Many people have grown up with a mom, dad or older relative tirelessly repeating some cliche quote about how you’re supposed to live your life.
But it’s different when Duke wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor chants one of his many sayings across the football field. Something about him makes people tune in.
Taylor has quite the laundry list of quotes, but one that seems to resonate with college football players is a phrase that he learned from his father.
"Don’t let your circumstance change your standard, but let your standard change your circumstance,” Taylor says, a line that can be applicable to much more than football.
That quote helped motivate Taylor to a football scholarship at Baylor and is part of the reason why he has had sustained success in the football world. He has been coaching college football for nearly three decades, mentoring many players who would eventually move on to the NFL.
“When [Taylor] talks, he has good things to say. A lot of people on the team just love him,” Blue Devil offensive lineman Jacob Monk said. “When he says something, we’re all locked in to what his message is.”
Bigger than a quote
Taylor grew up with 15 siblings in the small town of Cuero, Texas, playing football and doing everything in his power to always make his last name proud. His family was considered “poor” growing up, but Taylor says the people calling them poor were focusing on the wrong measures of richness.
“We weren’t poor because we had each other. There was nothing but love, joy and respect in that home,” Taylor said. “I loved every minute of it. We didn’t get all the Christmas presents that everybody else got, but we sure had a good time doing it.”
Cuero sits between San Antonio and Houston, and had a population of roughly 7,000 during the time Taylor grew up there. His father worked two jobs, one at a feed mill and the other at a cotton mill, from 7 a.m. until midnight with a one-hour break in between.
The elder Taylor died from a heart attack at the age of 42, but 12-year-old Trooper had already learned a lifetime of lessons from his late father.
For example, what do you see when you look at a stone wall? At a glance, you may see the colors and shapes of the stone, the “glitter” as Taylor calls it. When Taylor looks at the same wall, however, he is focused on the mortar in between every single stone that holds it all together.
It’s the hard work, commitment and respect that make up the “mortar” of your standards, he says. Taylor wants his players to learn that there are countless things completely out of your control, but you always have control over the way you react.
“Doing right, even when things are not going the way that you think they should—you maintain your standards and watch what happens,” Taylor said.
It’s easy to hold yourself to your standard at football practice, during class or when you're with your parents. The real challenge is continuing to do what’s right when nobody else is watching.
Standard off the field
In a video interview with Duke football, Monk said he remembers the words of Taylor when he goes about his life as a Black person in the United States.
“Black people are treated differently than whites and than anyone else in this country,” Monk told The Chronicle.
Monk was taught by his parents that as a Black person, he had to hold himself to a higher standard than white people, one example being how to conduct himself if a police officer pulls him over.
A general rule Monk follows in every aspect of his life is to always make sure you don’t let your circumstance change your standard, because if you do, “your life could go down the wrong path.”
The importance Monk places on keeping a “cool head” as a Black person in the U.S. goes hand in hand with the principle of Taylor’s quote.
“Feelings are neither wrong or right,” Taylor said.
To him, the real test is the way you choose to act on those feelings.
Taylor doesn’t repeat this quote just so his players can have something catchy to rally around. When he sees players like Monk take the quote and apply it to their daily lives, he knows he is doing his job of making his players better people than when they first arrived in Durham, something that head coach David Cutcliffe has made a priority in his Duke tenure.
Furthermore, Monk and Taylor both draw a large part of their standards from their Christian faith.
“We’re all human and should be treated as such before anything else. I don’t care who you vote for. I don’t care what you do to hurt me,” Monk said. “I’m still going to pray for you and your safety because at the end of the day, it’s not me that should be able to judge you. It should be, in my eyes, God that judges you.”
Monk has used his platform to spread messages of equality, particularly for Black Americans and Americans with disabilities. His younger brother has autism and Down syndrome, so disability rights hit close to home.
Standard on the field
Taylor’s words have also helped keep the football team disciplined in following all of its COVID-19 protocols. For Monk, it all comes down to “how bad you really wanted to play in the beginning,” and that helped him stick to the team’s standard anytime temptations to break safety protocols arose.
On the field, the standard is bigger than any one member of the current Duke football team.
“People before us like Laken Tomlinson, Ross Cockrell, Jamison Crowder—when they got here, it wasn’t cool to come to Duke," Monk said. "They made it cool to come to Duke."
The burden that falls on the shoulders of this year’s team is to always do the little things the right way in order to make sure that the Duke football standard lives on, the strength to follow that standard coming from the sense of family Cutcliffe, Taylor and the rest of the Duke coaching staff have created.
“I’ve tried to make sure everybody understands what family means…. Blood just makes you kin. Love, trust, respect, commitment, hard work—that makes you family," Taylor said. "And those are the standards that we try to uphold."
It's easier than ever for players to take shortcuts. But to them, it’s an obligation to their family, both the one on the Duke football field and the one that got them on that Duke football field, to resist the urge to take the easier route.
That's what Monk did.
Even before Monk met Taylor, he unknowingly followed Taylor’s message to achieve his own goal of playing football at Duke, just like his father.
Monk’s personal standard made it possible for him to fulfill that lifelong dream, and now he finds himself as a crucial piece to the Blue Devils' offensive line.
Circumstances across the board in the United States are far from where they should be, and it's the words of a feed mill worker from Cuero, Texas that just may be the key to taking the first step forward.
“It’s not the hand that you’re dealt," Taylor said. "It’s the hand that you play."
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.