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story.lead_photo.caption Photo showing the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sportsman of the year: Blaise Taylor (left)

JONESBORO -- The parents waited in the rocky parking lot while a black sedan pulled in, its tires crunching in the gravel as it parked in front of Magnolia Road Baptist Church in northern Jonesboro.

Their delivery had arrived.

Taylor at a glance

POSITION Cornerback/Return specialist

HEIGHT/WEIGHT 5-9, 165 pounds

BIRTHDATE March 22, 1996

HOMETOWN Waco, Texas

EDUCATION Auburn (Ala.) High School; Arkansas State University

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS NFF national scholar-athlete. … William V. Campbell Trophy finalist. … Wuerffel Trophy semifinalist. … Senior CLASS Award candidate. … Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award nominee. … Co-founder of the nonprofit organization, The Power of 1 or 2. … Earned a master’s degree in Business Administration in August with a 3.82 GPA. … All-Sun Belt Conference first-team defense in 2017. … Three Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week awards. … Sun Belt Conference record holder for 35 career passes defended. … The conference’s second all-time leader with four career punts returned for touchdowns. … ASU’s record holder for career punt return yards (1,089), which is the second most in Sun Belt history. … Team captain in all four seasons.

The driver's door opened, and a young man stepped into the December morning, his short, dark curls and goatee bristling in the breeze.

He opened the trunk and pulled out a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles scooter, coloring books and Barbie dolls.

It was four days before Christmas, and Blaise Taylor was making the final delivery of more than 120 presents to nearly 40 families with at-risk youth -- children who, without the aid of the Arkansas State University cornerback, would have an empty space under the Christmas tree, if there was a Christmas tree at all.

"Merry Christmas," said Taylor, 21, handing the gifts to the parents.

Taylor never saw the little boy and girl whose wish lists were submitted to The Power of 1 or 2, the nonprofit Taylor founded last summer with his sister, Starr. Perhaps, on Christmas morning, the children thought Santa Claus had indeed read their letters. Perhaps, they knew their parents remembered.

Perhaps when they are older, they will know their gifts were delivered by a record-breaking cornerback, a student who earned a master's degree in Business Administration in less than four years.

"It's not about us," Taylor said. "It's not about recognition. It's all about the kids. Being able to help them every way possible.

"Whether the present says 'Mom, Dad, Grandma'... It doesn't really matter. Wake up with a gift and a smile. That's what matters."

For his community work, academic accomplishments and play on the field, Taylor was named the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sportsman of the Year for 2017.

The son of a college football coach, Taylor grew up with football players at his house during the holidays. His father, Trooper, was an assistant coach at five programs before arriving at Arkansas State, and it was Trooper's tradition to host players who either couldn't make it home for the holidays or didn't have a steady home of their own.

"I can even remember [Blaise] asking me, 'Where's his dad?' " said Trooper, who is the Red Wolves' assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach. "He might've been 5, and you try and explain that to a 5-year-old kid to make him understand. So, he would be sad that the kid didn't have a dad. So, I think he started gravitating toward that: 'Well, Dad, let's help those kids.' "

On Thanksgivings, dinner was followed by watching the Dallas Cowboys. During Christmas, there were gingerbread house construction contests. Every year had an Easter egg hunt.

"I thought it was normal," said Taylor, who met players from Tulane, Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Auburn. "As I got older, I started realizing that it's something that's kind of special and unique to our family, given my dad's occupation and given the circumstances of a lot of guys on the team."

Taylor hunted Easter eggs with Mewelde Moore, a Tulane running back who became the second player in NCAA history to have 4,000 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards. Taylor watched the Dallas Cowboys with Dez Bryant, who is now a wide receiver for the team. Arian Foster, a former All-Pro running back for the Houston Texans, broke Taylor's bed while they were wrestling in Taylor's room.

Taylor said Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton "made the absolute worst gingerbread house I've ever seen" when he was at Auburn, and Newton's car wouldn't start after the Christmas party. So, out ran Taylor alongside the eventual national champion to help jump Newton's car.

Trooper, a former Baylor defensive back, married Evi, a former Baylor track athlete, on the 50-yard line at the old Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas.

On March 22, 1996, Trooper and Evi named their first child Blaise -- the nickname of the grandfather their son would never meet. Starr, born in 1998, was named after the Cowboys logo of her grandfather's favorite team.

Trooper was 12 when his father died of a heart attack, walking from one job to the next in Cuero, Texas. Trooper hardly ever saw his father, who worked multiple jobs to support his wife and 16 children. Trooper was the 10th child, and he shared one of their home's three bedrooms with seven brothers. His father would wake them in the morning, turn his baseball cap backward, put on a catcher's mask and kiss Trooper through the bars.

One morning, Trooper squirmed away from his father's kiss. His father laughed and said Trooper was growing up on him.

"He walked out, and that was the last time I saw him alive," Trooper said. "So, from that day forward, I've always worn my hat backwards. I flip it back because it reminds me of [his] standard, of the choices and the decisions."

Trooper handed those lessons down to Blaise and Starr, even when Evi had him read books into a video camera so that the kids would have a bedtime story when Trooper would go on recruiting trips.

"Every day's not promised," Taylor said. "Take advantage and make the most of what we do have."

Taylor, who is now 5-9, 165 pounds, always had to make the most of what he had.

His favorite player was Allen Iverson, a 6-0 former All-NBA point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers who won the 2001 MVP despite his small frame. Taylor even styled his hair after Iverson's trademark cornrows, which set expectations further back when Taylor showed up at a new school when his dad earned another coaching job.

Taylor said he'd walk into an accelerated learning class, and the teachers would tell him he must have walked into the wrong classroom. One school, Trooper said, made Taylor take a placement test when he attempted to enroll in an accelerated math class. after the test, the school placed Taylor in accelerated classes for all subjects.

"It wasn't a big deal to me," Taylor said. "It happened a lot. I would get my payback at the end of the year."

By his senior year at Auburn High (Ala.), Taylor had scholarship offers from Auburn, Nebraska and Tennessee.

He accepted a scholarship to play at Arkansas State, graduated high school early and enrolled in the spring of 2014. Red Wolves Coach Blake Anderson had played at Baylor with Trooper, and Anderson visited Taylor in the hospital on the day he was born.

"He's the smartest football player on and off the field that I've ever been around," said Anderson, who began recruiting Taylor as North Carolina's offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2013. "He'll be successful at whatever he decides to do."

Taylor served on the ASU student-athlete advisory committee in 2016, interned in the athletic department in 2017, and returned a punt for a touchdown every season. His 1,089 career punt return yards are the most in program history and second most in Sun Belt Conference history. His 35 career passes defended are the most in Sun Belt history.

He played during one of the most successful eras in ASU history, winning consecutive Sun Belt titles in 2015 and 2016 while appearing in four consecutive bowl games.

During his junior season, Taylor began to volunteer at Success Achievement Academy, an alternative school in the Jonesboro Independent School District, where he mentored at-risk youth. The experience helped launch Taylor's nonprofit work.

Last summer, Taylor told Starr a story about one of the boys at Success. Starr, now a sophomore guard on ASU's women's basketball team, wished they could do more and joked that they could start a nonprofit.

Taylor took her joke seriously, and the two mapped out a plan that day.

The Power of 1 or 2 (named after Taylor's and Starr's jersey numbers) was incorporated in September and held a fall festival event with at-risk children Oct. 21. It is made up of 11 board members, including former Gov. Mike Beebe, and promotes education and mentorship with at-risk youth in Jonesboro.

The nonprofit work, paired with Taylor's academic and athletic success, led him to being named one of three finalists for the Wuerffel Trophy, which is given to a college football player who "best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement." He was among 20 semifinalists for the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award, and he was one of 13 finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy -- also known as the "Academic Heisman" -- and received an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship.

Taylor -- who was named first team all-Sun Belt Conference at cornerback in 2017 -- will next play in the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 20, and he said he will train for ASU's pro day and await the NFL Draft.

After his football career, Taylor said he aspires to be a sports agent, a general manager or president of an NFL franchise, or the founder of a charter school.

"I'll always have a passion for education," said Taylor, an advocate of school choice. "Education is an equalizer for everyone. If you can get access to a great education, the sky is the limit for everyone."

Photo by Thomas Metthe
Arkansas State defensive back Blaise Taylor (1) started a nonprofi t foundation with his sister to assist at-risk youth. Taylor’s charitable work along with his play on the fi eld for the Red Wolves earned him the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sportsman of the Year for 2017.

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  • GeneralMac
    December 30, 2017 at 12:28 p.m.

    What a remarkable young man !

    He was a joy to watch at Arkansas State .

  • arkateacher54
    December 30, 2017 at 2:48 p.m.

    So much bad news - great story, awesome young man from an awesome family. He will undoubtedly succeed, not because of his intellect or talent which he has in abundance , but because of his character. Good job mom and dad.