four seasons as a starter he led the Eagles to a 45-6 record, earned conference player of the year honors twice and set a school record with 148 tackles as a senior. Oh, Taylor also won the conference championship in the 100-meter dash for three years running, which plays no small part in why the scouts were intrigued. Even on the NFL level, Taylor is fast for his position, and that makes him a particularly interesting prospect for the Buccaneers, who have long valued range and instincts over size at linebacker.
Of course, the NFL waiver wire is littered with athletes with one or two outstanding attributes – massive linemen, blazingly fast receivers, instinctive safeties, quick-twitch defensive ends. Rarely is that one skill enough. Taylor knew he would have to work hard to develop as an all-around player after the Packers signed him as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2004.
"When I started with Green Bay, they called me a "raw linebacker," and I would agree with that," said the very amiable Taylor. "They said there was a lot for me to learn, and they were right, but I think I'm coming along fine. I'm not as raw as I was before, but there's still a lot to learn. You can never know too much. Each year so far that I've been in the NFL since graduation, I've been improving."
Taylor got a second crack at the NFL in 2005 with the Buccaneers, who kept him around until the final cut, then brought him back after the season and allocated him to the NFL Europe League. That's a common move with prospects who are "raw," and ones who haven't had much opportunity to play in the several years since they left college. Taylor fit into both categories. He landed with the Berlin Thunder and started all season at right outside linebacker. Back in Tampa, the Bucs' scouts liked what they saw on the weekly game tapes that were sent back overseas.
"I felt that [I was close in 2005], but I still felt as if I needed to make some improvements," said Taylor. "And I think I got some when I was over there in Europe, so I'm grateful for that experience. I'm also grateful to come back over and get a third shot at the NFL and a second shot at becoming a Buc.
"I'm just excited to get on the field and show them what I've learned. It just gave me a chance to play in 10 games. I haven't played much since college. It gave me a chance to play against quality guys, the kind of guys I would be going up against as I try to make it in the NFL. Game-time experience is great. There's nothing like it."
Taylor certainly has some pretty significant hurdles still to clear. At 6-0 and 220 pounds, he does give away size to most NFL linebackers. He is also competing for a spot on a unit that just happens to be loaded with both established and young talent in the likes of Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Ryan Nece, Jamie Winborn, Barrett Ruud and Marquis Cooper. Taylor might be most likely to make his mark on special teams, where he offers a great size-speed combination, or he might have to log some time on a practice squad before making the jump to an active roster.
But the opportunity is there, and for that Taylor is obviously and engagingly grateful. He is also grateful that Bridgewater, while not a football factory or an obvious conduit to the pros, allowed him to discover the depth of his talents. It also gave him a solid education, as he graduated with a degree in information systems management and has already made one foray into an alternate career path as a systems technician.
You could say that Taylor has definitely "recognized his capabilities." Now he needs the Buccaneers to come to the same conclusion.
"When I got to Green Bay, I realized what it takes to get to the NFL," he said. "I finally got confidence in the knowledge that I could compete at this level. When I got that confidence, I knew I could actually become a part of an NFL team."