MOBILE, Ala. — This time a year ago, Taylor Stallworth was a lot like the guys attending the New Orleans Saints rookie minicamp this weekend.
Like many of them, he had just gone through the NFL draft without hearing his name called.
Stallworth’s draft party last year in South Carolina, where he attended college, turned out not being much of a party.
“But he wasn’t discouraged at all,” recalled Maxine Roper, Stallworth’s mom. “When it was over, I said ‘This is the end, and your name wasn’t called. But don’t give up.’ “
The Saints signed him as an undrafted free agent on May 8 of last year, and not only did he make the team, but he became a regular on the 46-man game-day roster. He played in 14 games and finished with 8 tackles. He recorded his first and only sack of his rookie season in a nationally televised game against the Dallas Cowboys.
“I just knew that I had to stay focused,” Stallworth said about not being drafted. “God has the will for this and gave me in this opportunity and knew what I was going to do with it.”
Playing in the NFL was always a dream of his.
On Friday, Stallworth returned to where those dreams first began.
He stood on the 50-yard line at Murphy High School in his hometown of Mobile, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and a big ole smile as his former high school retired his jersey.
The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl the last time the game was played in Miami.
It was jersey No. 7, a number he wore during his senior season after switching from No. 92.
His grandmother Doris Olds, the reason he made the number switch, was all smiles too.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Olds said. “It’s just a blessing. This is a good Mother’s Day gift just seeing him here today.”
For Stallworth, the number 7 represents his grandmother’s birthday, Nov. 7.
“So I decided to dedicate my senior year to my grandmother, because she was dealing with cancer,” Stallworth said. “So I wore it for her. She’s still here. Every day is a blessing she’s still alive. She’s been there through it all for me.”
But Olds didn’t wear a No. 7 jersey Friday. Instead, she wore a No. 76 Saints jersey, her grandson’s number with the Saints. It’s the team Stallworth and most of the family always rooted for long before the team gave Taylor a chance.
Corbin Kaufusi was on a hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains with his family a few days ago when all of a sudden he ventured away from the group.
“It still hasn’t soaked in yet that he’s in the NFL,” said Joseph Stallworth, Taylor’s father. “I’m just as proud of this as I was when he got his degree at South Carolina.”
So are his former coaches.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson made the long trip to Mobile just to be a part of Taylor Stallworth Day. He knew Stallworth wouldn’t be stopped just because he didn’t get drafted.
“We always talked about facing adversity,” Robinson said. “Kids have high aspirations and want to hear their name called, but sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. But you can still be successful. It just goes to show that a guy like that was able to look past all that and go to a great team like the Saints and get the job done in New Orleans. It’s not about where you start but where you finish. He’s doing a great job and has a long way to go, but he’s headed in the right direction.”
Ronn Lee, Stallworth’s high school coach, said Stallworth always has been headed in the right direction from the moment he stepped foot onto the campus of Murphy High School.
“When Taylor got here, he came with an edge,” Lee said. “Everything he did, even in the weight room, he did with an edge. A lot of times guys his size tend to be a little lazy. That was never was him.”
The Saints enter the second wave of free agency much like they entered the NFL draft two weeks ago: not having a whole lot of holes to fill.
Nothing seems to faze him, Lee said. When a tornado damaged Murphy High in the spring of Stallworth’s junior year, classes had to held at a nearby middle school. Team leaders like Stallworth helped make sure it was a smooth transition.
And when Stallworth didn’t get drafted, Lee also knew that wasn’t the end of Stallworth’s football story.
“He just said ‘OK, I’m going to dig in and work harder, and I think it paid off for him,’ ” Lee said.
But for Stallworth, it’s not just about making it to the NFL. He wants to stay there.
“I still have a lot more growing to do,” Stallworth said. “I want to be better than I was last year. I’m just going to take that day by day.”
His role could increase this season.
Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, who was like a big brother to Stallworth, signed with the Atlanta Falcons. Another teammate he was close to, defensive end Alex Okafor, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Those guys had some great opportunities, and it’s a business,” Stallworth said.”It’s sad to see them go, but we are on to the next year. I wish the best to those guys. I learned a lot from them, especially Tyeler because I played behind him.”
On top of that, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins tore his Achilles tendon last season in the playoffs and is expected to miss several games in the first part of the season, which means Stallworth will be counted on even more. It’s a task he said he’s up to, thanks to all the lessons he learned as an undrafted rookie.
“I learned that I can do more than I thought I could,” Stallworth said. “I’m going to really focus on that this whole year. The sky is the limit for me basically. The things I need to work on, I’m going to work on because I want to be great in this game.”
The New Orleans Saints rookie mini camp got off to a good start on Friday.
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