PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. – Think about your biggest grudge. Maybe it's a friend who let you down. Maybe it's a girlfriend who cheated. Maybe it's a family member who turned his/her back. What would it take for you to forgive that person?
Now imagine if someone cost you millions of dollars. Imagine if someone deceived you, squandered your fortune, went to prison for his crimes, and nearly ruined your entire life. What are the chances you'd call him out of nowhere and forgive him?
That's what Fred Taylor recently did.
The former Jacksonville Jaguars and Florida Gators great said he recently reached out to one of the most notorious scammers in sports history – Tank Black. It was Black who lost a reported $3.6 million of Taylor's money in a series of scams in the late 1990s and went to prison. He is the Bernie Madoff of sports. But this summer, Taylor said, he called Black and spoke with him for the first time in many years.
"I had to forgive him," Taylor said over lunch near his South Florida home. "I was pissed for a while. I was pissed for a long time."
Taylor did more than just forgive him, though. He said, "Thank you for helping make me the man I am."
Taylor grew up in the money-poor but talent-rich part of Florida known as Muck City – the Everglades region that has produced NFL stars including Anquan Boldin and Santonio Holmes. Taylor was raised primarily by his grandmother, so he went through high school and most of college without a male role model. "I wasn't the most confident person in the world," he said.
Enter Black, the former South Carolina assistant football coach who became one of the most successful football agents of his time. A large part of his credibility came from his representation of Taylor, who was the Jaguars' first-round pick in 1998. The following year, Black represented five first-round picks. He was worth a reported $100 million at one time. Taylor was so close to Black that he started calling him "Pops."
"I didn't think he could do any wrong," Taylor said.
But he did. Black was charged with money laundering by federal prosecutors in Michigan and charged by Justice Department officials with defrauding millions from several NFL players, including Taylor. At first, Taylor vehemently defended Black. But soon he found himself at a bank, applying for a $100,000 loan just so he could get through the 2001 offseason. He should have been enjoying riches beyond his wildest dreams, but instead he was scraping by. He said the only small reprieve from the constant financial fear came in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when teammates watched their stocks plummet and Taylor was temporarily grateful that at least he wasn't losing more money in the market. Taylor later admitted he nearly retired from football because of all the stress.
"I didn't have mentorship in my life," he said. "I had to learn from my mistakes. But by then it was too late."
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Taylor considers himself lucky. He had a long pro career, rushed for more than 11,000 yards, signed more lucrative contracts, and now owns four houses "free and clear" throughout Florida. "My only debt is my mortgage [on the house I live in now]," he said. But the memory of his financial struggles persisted long after Black was out of his life. He said he was hesitant to invest or enter into any sort of business partnership. "It made me a huge procrastinator," Taylor said. Taylor testified against Black during his trial in 2002, getting emotional when asked about the trust he placed in the agent.
"I trusted Tank that he would do right with the money," Taylor testified, as reported by the New York Daily News. "Every so often I would ask how it was doing and I got this sheet that said a bunch of money was reinvested and reinvested, but it was make-believe."
Still, when someone he knew told Taylor this year he had a number for Black – who served a prison term ending in 2008 and now lives in the Dallas area – Taylor decided to call.
Before dialing, he ran the idea by a couple of other former players.
"A couple of 'em said, 'You're out of your mind,' " said Taylor, now 36. "But it's something I wanted to do."
So a few weeks ago, Taylor called. His first question was easy:
Taylor said Black told him he was "misled into investing into a Ponzi scheme." (Black could not be reached for comment, however he did tell the Daily News in 2009 that he did not knowingly steal money from NFL players.)
"Whether or not I believe him," Taylor said, "I don't know."
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Black apologized profusely, Taylor said. Eventually, the former agent broke down and cried, telling Taylor he was his favorite client, according to the former running back.
"I just sat and listened," Taylor said. "It didn't do anything for me. It didn't do a thing. I thank God for giving me the courage to do it. Men show up."
Taylor said he now teaches his sons about investing as often as possible – including his oldest, Kelvin, who is committed to Florida and considered one of the top talents in the prep class of 2013. Taylor said what he went through with Black was "a blessing in disguise."
He did not agree to talk again with Black, but he is leaving the door open to it. Taylor even said he's willing to see Black in person one day.
"I'd take that meeting," he said.
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