Excerpted from Once A Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy, and Life After Football by Gary Myers. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. (Click here to purchase a copy)
Lawrence Taylor and Joe Namath are New York football royalty.
Namath’s addiction to alcohol played out in public during an ESPN broadcast in 2003 when he was interviewed on the New York Jets sideline by Suzy Kolber and pathetically told her on camera he wanted to kiss her right then and there. Kolber brushed aside his uncomfortable advance, and Namath later admitted he was drunk. He says he’s not had alcohol since that humiliating incident and credits it with saving his life, because he was on his way to drinking himself to death.
“I still have a fear for what that stuff does to me and what it could do to me,” Namath said in an interview with Graham Bensigner.
Taylor was in and out of drug rehabilitation centers for his addiction to cocaine during and after his thirteen-year career with the Giants. A second positive test that resulted in a four-game suspension to begin the 1988 season was when he hit rock bottom during his playing days, but he’s suffered through equally low moments in his life after football.
Joe Namath. Broadway Joe.
Lawrence Taylor. L.T.
Namath and Taylor are fighting off the demons built by their stage names. Addicts are never cured. They are always in recovery and take their sobriety one day at a time. Namath and Taylor have that in common, in addition to being the most iconic players in New York football history.
Taylor could be loud and obnoxious in the locker room, but it was all in good fun, and he was popular with his teammates, even if he scared the crap out of many of them. It was after he left the locker room that he got himself in trouble doing business with degenerate drug dealers who were happy to accommodate his needs and take his money. “I know Lawrence Taylor the man,” Harry Carson said. “I know he’s a sweetheart of a guy if you get to know him. I still say I’m glad I’m not him.”
Taylor, who now lives in South Florida, is among the major attractions at Namath’s annual charity golf tournament at the scenic Old Palm Beach Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens. After getting in eighteen holes in March 2022, Taylor skipped lunch and the accompanying auction of sport memorabilia for the rich folk who paid to play with the celebrities. Instead, he was relaxing on the veranda overlooking the course.
Taylor lights up a big cigar that envelops him in smoke but insists it’s the only thing he smokes in his early sixties. Taylor said he has been drug free since 1998, the last time he was in drug rehab, which came after arrests that fall for buying crack in Florida and possessing drugs in New Jersey.
“I’ve been clean ever since,” he said.
He knows those are literally the famous last words on addicts.
“I don’t even really think about it,” he said. “It just doesn’t come up in my conversations. I am not going to get caught up in that life again.”
That’s quite a difference in how he summed up life from the cocaine-snorting and crack-smoking days. “I saw coke as the only bright spot in my future,” he said on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2004. “I had gotten really bad. I mean, my place was almost like a crack house, not where you sold it, but I had a lot of stuff in my house.” The only people he wanted to deal with, he told 60 Minutes, were addicts, dealers, and prostitutes. At one time, he was spending $1,000 a day on his habits.
Life after football has been much better for Taylor in his sixties than at any other time since he retired thirty years ago. He seems happy and looks healthy. “A lot of us go through problems,” he said. “You’re on top and then all of a sudden it stops. Where do you go from here? That’s the hardest part. It’s tough.”
His most disturbing a case post-football was in 2010 when he was arrested on rape and prostitution charges involving an underage girl at a cheap hotel in Rockland County. Taylor was required to register as a sex offender.
As long as he continues to keep his name out of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, he can generate income by making appearances at memorabilia shows. “I’m still in demand. I can be comfortable,” he said.
The money was so much different when he played. The most he ever made in a season was $2.8 million in his final season in 1993. If he was negotiating a contract today and coming off production similar to his 1986 MVP and Super Bowl season when he led the NFL with 20.5 sacks, his contract could exceed $300 million. “It would be Giants and Taylor Stadium,” he said.
Former teammates are skeptical of Taylor’s claims of abstinence but still are hopeful they might be true. “I’m quite sure, as long as I’m alive, there is always going to be some controversy with me,” he told me in 1998. “People must think I get up in the morning and say, “Let me see, what can I get into now.””
If the Taylor who turned sixty in 2019 could have a talk with the twenty-two year old rookie back in 1981, he knows exactly what he would say. “I think everybody should stay away from drugs,” he said.
He may not be the hard-partying L.T. now, but he embraced the lifestyle when he played. Despite the drug warning he said he would give to his younger self, it doesn’t sound like he would want to change much if given the option to do it all again. “Drugs and drinking and the women, those are the type of things that made me who I am today,” he said. “I’m not a choirboy. I think about it. If I would have stayed in the gym and had a better reputation, I might have been a better person. But who would know me. Nobody would even know me. Who the f— would know me. Who’s that guy who played for the Giants? He’s a good athlete, but he’s just boring.”
Carson implored Taylor through the years to do away with L.T., the trouble-seeking alter ego. “L.T. is a bad ass. Get rid of L.T,” Carson still says now. “You need L.T. to commit suicide and just be Lawrence Taylor. L.T. is what got him into trouble. Most people know him or recognize him as L.T. So how do you stop being L.T. to people who want to continue to call you that? L.T. was a drag on his life. I know the real Lawrence Taylor, and I just want him to take good care of himself.”
It took forever, but Taylor insists he’s ditched his evil twin. “L.T. left the building a long time ago. There wasn’t enough excitement in my life for him. He said, “F— you, “I’m out of here,”” Taylor said. No I’m just Lawrence.”
When I told him that five of his former teammates revealed to me that things had gotten so bad in their life after football that they contemplated suicide, he was startled and sad. He volunteered despite all his troubles that he never once thought about taking his own life. Unlike some teammates who believe brain trauma from their football career led to depression and suicidal thoughts, all of major problems have been self-inflicted and not related to football injuries. “I’ve gone through a lot of s—,” he said. “I’m confident in myself that I can pull my way out of it. Right now, there hasn’t been an instance where I wanted to take my own life because of some bulls—. Everybody is trying to get that CTE checked, of course. But I can’t say that I’ve wanted to just go out and kill myself. I’ve been down before. I’ve made bad decisions. A lot of them. But I’d rather be living.”
He has aches and pains. His attributes his age, rather than football collisions, for his inability to remember things. He created an incredible legacy on the field. But he never will escape his off the field legacy. A few of his teammates were complicit in helping him beat drug testing for their own selfish reasons. He wanted to win the Super Bowl.
When urine collectors showed up at Giants Stadium to get Taylor to provide his sample, he recruited teammates he was confident were clean to pee in a cup for him, and he would swap it out. One high-profile teammate admitted to me he was one of Taylor’s enablers and gave him his urine several times.
“I knew he was dirty. I knew his lifestyle,” he said. “But I also knew he was very important for us to win.”
The player would go into a stall in the Giants locker room bathroom, close the door and urinate in a cup. He left the cup on top of the back of the toilet and immediately retreated to his locker or the training room. He would let Taylor know the dirty deed with the clean pee was complete. “Lawrence would take it,” he said. I would walk away. Run away.”
Did Taylor’s teammates feel guilty that his actions allowed L.T. to keep doing drugs without worrying about being caught and suspended? “Not at all,” he said. “He was a friend of mine and I was young. I wanted to win. I’m not saying I feel good about it.”
Defensive end George Martin, a Giant captain and team leader, tried to counsel Taylor many times before his suspension cost him the first four games in 1988. Martin has a calm demeanor and reassuring voice, but he was talking to an addict. “You see a guy who is self-destructing, you’re not just going to buy a ticket and sit ringside and watch it happen,” Martin said. “
It did no good.
Taking away a suspended player’s game check can be a deterrent, but for Taylor, Sundays in the fall, taking him off the field, is what cut the deepest. After getting the news Taylor could not be around the team for a month, Martin told Bill Parcells he was going to Taylor’s house to make a wellness check.
“He needs someone,” Martin said.
“George, don’t go by there,” Parcells said.
Parcells wanted things to settle down first. Martin didn’t listen and drove to Taylor’s house in Upper Saddle River. Taylor’s wife Linda opened the door.
“Lawrence was down on the floor crying,” Martin said. “What I saw was a broken man, a completely broken man. You see this guy who was a monster on the field, probably the greatest defensive player in the NFL, and he’s on the floor crying. I was heartbroken. Linda was so appreciative that someone had come by and interceded and was at least showing some support to a man who had really topped from the highest mountaintop.”
The question that can never be answered: As dominant as Taylor was for the Giants, could he have been even greater if he lived the same lifestyle as Phil Simms?
“I could have been better. I could have been worse,” he said. “They were saying in life you may not be able to handle things, but on the football field, you control things. That’s my domain, that’s where I live. Could I have been a better player? I could have, but who knows? I am what I am.”
Sept. 14: Bookends at 211 E Ridgewood Ave in Ridgewood, NJ with Phil Simms at 6 pm
Sept. 21: Meller’s Sports Hub and Grill at 1702 Second Avenue in NYC with Harry Carson and Leonard Marshall at 7 pm prior to the Giants-49ers game.
Oct. 22: MetLife Stadium plaza with Jim Burt and Leonard Marshall at 11 am prior to Giants-Commanders game.