Logan County, like much of southern West Virginia, prides itself in having established the Hatfield-McCoy trails that thousands of people come each year to traverse through the hills and valleys that have for over a hundred years produced the black gold, which throughout history truly helped make this country great. In fact, it could be said that military veterans, coal miners and their sons were the keys to this nation’s success.
While the trail riders tell me of the joy of visiting our hills, I can’t help but think about the visitor from Colorado a few years back who had his pickup truck stolen while visiting the Hatfield Cemetery at Sarah Ann — a cemetery that still is shamefully almost inaccessible, especially for the elderly.
The reason I mention this is simply because that same Colorado visitor has seen the bronze bust at Denver’s Mile High Stadium of a fellow from Logan County who is a legend to the Denver Broncos football organization, but has received little, if any, recognition anywhere in Logan County for his fantastic pro football accomplishments. The sad part is that he is just one of many former Loganites who achieved greatness in one occupation or another after leaving Appalachia.
Unfortunately, few of these men and women are even locally recognized by the very people they have so wonderfully represented across America and the world. In fact, while many folks should identify with Logan’s latest legend — Landau Eugene Murphy — for his accomplishment in winning the “America’s Got Talent” competition in 2011, Murphy’s rise from once being homeless and sleeping in his car to his national recognition is quite an accomplishment for the son of a coal miner.
Another exceptional gentleman, also the son of a Logan County coal miner, is now 84 years old and a suburban resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he still works out daily to keep physically sound.
Although you may never have heard of him, Mr. Lionel Taylor, who was raised at Buffalo Creek near Man, is a megastar when it comes to professional football. The former Lorado resident, who graduated from Buffalo High School near Man in 1953 before schools were integrated, should be a legend in Logan County. Indeed, just like another former pro football All-Pro, Charlie Cowan, also of Buffalo Creek, their accomplishments should be highlighted for every potential high school football kid in Logan County. They should be examples that show just how far talent and hard work can take a person, regardless of backgrounds or what hollow the individual comes from.
So, just what is there to know about the man that you likely do not know about?
Aside from the fact that he led the American Football League in receptions for five of the first six years of the league’s existence and that he finished his pro career with 567 receptions, including 7,195 receiving yards and 45 touchdowns, there is much more to the man who also starred in basketball and track at New Mexico Highlands University before joining the Chicago Bears as a linebacker in 1959. Although he hated the defensive position, he played in eight games for the Bears before joining the Denver Broncos as a receiver in 1960. In that first season ever for the newly formed Broncos squad and Taylor’s first as a receiver, he caught 92 passes for 1,235 yards with 12 touchdowns. His reception total still stands today as the 8th best by a second-year player in NFL history.
Taylor would finish his seven-year Broncos career as the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, which stood for 33 years until NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe finally surpassed Taylor’s feat. Still, for five of the AFL’s first six years in existence, Taylor led the league in receiving.
The truth is that the former Loganite was the first professional football receiver to make 100 catches in a single season. My question now, would be, “How many of you knew that impressive tidbit of information? Did you know that Taylor’s receiving yards per game average of 102.9 per game remains a Broncos franchise record?”
Of course, there is much more to an individual’s life than just statistics, impressive as they may be. For, you see, the player once described as having “the best hands in football” and who finished his brilliant career with two seasons with the Houston Oilers in 1967 and ’68, also was honored in 1984 as one of the “original Broncos” when he was inducted into the franchise’s initial “Ring of Famers.”
A bronze bust of Taylor was one of the first three memorials placed at Denver’s famed Mile High Stadium, the same place that features the playing field where Super Bowl champions and NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning once zipped passes to their own teams’ star receivers.
What makes Lionel Taylor so special, at least to me, are his accomplishments after his playing career ended. I know there are a great many Pittsburgh Steelers football fans throughout the area, and I just can’t help wonder how many of them ever knew that Taylor was the receivers coach for six seasons with the Steelers (1970 thru ’76), which included five playoff appearances, four division titles, two conference championships, and two back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1974 and 1975.
Taylor left the Steelers to become the receivers coach for the Los Angeles Rams in 1977 and coached that team to a Super Bowl appearance against his old buddies, the Steelers. Despite leading 13-10 at halftime and 19-17 at the end of the third quarter, and being a 10 and one-half point underdog, the Rams could not withstand a fourth-quarter comeback by the Steelers and lost 31-19.
After being elevated to both offensive coordinator and receivers coach for the 1980 and ’81 seasons in LA, Taylor became assistant coach at Oregon State and in 1984 became head coach Texas Southern University until 1988. In 1989 he was named the tight ends coach for the Cleveland Browns and the following year became the team’s pass coordinator as well as tight ends coach.
His coaching career continued overseas in what became the World League, which some referred to as sort of the minor league of the NFL. Taylor coached the London Monarchs for four years, two of them as head coach. It was there he coached some interesting players who later became big names in the NFL, including William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a player who became a household name during the “Super Bowl Shuffle” days of the Chicago Bears.
One can spend an entire day interviewing a person with so much interesting history and I wish I could have managed that endeavor. However, I will settle for my two-hour interview with such a captivating person who made me feel as if I had known him all of my life.
In reality, I feel like I have known Mr. Taylor nearly a lifetime. During the early 1960s, I, like so many other kids, began saving what were called football trading cards. In addition, I regularly watched the exciting AFL, which truly introduced what is now the passing game of the NFL.
In addition, most of us sports-oriented kids also collected Coca-Cola lids to get a new football once we filled a board with all of the names of pro players inside the lids of Coke bottles. I recall the name of Lionel Taylor on some lids and I also possessed a football card featuring the star player.
What is terribly sad is at no time do I ever remember anyone telling us that Lionel Taylor was from Logan County. That is one reason I find it vastly important to not only recognize Taylor for his life after Logan, but because there are so many others whose stories musty be written, at least for posterity.
Next week, I shall “unmask” the real Lionel Taylor, ironically during the coronavirus epidemic. What you can expect to see is a homespun fellow who has stories that relate to such people as Jim Brown, Mean Joe Green, Terry Bradshaw, Ladamian Tomlinson, and many other former pro football stars that he was graced to know and to have performed with or against.
You will also hear his account of the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster when the Steelers organization flew him to Charleston, where he traveled from to Lorado on Buffalo Creek only to find his former home no longer there and his parents nowhere in sight.
You will also get to know the personal side of a true local star who proudly proclaimed to this writer, “I am a West Virginia Hillbilly and I always will be.”