- Tom Friend, ESPN Senior Writer
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Every NFL player has a first phone call. He's on the team bus, the game is over, his body's a wreck and he needs to tell someone about it.
Some call their wives or their girlfriends or their buddy or the pizza man.
Jason Taylor always calls his agent.
After the New York Jets upset the New England Patriots on Sunday, Taylor -- a Jets linebacker -- called him again. Taylor was on the team bus, wrung out. On one hand, he was now one game from the Super Bowl, a dream come true. On the other hand, his agent, Gary Wichard, hadn't been sounding well or looking good. He dialed his agent's number. It played a song by Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'," then went to voice mail.
Something had to be wrong.
In November 1996, Gary Wichard flew to Ohio to recruit a spindly college linebacker out of the University of Akron who wore No. 33. At first glance, Jason Taylor looked like a safety. Or a receiver. Or a small forward in basketball. But Wichard saw him as an NFL defensive end, even though the kid barely weighed 230.
Wichard took a thick notebook he called his "game plan," his strategy to get Taylor into the first three rounds of the NFL draft -- hopefully the first. He promised he would convince NFL general managers that Taylor was another Willie McGinest or Charles Haley. He said that all Taylor had to do was pack on a few pounds before the Senior Bowl and that he wanted Taylor to go to Los Angeles so he could personally beef him up.
Taylor's mother, a single mom, was hesitant to let Wichard take him to California. She said, "You have to promise me you'll take care of him." She said, "He's 6-foot-6, he'll need a big bed." Wichard assured her there'd be a big bed.
Taylor's first day in California was Thanksgiving 1996, and Wichard invited him to dinner. Seated at the table were Taylor; Wichard; Wichard's wife, Maire; and their two daughters, Dana and Jessica, but somehow they all ended up standing over a scale in the master bedroom. Wichard wanted to know, once and for all, how much Taylor weighed, how much turkey he needed to fatten him up.
The scale said: 234.
Wichard made him eat three helpings.
The move to DE
At the Senior Bowl, Wichard showed he was a master of illusion. He persuaded the game's director, Steve Hale, to let Taylor wear No. 55 -- McGinest's number. All of the scouts who thought Taylor was a linebacker or safety suddenly began to envision him as a defensive end.
"Perception becomes reality," Taylor said, "and if you perceive somebody as you want them to be, they will be."
The Senior Bowl meant everything to Wichard because his life had forever been altered there back in 1971. He had been a star quarterback at C.W. Post on Long Island, and received one Heisman vote that year, from Sport Magazine's Dick Schaap. The New York Giants had trained at Post in 1970, and Wichard, for the heck of it, had begun shagging Pete Gogolak's practice kicks one day and throwing the ball back 60 yards. Former Giant Y.A. Tittle told reporters that Wichard had a better arm than Joe Namath.
But he had gone to the 1971 Senior Bowl out of shape, not realizing scouts would be evaluating his every move. He dropped to the second-to-last round of the draft and was selected by the Baltimore Colts, who already had Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall. He got cut.
Wichard's playing career ended with the Patriots a year later because of a shoulder injury, and he learned the lesson to never again be unprepared for anything. That's why he turned the Senior Bowl into Jason Taylor's Super Bowl.
And Taylor got plucked by Miami in the third round -- as a defensive end.
'I needed someone like Gary in my life'
The years passed, and whenever Taylor needed a pick-me-up, he called his agent. When Nick Saban came to the Dolphins and switched Pro Bowl defensive end Taylor to linebacker, it was Wichard who talked Taylor off the ledge. When Taylor wanted to marry teammate Zach Thomas' sister, Katina, it was Wichard who helped him find a ring.
"I grew up with a single parent, just my mother," Taylor said. "I was always searching for that male figure, someone to look at and learn off of and become that sounding board or that hard stick that you need sometimes. And Gary became like a father to me. I opened up to him like I hadn't opened up to anybody.
"I needed someone like Gary in my life. Or else I would not be who I am today, wouldn't be the player I am, wouldn't have the wife and kids that I have now."
They talked on the phone every day, with Wichard telling Taylor, "Call me anytime. I'll always pick up."
"Well," Wichard says, "I don't have any sons. But these players are my sons. They're my guys."
Taylor soon realized he really could call Wichard at any time because even though Wichard lived on the West Coast, he kept East Coast hours. He'd go to bed at 9:45 p.m. PT and be up at 4 a.m. PT. (7 a.m. ET). He figured he couldn't get any ideas while he was sleeping.
One of his brainstorms, in 2008, was to see whether he could get Taylor on "Dancing with the Stars." The player had matinee-idol looks, and the two of them would often talk about a life in Hollywood. A spot on "Dancing with the Stars" could lay the groundwork for that, and Wichard managed to get the show to commit to Taylor. All he had to do next was get Taylor to commit back.
"He texted me one day while I was at practice, and he said, 'Call me when you get done. I got something really big for you,'" Taylor recalled. "So I called him on the way home, and I go, 'Hey, what's up, man?' He goes, 'I got something really big for you. A big deal.' I say, 'What?' He goes, 'The No. 1 TV show in the nation.' I go what, 'CSI'? And he goes, 'Dancing With The Stars.'
"I said, 'Hell no,' and I think I hung up on him. He was like, 'Come on, dude. Come on, 'Dancing With The Stars.' I'm like, 'Gary, hell no.' And I thought that was the end of it. But he never told ABC no. I think he just kind of said, 'I'm working on it, working on it.' Or whatever he was telling them. But they never went away, and lo and behold, I ended up doing it."
Not only did he end up dancing but he finished second and received movie offers. But he hadn't finished with football, even though Dolphins executive Bill Parcells seemed finished with him. Convinced Taylor was no longer passionate about being a Dolphin, Parcells traded him to Washington -- a place Taylor never wanted to be.
Disconsolate and away from his family for the first time, Taylor was injured in the preseason and had a scary moment in the regular season when he was kicked in the calf. Blood dangerously pooled there overnight. At 4 a.m., he was rushed to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed Taylor with acute compartment syndrome, a time-sensitive injury that, left untreated, can lead to limb loss or paralysis. Doctors wanted to perform urgent surgery to release pressure on his calf, but Taylor refused.
"No, get away from me, I'm not doing surgery," he told doctors. "I have to call Gary."
"My agent," Taylor said.
It was the first time Taylor ever caught Wichard sleeping.
"Uh, hello," said a groggy Wichard, at 1 a.m. PT.
"Gary, it's me. They want to do surgery"
"Hey, buddy!!! How you doing? I got this!!!"
Wichard then explained that the operation was paramount, and Taylor calmed down, relieved. He always knew Wichard would be there, always knew he would pick up the phone.
They weren't business associates; they were confidants. After the 2008 season, Taylor turned up his nose at an $8.5 million Redskins contract, asking to be released. Any money-hungry agent would have said absolutely not or read his client the riot act. But Wichard knew Taylor wanted to be near his wife and kids, knew the Dolphins were the only team he wanted to play for.
"He never once said, 'Hey, that's a lot of money you gave up,'" Taylor said. "Or, 'It'll be tough to make that money back up.' It wasn't about that. At that point, the money wasn't an important thing to me. And he was 100 percent on board with that. He was like, 'Look, if you go back to Miami, you realize we'll go in there with our tails between our legs, and not have much negotiating power when it comes to getting a deal done in Miami.' I said, 'Yeah, OK. Call 'em and tell 'em whatever they have to pay, I'll play for. Whatever they have in their budget, I'll play for that.' Nobody does that, obviously, but that's exactly what we told them: 'Look, whatever you got, we'll take it. We're not going to sit here and negotiate.' And there was no pushback from Gary."
Taylor signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract -- chump change for a player of his status -- but the season went well, and he set an NFL record with his sixth fumble return for a touchdown. But the Dolphins weren't interested in signing Taylor for 2010, and that's when he again got a harried message from his agent, similar to the one he got two years earlier about "Dancing with the Stars."
"I got a team for you," Wichard said.
"The New York Jets."
Taylor didn't think the Jets would forgive him, much less want him. He had trash-talked to their fans for years and had spent 12 seasons as a Dolphin trying to cream them.
But the agent was at it again:
"Look, you've got to forget about that stuff," Wichard told Taylor. "This is sports. At the end of the day, if someone doesn't want you to play for them and somebody else does, you've got to move on. Miami doesn't want you there. They want to move on. It's time to make a move, dude, and this is the best place for you."
Wichard was friendly with Jets coach Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum, and he arranged a meeting. They convinced Taylor he could create havoc as a rush linebacker in Ryan's 3-4, and Taylor began a ride he hoped would take him to his first Super Bowl.
But along the way, as the Jets piled up wins, he saw his agent's world begin to unravel.
News reports surfaced in the summer that Wichard was being investigated for improper contact with North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Like Taylor, Austin had been to California to work out, but because Austin had college eligibility left, Wichard was accused of illegal activity. Wichard's longtime relationship with John Blake, a North Carolina assistant, also came into question. Wichard was found to have given a loan to Blake, and the assumption was that Blake had steered players such as Austin to Wichard in return. Blake was forced out of Chapel Hill, and Wichard mostly refused comment. He appeared guilty; there seemed to be incriminating evidence against him. It also didn't help that he was reclusive, that he wasn't publicly defending himself. The NFLPA suspended him in December for nine months because of his involvement with Austin, and he didn't appeal.
In the NFL, Wichard's players were shaking their heads. Wichard's clients include some of the best pass-rushers in the league, guys who are single-minded, loyal and passionate and like to blindside quarterbacks. The Colts' Dwight Freeney is one. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs is another. And Taylor, of course, is virtually Wichard's son.
They knew Wichard had known Blake since the '80s. They knew how loyal Wichard was. They knew that if Blake needed a loan, Wichard probably would help him out. They knew Blake had never had anything to do with their coming to Wichard. Wichard's "game plan" was what got them to go with Wichard.
"All that stuff at North Carolina is B.S. as far as I'm concerned," Suggs said. "I was the best defensive player in 2002 coming out of college, and he didn't get me anything. He shoots straight with me. When I heard this, it was B.S. It doesn't describe what kind of person he is. Go back to 2002 and 2003. Do you think there was a bigger prospect than me? And he didn't pay me a cent."
Said Freeney, "Gary never gave me any extra benefits when I was in college. I don't see him doing that. He's a by-the-book guy. I know what type of character he has. He's never been anywhere close to being unethical with me."
Taylor was still calling Wichard every day, trying to give him the same kind of pick-me-ups the agent used to give him. But something was off, and he soon found out why the agent seemed to have gone into hiding. In the course of the football season, Wichard's voice had been growing weaker, and the agent admitted to Taylor that he'd had complicated throat surgery. Then, he admitted to having gall bladder surgery, which had debilitated him even further. He was growing sicker, and he admitted to Taylor that he was fighting an undisclosed illness he didn't want to worry his longtime client about but that his health was a major question mark. Taylor asked him whether he was going to be all right.
The agent cried.
So did the football player.
Dedicating the rest of his season
Last Sunday, a weakened Wichard sat in his living room watching the Jets pummel the Patriots. Fifteen years ago, because of Wichard, the Senior Bowl had been Jason Taylor's Super Bowl. Now, because of Wichard, the Super Bowl might be Jason Taylor's Super Bowl.
So Taylor has dedicated the rest of this Jets season to his agent.
"What we're doing right now with the Jets is for him," Taylor said. "Us winning, it's keeping me going at a tough time. When he told me about his health issue, that was probably the toughest thing I've had to hear and deal with that I can remember. You
don't know what to do, you don't know what to say.
"If it wasn't for Gary, no way in hell would I have ever thought about signing with the Jets. So prior to the situation he's in now, going to the Super Bowl would've been a great ride for all of us, and a great way to cap out a career, and what we've always tried to get done. But now in light of what he's dealing with now. I mean, you hate to say it, it would mean so much to get to that game and win it, and there's nothing I want more in this world than to win a Super Bowl and have Gary still be here with us at that point."
Wichard, in the past few days, says he has been rejuvenated by positive reports from his doctors -- in some ways, mirroring the Jets' resurgent season. Taylor already has decided how Sunday in Pittsburgh will go. He will put on his Jets uniform -- the uniform Wichard begged him to wear -- and write the initials "G.W." on his wrist tape, next to the initials of his wife and three children. Then Taylor will try to blindside the quarterback. And then, win or lose, he will climb on the team bus and make his first phone call to you-know-who.
It will ring. He'll hear Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" as he waits for Wichard to pick up.
And the agent had better pick up. He can't stop now.
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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