There are things and people you never forget.
Rodney Taylor and Bill Jauss make a lot of personal lists.
It might have been ten years ago or so on Homecoming. I was leading the Northern Illinois media group off the Huskie Stadium press box elevator, headed to Gate 13 and the old post-game media room.
From out of the crowd in Lot 31 comes “Hey, Mr. Korcek, remember me?”
At first, I didn’t recognize the voice. When I got my bearings, saw the big grin on his face and his right hand extended in friendship, I knew.
“No. 38,” I responded, remembering his former NIU football jersey number. “Rodney Taylor. ‘The Little Big Man.’ How are ya doin’?” he said. We shook hands and talked about the game and the Huskies for 30 seconds. “Rodney,” I apologized. “It’s great to see you, but I got to go run the post-game press conference. You remember, don’t you?”
Taylor smiled again. We shook hands. “Mr. Korcek, I’ll see you at another Huskie game,” Rodney promised.
“It’s a deal. Happy Homecoming,” I said, heading into the stadium. For whatever reason, the last decade, I never saw Rodney Taylor again or crossed paths with him. You’ve heard me before discuss the No. 1 perk of my former SID job – the friendships with the student-athletes. Back in February 1985, when we put together the obligatory National Letter of Intent signing release on Rodney and the rest of the incoming recruiting class, you never, ever think of this.
Last Sunday, Taylor, 46, died of a heart attack in his Davenport, Iowa, hometown at the Genesis Medical Center. The funeral services are set for 11 a.m. Friday at Third Missionary Baptist Church in Davenport. A former prep gridiron All-Stater at Davenport Central High School, Taylor had worked at Alcoa as a mill worker for 20 years.
Survivors include his wife Debbie, four daughters, two sisters, and two brothers. He was preceded in death by his parents and brothers Fred and Robert Taylor.
In an era when maybe quarterback Marshall Taylor or fullback Adam Dach or placekicker John Ivanic produced more media headlines, No. 38 made a major impact during his playing days (1985-88), too.
At a diminutive 5-foot-7, and 163 pounds dripping wet, Taylor excelled at halfback and kick returner under head coach Jerry Pettibone. With his perimeter speed and durability, “The Little Big Man” accumulated 3,654 career all-purpose yards. By the end of Taylor’s career, only Northern Illinois Athletics Hall of Famers Allen Ross (4,065 yards in 1977-80), Mark Kellar (3,878 in 1971-73), and Jack Dean (3,668 in 1961-64) compiled more.
“Rodney never let his size – or lack thereof – stop him when an extra yard was needed in a clutch situation,” recalled Ivanic, also an NIU All-Century pick. “To me, he went beyond his physical expectations. Rodney was the right guy for the right system (triple option offense).
He had speed, a high football IQ, and guts. That – and the fact that the guy always had a smile on his face – is what I remember most.”
"The Little Big Man" nickname? Might've been my idea. We ripped it off from the Dustin Hoffman movie, but it fit perfectly and Rodney embodied the notion every Saturday.
During our football centennial in 1999, Taylor made the elite 52-man Northern Illinois All-Century Team as a return specialist and was previously selected for the All-Time Huskie Stadium Team in 1995. The first NIU player to lead the team in punt returns four consecutive years, No. 38 also topped the Huskies in all-purpose yardage (1986, 1987, 1988) and kickoff returns (1986, 1988). Taylor earned 35 starts in four seasons, mostly at left halfback.
Taylor finished his career with four school records – longest punt return (89 yards vs. Bowling Green State in 1985), most single-game punt-return yards (108 vs. Toledo in 1987), most season punt-return yards (282 in 1987), and career punt-return yards (627). Taylor had a career-high 140 yards rushing on 17 carries vs. Wisconsin (1986), which marked the best single-game Northern Illinois ground performance against a Big Ten Conference opponent for years. As a junior, No. 38 finished No. 10 in NCAA Division 1-A punt returns (23 for 282 yards). the 89-yard punt return TD against Bowling Green in 1985 was the second-longest in the nation that year.
“Rodney made some really huge plays for us,” Pettibone said. “I can remember some of the great punt returns – the touchdown at Bowling Green and he had a big day against Toledo. He was an excellent player. The thing I remember the most was his smile. He was a quality young man with a sweet disposition.”
As I worked on this column Wednesday afternoon, I heard the news that former Chicago Tribune sportswriter and Huskie beat writer Bill Jauss passed away at age 81. Talk about your Reader’s Digest “Most Unforgettable Characters.” For six decades, “Jaussey” covered college athletics for Chicago Today, the Chicago Daily News, and the Trib. As Bud Nangle’s student assistant in the late 1960s, I remember shooting baskets with Jauss after a Huskie men’s basketball game at Evans Field House. And it was a tremendous honor for me when he appeared and spoke at my retirement “roast” in 2006.
This past September I visited Jauss at home in Wilmette and I’m glad I did. Despite the hospice situation in his house, Jauss was lucid and shared many ink-strained wretch (a compliment, believe me, to an award-winning, old-school sports journalist) stories about the sports world, the Trib, Northern Illinois, Mr. Nangle, and Joe Novak. A proud Northwestern Medill School of Journalism graduate, Jauss still enjoyed the vintage Huskie football helmet from the Novak era in his home.
Maybe the best three-hour lunch in my life occurred at the Twins Tap with Jauss, Jim Phillips, Novak, and myself one spring day in 2006. Jauss regaled us with stories of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, the legendary, now defunct Big Ten Skywriters tour, and, of course, “The Sportswriters” on radio and TV. If I had any brains, I should’ve recorded it just for posterity. Priceless anecdotes from a priceless guy. Jauss, this Red Dog (the official post-game beverage of the Huskie Stadium press box in the day) is for you.
Rodney Taylor and Bill Jauss.
There are things and people you never forget.