Oregon Ducks

Taggart, Part 1: A skinny boy, a tree and football dreams

Part 1 of a five-part series on Oregon coach Willie Taggart that coincides with the CSN special "Taggart" that airs at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 29.  CSN went to Taggart's hometown of Palmetto, Fla., to interview family and friends, and traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., to interview his biggest mentors, Jack and Jim Harbaugh, in order to tell his story. 

'Taggart,' Part 1: A skinny boy, a tree and football dreams

'Taggart,' Part 2: A leader emerges and thrives at Manatee

'Taggart,' Part 3: The call, a bond and enthusiasm unknown to mankind 

'Taggart,' Part 4: Taggart puts WKU "on his back."

'Taggart," Part 5: The program builder works his way to Oregon

 

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PALMETTO, Fla. – In this small city of about 13,000 sits the one-story, green Oakwood Apartment complex that clearly is in a state of disrepair. 

At one corner is a three-bedroom apartment that backs to a large tree with thick roots bulging from the ground beneath a thick trunk. There is where a young Willie Taggart would sit and dream about his future.

His home – then brown – was rich in love but short on finances. His parents worked hard. So did the children, sometimes to help make ends meet.

Taggart, at young age, believed there was more out there for him. So, he would sit, sometimes with a toy truck and allow his mind to explore the possibilities. 

“I’d go over there, spend time and fantasize,” Taggart said.

Like most boys in the football talent rich state, he dreamed of playing in the NFL, buying his parents a home, helping his siblings. He sought to live up to the nickname given to him at birth, ‘man.’”

Fast-forward some 30 years later to find Taggart, dressed head to toe in Oregon gear, cruising through that same apartment complex in a white Range Rover. His NFL dreams never materialized, but he has certainly become a great success within the football world. 

This is the story of how Taggart's love for football, appetite for hard work and an assist from a famous family of football coaches propelled him from humble beginnings to become the head coach at one of the premiere college football programs in the country. How as a player he transformed a fledgling football program into a winner and then as a head coach rebuilt two programs from the ground up before being entrusted to remake the Ducks, who went 4-8 last year and open the 2017 season Saturday against Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium.

And it all started with the dreams of a skinny little boy who never allowed a myriad of potential excuses to derail him from doing something big with his life. 

“I benefited perfectly from how I grew up,” Taggart said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

--- Born the ‘man’ 

Taggart entered the world quietly. Not a whimper. The maternity nurse took him from Gloria Taggart, cleaned him up, brought him back and then proceeded to put a diaper on him. 

“The first thing he did was pee in the nurse’s face,” Gloria said with a giggle. “I said, ‘my man!'”

From then on, Gloria, who described her youngest child as “tiny and little,” became known as “little man.”

And he acted as such.

“He wanted to be the man of the household,” his older sister Cynthia Butler said. “Everyone looks up to 'little man.' No trouble, no nothing.”

Trouble wasn't hard to find in East Palmetto where drugs were rampant and the crime rate high. Some of Taggart's friends while growing up made poor decisions and ended up juvenile hall or in jail.

For Taggart, sports provided a diversion from the negative around him.

“Football kept me out of trouble,” he said. “When some of my friends were doing other things, I was playing football.”

Taggart never wanted to disappoint his parents. Sometimes when his friends would set out to do something Taggart didn’t approve of, he would head home to play video games. He feared trouble. He feared his parents even more. 

“I didn’t want my mom to choke slam me,” he said with a smile.

Cynthia Butler sometimes would wonder and worry about why her little brother would at times avoid certain friends. She soon discovered his reasoning. 

“He knew something was wrong with them and what they were doing,” Butler said.

Taggart wasn't perfect. He had to be reeled in from time to time.

“Like any other kid, there were things I’d get into,” Taggart said.

But he never crossed that line.

“I had a lot of friends who made big mistakes and ended up going to juvenile or prison,” Taggart said. “You learn from those things.”

For the most part, Taggart avoided unnecessary confrontations.

“He didn’t believe in that violence,” his father, John Taggart said. “He never came home mad about something."

Said Gloria: “I don’t even remember him getting into a fight.”

-- Small but lethal on the field

Willie Taggart saved his battles for sandlot football games. Neighborhood vs. neighborhood. Apartment complex vs. apartment complex. Games were scheduled during the week and then settled after school or on the weekends. Children would use color markers to transform T-shirts into jerseys with team names and numbers then go at it.

Taggart dabbled in basketball, as well. But that was more complicated. There weren’t many outdoor hoops around. So, the industrious children in the area would take bicycle wheels, rip out the spokes and nail it to a 2x4.

Football was easier to play. All that was needed was a ball and a patch of grass or dirt. There were plenty of those to be found. 

“If we didn’t’ have a football we played with cans,” Taggart said.

What Taggart lacked in size, he made up for in skill. His big head atop a skinny framed earned him the nickname, “skull,” and it followed him through high school. 

Pickup games were brutal. Tackle. No pads. Bodies flying. Crashing. Crushing. Early on, Taggart routinely get picked late or not at all because of his size. He responded by finding ways to slither through defenses with his speed and agility.

“I had moves,” Taggart said. “I juked guys out. I had speed."

He often pretended he was former NFL star running backs, Walter Payton or Tony Dorsett.

“Willie was a bad man, back in the day,” childhood friend and future high school backfield mate, Shevin Wiggins said.

Taggart found the ground his share of the time. Minor injuries were the norm. 

“The sandlot was a lot tougher than organized football,” Taggart said. “I think that’s where I got my toughness from. Those games were all out. There was no talking it easy. Guys were throwing elbows.”

Taggart's confidence grew with every success against the larger bruisers he baffled. He yearned to play organized football. Before he was old enough, he would envy the kids who came home from practice with their shiny helmets, shoulder pads and uniforms. 

Finally, by age 9, Taggart was ready or the big time. He joined the Eagles in the local Pop Warner league. His position: Right guard.

“I didn’t like it,” Taggart said. “That wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted to have the ball in my hand.”

The team’s quarterback turned out to be too old for that particular league's age group and had to move up a level. The Eagles’ head coach asked his players for a volunteer to play quarterback.

“I raised my hand so fast,” Taggart said. “I think I scared him into picking me. I never played another position again.”

Older sister Charlene Butler was a team mom and water girl. She and Cynthia were Taggart’s biggest motivators. Charlene recalls Taggart sometimes complaining when receivers wouldn’t get open. Her words to him were simple:  “If there’s no one to throw to, then run. You make something happen."

So, he did. While his sisters motivated, his parents feared.

“I’m looking around like, is this going to be safe?” John Taggart said regarding his son playing football. “They started throwing him down kind of regular. I'm like, 'run, man. You see them boys coming behind you?'"

Gloria would simply close her eyes. Her heart raced whenever her youngest took off with the ball while much larger children with bad intentions gave chase. 

Her fears, although instinctual, proved unwarranted. 

“When I’d look around, he’s up under the goal post.” She said. “I’d say, ‘how'd he do that?’”

Willie Taggart was only getting started.