LOS ANGELES – Jason Taylor has never been this close to a championship in his professional career. This may be dancing, not football, but winning is winning.
That helps explain the hardened, competitive smile of satisfaction that crossed his face approximately an hour after the latest episode of ABC's "Dancing With The Stars." He was changing quickly in his makeup trailer as he bantered with wife Katina, agent Gary Wichard and some friends from Florida who came to town for the show.
Katina then interjected about how much Taylor was really starting to enjoy it, getting into the artistry of the dancing and the action. That's when someone else blurted, "Really, you love to win."
"No question," Taylor said, emphatically, that smile punctuating the moment as he hustled to get ready for a post-show party. Taylor, who is shooting to stardom at a rapid rate even by Hollywood standards, can't get enough of the success he has had over the past two months of dancing. Success that has eluded him as one of the top defensive ends in the NFL for the past 11 years while playing nobly for a Miami Dolphins franchise that has drifted more like a lost whale the past six years.
On Monday night, DWTS begins its final four. The four stars – Taylor, Kristi Yamaguchi, Cristïan de la Fuente and Marissa Jaret Winokur – and their partners will do two more dances each. Three judges will weigh-in during the show and then the viewing public votes before the final three are announced Tuesday night. The final three will then go through the process one last time next week for the title. Taylor, who has consistently ranked among the top two vote getters each week, looks like a strong favorite for the title.
This is a place Taylor has never been as a football player, even as he has carved out a career worthy of at least Hall of Fame discussion. In 2006, he was voted the best defensive player in the NFL. In 2007, he was named the league's Man of the Year for his charitable endeavors, which includes a reading program for kids he runs and continues to build in South Florida.
For all those wonderful accomplishments, there has been little of the success that Taylor truly craves. The Dolphins have never made it past the second round of the playoffs in his career. Instead, the team has deteriorated consistently under the questionable leadership of men like Dave Wannstedt, Nick Saban and Cam Cameron.
Now, even though Taylor initially thought the idea of going on DWTS was silly, he's being pushed by his competitive nature and the challenge to succeed.
"You know why I work so hard at this? Twenty million people, that's why," Taylor said, describing the eight-to-12 hours a day he spends working with partner Edyta Sliwinska. "At first, I just wanted to make it through the first show, not get eliminated or look bad. I didn't want to embarrass myself.
"But as I've gone along, I've gotten into it. Maybe not the weird outfits with the sequins, but you take on that challenge to become the character you're portraying in the dance. You have that short period of time and you just want to nail it … This is so much harder for me than football. I know what I'm doing on a football field, I've done it so long. Here, I don't know what I'm doing, but I love the challenge of trying it."
Of course, there are other huge benefits. Or as Taylor said last week, "It's a great springboard."
At 33, he knows football is closer to the end than the beginning. Under Wichard's supervision, Taylor has carefully plotted a course toward a career in entertainment. A career that figures to be far more than simply as a talking head for a football show.
In just two months on DWTS, Taylor is not only winning, he's winning fans who had never heard of him before. In the process, he has become an instant sex symbol.
Wichard picked up a copy of this week's People, featuring the magazine's annual list of the 100 World's Most Beautiful People. There on page 131, gracing a full page (not even Patrick Dempsey, George Clooney or Brad Pitt got their own page) is Taylor.
"We've been trying for five years to get into this," Wichard said. "All the years in the NFL … it took one week on 'Dancing With The Stars'."
Check the line of women waiting after the show in the studio Tuesday night. Approximately 45 minutes after most of the audience had cleared, about a dozen women ranging from their mid-20s to mid-60s flocked to Taylor one-by-one for photos with him. The first lady looked more grandmother than grand dame, her tresses full of gray. Her attitude, however, was deliciously playful.
"Forty years ago, you and I would have had a thing," the unidentified fan said. Taylor indulged her Norma Desmond fantasy with a smile as he leaned in for the photo. Taylor has already learned well to feed the fantasy just enough to keep the fans coming back.
And for fans not privileged enough to share an up-close-and-personal moment with Taylor, his publicity firm, world-renowned Rogers & Cowan, has magazines like Details, Maxim and Essence ready to do fashion shoots. GQ wanted an exclusive shoot, but Wichard turned it down because the magazine had snubbed Taylor years ago. Taylor's movie agent Patrick Whitesell, representative of Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, could get Taylor a couple of movie deals in five minutes if he had the go-ahead, according to Wichard.
Taylor has been on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, talked shop with Denzel Washington and Al Pacino. On Tuesday, when DWTS celebrated its 100th show, Taylor talked with dozens of folks at the post-party. Among them was Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban, a DWTS alum. Taylor and Cuban chatted for 10 minutes and set up a time to meet in South Florida.
"That's a person who wants to help with what we're doing in South Florida," Taylor said, referring to his charity, the Jason Taylor Foundation. "That's a great connection to have."
Sadly, both the Dolphins and the NFL have badly missed the boat on this experience. Instead of supporting Taylor, the Dolphins are at odds with him, angry that Taylor is doing this and angry that he wants to be traded from the organization, according to sources close to the player.
The NFL has used Jason Taylor for its liking, but hasn't reciprocated when Taylor could use the league's help. Last year, Taylor spent time going to London to help promote the league's first regular season game ever played in Europe. He also has traveled to Iraq and Germany at the request of the NFL to help support American troops.
Now, however, with Taylor trying to win on DWTS, the league has done nothing to help him. There's nothing on the league's website on how to vote for Taylor (call 800-868-3402 is easiest, although you can text or log-in to vote) or that he's even competing. The only time the NFL Network, the league's in-house television property, wanted to interview Taylor about the show was after news broke that Taylor wanted to be traded. Wichard politely turned down the obvious ploy.
Of course, Taylor doesn't talk about any of that these days.
"I'm having so much fun experiencing this stuff. I'm really loving it," said Taylor, sipping on a drink at The Day After, a club in Hollywood just down the road from the house in Beverly Hills he and his family are renting. "I know I'm going to catch hell from my teammates for this stuff, but that's OK."
For Taylor, life is good. He's winning, finally.
- Jason Taylor