'I've got your back': Here's what it meant to work alongside Terez Paylor

·NFL columnist
·8 min read

When we started our NFL podcast 220 episodes ago, Terez Paylor was supposed to be the point guard.

This was his favorite metaphor. He loved the NBA — loved his childhood team, the Detroit Pistons; loved the idea of being a distributor who controlled the floor and kicked topics to his teammate; loved thinking of himself as the Isiah Thomas to my Joe Dumars.

“I’ll set you up,” he liked to say. “And you can shoot it.”

This isn’t how it turned out, of course. We worked together for three years on our podcast and, if I’m being honest, a better metaphor would have been something celestial. Something about how Terez was the sun and I was simply orbiting him: feeding off his warmth and brightness and gravitational personality. This is how it usually went with Terez, whether you were working with him, against him or watching him from afar. If you invested the time to know him or his work, he inevitably became a beam of light and you became a blade of grass bending in his direction.

That’s what made Tuesday so hard. You never envision waking up and having energy like that extinguished. You never contemplate reaching for your phone in the early morning hours, then pressing it to your ear as a longtime friend tearfully begins with, “I don’t know how to say this …”

This is the call many of us took Tuesday. Receiving the inconceivable news that at 37 years old, Terez Paylor had passed away — and, passing with him, some of the light in our lives.

I now understand the phrase, “I don’t know how to say this,” better than I have ever understood it in my lifetime. And that’s a revelation. As Terez would have told you, pulling back or failing to find words has never been my problem. I talk too much, too long and too often. This was something he learned in our few years working together: When it came to words, I was a podcast nightmare. A volume shooter. And if he kicked a conversation topic to me, it probably wasn’t coming back his way.

(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

When I heard the news Tuesday morning about Terez’s passing, I could only muster something that would eventually be echoed by many of my colleagues, sources and a tidal wave of readers throughout the day.

What?

Terez not being here didn’t make sense at dawn. It didn’t make sense at dusk. Now it’s closing on tomorrow, and I still can’t wrap my head around it. I’ve got more than 100 messages on my phone and I don’t really know how to answer any of them. Even though I’m sitting here tapping away at my keyboard, I can’t really piece together words that make it make sense. I just know Terez is gone and I’m heartbroken. And every time I think I can’t cry anymore, I scroll through messages from the people whose lives he touched and my eyes discover another well.

I will forever miss my friend, but what also hurts is my friend will miss what I believe was the beginning of the best part of his life. A life that had really just begun for him and his fiancee, Ebony. A life that included a new home, an upward trajectory and endless possibilities after he discovered his voice as a seasoned journalist.

That’s where Terez was going. His large personality was heading for outsized opportunities as a professional — and even grander adventures as Ebony’s co-pilot in life. He loved Ebony more deeply than football … which, if you know Terez, is about as deep as it gets. After meeting her for the first time, I immediately told Terez, “Now, I get it. She has a sweet heart, just like you.”

That’s one of the things I will always remember about Terez. When you got close to him, you learned all the things that attracted people from afar were real. He was kind. He was caring. He had a code about what was right and wrong. He could make you belly laugh, and he was actually much more likely to give you a belly laugh, even if what you said wasn’t nearly that funny.

And, yes, his loyalty was unmatched. Once, at an event Terez and I attended, a 350-pound former NFL defensive tackle saw me and declared his intention to kick my ass over a story I’d written.

“I’ve got your back,” Terez said, looking up at me.

I was standing with Terez in a green room, trying to figure out what I was going to do. Suddenly, Terez was stripping off his suit jacket like we were in a scene from “Fight Club.” From that moment, my love and admiration for him was sealed for life. Through peaks or valleys, we would be bonded. And we were.

This was long before we spent endless hours talking about topics that had nothing to do with football. Long before we’d finish our podcasts and just sit on Skype talking into the latest of hours, relating to each other over relationships or different life experiences. At the time, I didn’t know Terez would be one of the people to consistently check in on me after my father passed. And I didn’t know we’d have political and sociological talks that would exhaust our cell phone batteries — including one when I sat in my car outside a bank for over two hours. (That one got noticed by a security guard, who knocked on my window and advised me that sitting in a car outside a bank for two hours wasn’t a great idea. Terez and I cackled about that for a while.)

The last year alone, I spoke to Terez more than any other person in my life aside from my significant other. We talked about our insecurities and anxieties. We spent a lot of time unraveling a racial conversation that had an endless supply of knots. We both reassured and supported each other during the pandemic, when both of us worried about being in at-risk demos for the worst Covid-19 outcomes.

And, yes, we talked a lot about football. I’m not ashamed to admit he taught me so much about the NFL, despite that I had covered the league as a national reporter for longer than he had. He always had a knack for finding interesting data that I didn’t. And he loved parts of the grind that I merely tolerated, like breaking down an endless string of game tape to find valuable insight.

Through it all, he always wanted to learn more, always strove to get better. He was unafraid to express curiosity or regret about story choices in a way that most reporters won’t. And he made the people around him want to be better, too. Especially me.

One of my enduring memories about Terez will always be a conversation that happened early in our time together. He wanted to know how Yahoo worked in terms of NFL coverage and how we chose stories on a national beat that is often overwhelming. I told him the first and best answer was to always keep a close eye on Dan Wetzel, our national columnist who has an unmatched work ethic and eye for underlying story angles that many of us miss.

Not long after I told Terez that, he and Dan covered a game together. The next day, Dan called me.

“Terez was asking me questions and picking my brain about all kinds of things,” Dan said. “All he wants is to get better, and he’s willing to work for it.”

“He’s going to do just fine here,” Dan said.

That prediction was right. Terez was more than fine. He was dogged and earnest. He worked hard and his confidence grew. After we wrapped our last podcast on Monday, he stayed late with myself and our producer, Brett Rader, and told us he felt like he had really gained traction that made him as confident as ever. We ended the day talking about the future. We laughed at each other’s jokes. And before we said goodbye and signed off, we all made a promise to come out of the next few weeks of vacation bringing new ideas to the podcast table.

One day later, he was gone — and the rhythms of life made less sense than ever.

Even typing that line makes my eyes well up again. I’m sure it will hurt like this for a long time and a lot of people. I take solace in believing that if Terez was our sun, we must remember the sun is also a star. A star that can warm you and change your orbit — all while emitting a light that will travel long beyond its own ending.

That’s the Terez Paylor I knew. And that’s the guy I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

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