On November 8th, 1997, Michigan traveled to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in a battle of unbeaten squads. The Wolverines pulled the upset, 34-8, led by Chris Howard's 120 rushing yards and the exploits of eventual Heisman winner Charles Woodson, who caught a 37-yard touchdown pass.
The lasting image of that game, however, was the violent collision between Michigan safety Daydrion Taylor and Penn State tight end Bob Stephenson on an otherwise-innocuous first-quarter completion. The hit, perhaps the hardest in Michigan history, ended the football careers of both players.
During the pre-game show before tomorrow's Michigan-Minnesota game, the Big Ten Network will mark the 15-year anniversary of that play with a feature on the hit, with exclusive interviews of Taylor, Stephenson, Woodson, Brady Hoke, and others who were there to witness it first-hand. I've had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the piece, and also had the pleasure of speaking with Julian Darnell, the producer of the feature, and Bill Friedman, the BTN's coordinating producer of original programming. The feature is powerful and sheds light on how Taylor and Stephenson have both moved on from the hit—both, in fact, are now coaching youth football—and I highly encourage you to check it out tomorrow. Below are excerpts from my conversations with Darnell and Friedman:
What was the purpose in putting this piece together?
Julian: I guess the purpose on my end was to reflect on the events—it's certainly newsworthy considering what we've seen in football nowadays, you look to the next level and you see everything in regards to head-first football in NFL, the changes they've made to the football that I was used to seeing when I was coming up, and it just made for an interesting story.
It really piqued my interest, especially when you see, for me, the names that participated in that game. On one side you have Curtis Enis, who was a number one pick, you have Joe Jurevicius, who was a future world champion with Tampa Bay, Charles Woodson, who was the eventual Heisman Trophy winner that year and a Super Bowl champion, Dhani Jones, whom we know very well, Jon Jansen, whom we know very well as well, just so many great names. And it was a great win by Michigan, no question about it, but just that hit, when you see it, it still resonates today.
It really resonated for me when I had the opportunity to talk to Charles Woodson. I had a chance to interview him at Green Bay. During the pre-prep interview when he came in, I was going to show him the hit, because, you know, it's been 15 years. And he's like, "I don't need to see it, I remember." And he did. The details, he remembered it, he didn't need to see it. And this is a guy who's played a whole lot of football since Michigan, and to remember it in the detail that he did, and he didn't even need to see it or want to see it, just resonated to me that, "Okay, I'm really onto something that can really be everlasting," in my opinion. That's what stood out to me.
Bill: The collision between Daydrion Taylor and Bob Stephenson happened 15 years ago this season, so that was kinda the time hook to it. With concussions being a bigger subject matter every day in the national football landscape, we though it'd be an interesting piece, too.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the Q&A.]
I remember growing up and watching this game as a kid and not even realizing that the hit ended two careers, I just remembered it as this great hit, something that was more celebrated than anything else. How do you feel the meaning of the play has changed over the course of the 15 years since it occurred, and how do you reconcile that even today the play is largely thought of first and foremost as a great hit?
Julian: Well, it should, it was a great hit. I think what's changed now is while it was a great hit, now it's not as celebrated as say it was in the past, because we need to think more about the players as human beings. Now it's like, okay, instead of seeing it, say, 20 times over the course of the year, maybe we'll see it five times, not to celebrate it as much because the hit did end two careers.
The thing that's really interesting for me and, for lack of a better term, tough for me, is that I grew up in an era in which you had big hitters like Steve Atwater, Ronnie Lott, Gary Fencik, Doug Plank, and that was the football that I remember. Hits like Daydrion's on Bob Stephenson were celebrated. They're still enormous and they still catch your interest, but now you have to kind of take a step back and say, "Okay, are these guys cool? Are these guys healthy?" I don't think that's a bad thing, I really don't. It's a different thing, but I don't think it's a bad thing. Football is a great sport but you want to be concerned about the lives of the people that are involved, and I think that's how it's changed.
It's changed too because it's been 15 years. There are kids that might have seen this that have moved on and might not remember it as much as you might have or anything like that. You kind of move on, things are a lot more instant now. The goal for me on that is to remember these guys and see that they've moved on with their lives, number one, and what's interesting to me about them is that they've moved on and still are giving back to this game that's been taken away from them, taken away from them in an instant. But they're still giving back, and giving back to young people, with this particular game. I find that really gratifying, to be honest with you.
Bill: I think maybe back then people were like, "Wow, what a hit," and now people might say that but they'd also be like, "God, I hope those guys are okay." I definitely think there used to be less attention paid to the consequences of these hits as opposed to appreciating them for a how big a hit they were, and I think that's changed through the years for the better.
I don't think that would be the reaction to the hit today anymore [think of it first and foremost as a great hit]. Me myself, I didn't remember the hit when I was made aware of it, and I certainly wasn't aware that these two guys never played again. My hope is, for those that aren't familiar with the hit, that they'll see that it did end two careers but also the interesting way that these two guys are still involved in football.
How willing were Daydrion and Bob to talk about the hit and open up about it? What sense did you get about how they've moved on and how they've dealt with it in the 15 years since?
Julian: Bob was easy to track down, as far as talking about it and being very open with it. Daydrion took a little bit longer but eventually he decided to talk to me, and for that I was very grateful, because ... for Daydrion it took a little bit more away from him. He was in a halo because of that hit. He was a junior at the time, and with a hit like that it basically ended his career and any thoughts of perhaps any NFL aspirations he might have had, those went out just like that. For Bob, he was very open and receptive and I appreciated that. It took a little bit longer for Daydrion and I understood that, but I was very happy that he decided to talk to me in Texas [where he now resides] and it was a blessing and a pleasure to talk to both men.
Did either of them mention any lasting physical effects from the hit that have stuck with them through today?
Julian: No, no lasting physical effects on either man.
I took a look on YouTube to see what videos of the hit have been uploaded, and looking through the comments there's a side that celebrates the hit, and there's also a side where people say, "look at what happened to the guys after the hit, this was a dirty hit, and you shouldn't even post this." It seems like there's a large split there, and this is something that happens all the time in football. How do you feel about how these hits should be recognized and viewed?
Julian: For one thing, in regards to that particular hit, Bob Stephenson said it was a clean hit, number one. To this day he says it was a clean hit, and he was the guy that ended up getting licked.
As for me, personally, it's tough because I think it varies in regards to the era you come up in. I came up in an era in which you saw the Ronnie Lotts, the Steve Atwaters, the Gary Fenciks, the Doug Planks, you saw big hits like that, and as a football fan you relish those hits, you really do. Part of me still does. If it gets you to think a little bit more about, "Okay, great hit, are you okay?" instead of "Oh, let's see it again," then I think that's a positive thing. It's a good thing to think about, I really believe that. If this piece accomplishes that then I think I did my job, and if these men enjoy it than I think I've done my job as well, as far as being fair to the moment, being fair to them, and just telling how both men have moved on from this moment.
You see in the piece that both these men have moved on and are coaching youth football, and you see in the piece Bob Stephenson putting a very specific focus on getting his players to learn how to hit the right way. What do you think it says about this that both men are back in football, and how much do you think these injuries can be curtailed based on the information we've got now and a new focus on making sure players know how to hit properly and play the game—and yes, it's a violent game—as safely as they can possibly play can?
Julian: To answer your first question, they love the game. You've got to understand that both men came up in legendary, legendary programs. Penn State, obviously, in their prime, and Michigan under Lloyd Carr. The impact of their coaches and the impact of that game and the impact of those programs at that time is everlasting, and there's still a love there for that game. I could feel it from each of them about that.
As far as your second questions, listen, you don't want to see kids hurt. Basically what they want to do, they want to impart the same love of that game onto the kids that they're working with, and they want to see them have the same benefits that they got from the game for these children. And then, do the best that they can to put them in a position in which they're not hurt, in which they're not going through some of the things that they had to go through in the aftermath of that hit. Are injuries going to happen? Yes. But being prepared to ... being prepared as far as making tackles, making the hits as far as you have to stop your opponent and protect yourself from injury, it's like preparing for a test, it's like preparing to interview me—you don't want to go in cold. It's the same nature. Prepare yourself for football, prepare yourself with repetitions to hit, stop your opponent, and protect yourself. You're not stopping your opponent by hurting yourself. I think that's important, and that's definitely important to them.
Bill: I think any of us that have been in the sports media have been around football enough and talked to enough players that even when you see the effects the game has had on them, if you ask them if they'd do it again, they say yes. I think that speaks to the pull of the game, and the fact that Bob and Daydrion, that some parts of their lives are still involved in football speaks to that pull. I think it's exemplified with them because they never got to play football again, but maybe that's just the pull of the game, and I think either way is speaks to what football means to the men who have played it.
It doesn't surprise me that when you look around the NFL and college football that a lot of players end up coaching, or in the media, or in the front office—that's what they know, they know the game and they like being around it. In that regard I don't think it is surprising, and when you see what Bob and Daydrion are doing, teaching youths, they want to teach them the good things about the game and how to grow from the game. That shouldn't come as any surprise. They were Division I football players and it takes a level of talent and commitment to get to that level. The fact that they can make that commitment in their lives after their playing days are over doesn't surprise me.
There was a moment early on in the piece with Brady Hoke where he mentions that he heard in his headset that it was Charles Woodson who laid the hit. How do you think—obviously, this is a hypothetical—that the impact of that hit changes if instead of Daydrion Taylor whose career is ended on that hit, it's Charles Woodson, while he's on his way to a potential Heisman campaign?
Julian: Oh, that's a tough one ... That's a tough hypothetical for me to answer. Does Charles Woodson have a bigger name recognition and Daydrion Taylor at the time? Yeah, no question he did, just for the fact that he played both sides of the ball. Would [injury awareness] have been accelerated now if that happened to Charles instead of Daydrion? That's a tough thing to answer. That's like answering if cancer research would've been more prevalent if Gale Sayers was the one affected and not Brian Piccolo. I don't know if I can go there. Everything happens for a reason, so that's one I really can't answer.
Bill: That's a great question, and it's one that we'll never know the answer to. It very well could've been a little different. Maybe we would've been made aware of some of the aftereffects of concussions a little sooner. I don't know, that's pure speculation. I think any time a superstar in involved in a catastrophic injury—for me, it was Joe Theismann, I'll never forget the image of Lawrence Taylor signaling for someone to come out to help this guy he'd just sacked. Did that make us more aware of compound fractures? I don't know, but it's a memorable thing. I think it's a very good question, I'm just not sure any of us will ever be able to definitively answer that.
What do you want people to take away from seeing this piece?
Julian: Seeing how they've dealt with it, seeing how they've moved on, and also how they've been so productive in the lives of young people in a sport that was taken away from them. Stephenson was a senior, but there were still more games for him to play—maybe not at the NFL, but as far as the collegiate level, there were more games for him to play, like a bowl game, for example, that was taken away. For Daydrion, he had another year, and also when that hit occurred he didn't take part in that Rose Bowl game against Washington State and Ryan Leaf, so that was taken away as well.
But they've both moved on, they've both dealt with it, they've both moved on to be positive members in society in giving back to this sport—in the same way, in different areas of the world, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Texas, but in the same way. That was the thing that, to me, was so gratifying. They're forever linked by this hit, but they're not defined by this hit. They're defined in other ways. Bob Stephenson not only coaches youth football, he's an assistant principal. Daydrion Taylor with the work that he's done with young people in varsity and junior varsity football. Both of them being parents. It's really cool. It sounds quaint, but it's really cool how they've gone beyond that defining moment to where they're at now. If people who see that, someone struggling with the defining moment in their lives, I want them to be able to see these two men and see how they've grown beyond that moment and contributing to society in the way that they're contributing, and maybe that'll impact somebody else. If I hear that that happens, then I'm going to feel kinda warm and fuzzy inside myself.