When he committed to Cornell, most people in Jelani Taylor’s hometown hadn’t heard of the Ivy League university. But when the captain took the field throughout an impressive collegiate career, he was playing for a team of thousands: both his teammates in carnelian and white, and the kids back home in Beecher, Michigan.
“Almost everything I try to do here, I try to do for people back home, whether it’s my family or my community, whether it’s Beecher or all of Flint,” Taylor said. “I try to put the city on my back … because they’re the reason I’m here.”
Taylor, a finalist for the “academic Heisman” — the Walter V. Campbell Trophy — has sought to be the best at everything he does. Humbly and quietly, Taylor has built up a stellar resume, on the field and in the classroom. He’ll be honored in New York City on Tuesday at the National Football Foundation Annual Awards Dinner, where the award recipient will be announced.
“I just try to be the best at whatever I can do, whether it’s school, whether it’s sports, whether it’s being a brother, whether it’s being a boyfriend,” said Taylor, who earned first team All-Ivy honors this season.
For Taylor (who was named a finalist for the FCS’ Scholar-Athlete award on Thursday), the magnitude of the Campbell Trophy nomination and announcement that he was a finalist didn’t hit him at first — the hotel administration student with a near-perfect GPA heard he was a semifinalist several weeks ago before he “forgot about it, to be honest.”
“Now that everybody keeps talking about it I’m realizing it’s a big deal,” Taylor said.
The road to Cornell wasn’t simple for Taylor, but he was a leader from the moment he stepped on campus. Taylor was a two-time first-team all-state selection at Beecher High School, where he was captain of his team for four years, starring as a safety, quarterback and wide receiver.
He’s been a role model to his football teammates for four years. And in his senior season, he emerged as one of the best defensive players in the Ivy League, racking up 76 tackles (second-most in the conference) to go along with three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
It’s clear that Taylor’s humility and leadership have endeared him to his teammates. Just ask them what it means for their captain to get national recognition — Campbell Trophy finalists represent the top 12 student athletes from all divisions of college football — and they’re quick to praise their role model and friend.
“That’s like my favorite person ever,” said junior safety Logan Thut. “He’s a true leader, leads by example, he’s verbal, always doing extra. He’s the first guy in, the last guy out [and] he’s a great role model for a younger player like myself.”
Sophomore wide receiver Phazione McClurge took a non-traditional path to Cornell: The converted defensive back originally committed to North Dakota State before de-committing and meeting Taylor on his official visit to Cornell.
After being hosted by Taylor, McClurge knew Cornell’s football team was the place for him.
“That’s my brother, man, that’s my brother till the day I die,” McClurge said. “That’s been my brother since I got here.”
“He’s definitely a role model,” McClurge added. “He tells me, ‘you can’t just be a good football player, you gotta be a great person, you gotta be a great student.’ I really look up to him in that aspect, trying to get better in every aspect of my life to be a great leader and hopefully a great captain like he is.”
Cornell’s only other athlete to ever be a Campbell Trophy finalist was star quarterback Jeff Mathews ’14, who shattered all sorts of program offensive records and was a finalist in head coach David Archer’s ’05 first year at the helm.
Archer said Taylor being a finalist for the award — “a big time deal” — is a great chance for Cornellians to take note of the impressive captain.
“It’s as big a spotlight as you can [have] and I hope that at an Ivy League school that people take notice of that, because we work really hard to be student athletes,” Archer said. “I hope people notice that ‘wow,’ these guys do it off the field and are proud to be part of Cornell.”
With or without recognition, Taylor is driven by something bigger: He’s pushed to lead, to be the best and to compete with pride, on and off the football field. From Beecher High School to Cornell, Taylor hasn’t wavered from his pursuit of being the best.
“That’s just always been a part of me. [Whether it’s] Cornell or Beecher High School doesn’t really change that.”
The 62nd NFF Annual Awards Dinner is set for Tuesday night at the New York Hilton Midtown. The event will include the induction of the 2019 class to the College Football Hall of Fame. The event can be live streamed on ESPN3.