Oregon Ducks

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

Part 2 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. - When Willie Taggart wasn’t organizing a football game on a nearby field, he could mostly be found setting up a football video game tournament in his bedroom. Or, he'd play such games on his own.

“All you had to do was get him one of those little Playstation games and leave him alone,” his father, John Taggart said.

Tecmo Bowl. Madden. Bill Walsh College Football. 10-yard fight. Sometimes a dozen or more friends would fill his room.  

"It was the big thing back then," Willie Taggart said. 

He also became quite skilled with hair clippers.  

“Friends used to come over and get a hair cut,” Taggart said.

As a child and later a young teen, Taggart didn't view himself as a leader. He simply took it upon himself to organize the activities he enjoyed.

“When I wanted something done instead of relying on someone else, you get up and do it for yourself,” Taggart said.

Older sisters Charlene and Cynthia Butler recognized the leader in him, and how he tried to help friends avoid trouble by keeping them involved in his activities.

“He loved his friends,” Charlene said. “He wanted to motivate them and he wanted them to do good.”

Sometimes Taggart and his crew would disappear into the tiny room he shared with his older brother, Eddie, until midnight or later. Even when Taggart played his games alone, he would seemingly vanish.

“You wouldn’t even know if he was in the house,” Cynthia said.

Taggart would pop out only for food and drink. If he could work it, maybe a trip to McDonalds for a cheeseburger, French fries and a strawberry shake.

--- Courage and work ethic

Florida is known for tropical weather and Taggart experienced his share of hurricanes. Sometimes his family toughed them out at home.

“It was scary because we stayed in our apartment,” Taggart said. “We didn’t go to the shelter.”

That family strength cropped up in many areas. Both parents worked hard but money was tight. Their small three-bedroom apartment was cramped for a family of seven. 

“My parents never made any excuses about anything,” Taggart said. “They always found a way to put food on the table.”

In summers, the children helped the family make ends meet by working in the orange groves owned by Tropicana in nearby Bradenton. 

“My parents taught us all work ethic at a young age,” Taggart said.

Long hours. Low wages for hard work.

“We’d come home with blisters and be dirty,” Taggart said. 

Later as a teen, Taggart worked summers at Darlene’s Shells, which employed his father for more than 30 years. Willie drove a forklift and did other odd jobs.

“I learned then what I didn’t want to do when I got older,” Taggart said.

He never lost those dreams formed by the tree outside the apartment. Even after his family moved into a slightly larger, but still modest house, when he was 15. His determination in all things made his mom believe he had a bright future.

“You’re going to do bigger things,” Gloria Taggart would tell her son. 

“I’m going to take care of you when I get big,” he would tell his mom. 

Those words touched her heart. But she didn’t want her child to burden himself at a young age.  

"Let momma take care of you right now," she told him. "We will worry about that when you get older.”

--- Down goes Frazier, in goes Taggart

Taggart lived in Palmetto but bussed south across the Manatee River to Manatee High School in Bradenton.

Taggart played football, basketball and ran track and field at Manatee. Admittedly, he wasn’t much of a scorer in basketball. But he could play defense, pass and rebound. In track he ran the 100-metters, 200 and 4x100 relay.

“Every now and then I’d let them talk me into running the 400,” Taggart said.

Football, of course, was Taggart’s main sport. It was virtually everyone’s main sport. High school football there is a cultural event.

Games were so big, they would attract area drug dealers who would hang out in the crowds behind the end zone and slip cash to Manatee players who scored touchdowns.

Taggart and one of his best friends growing up, running back Shevin Wiggins, were inseparable.

“His mom was my mom, my mom was his mom,” Wiggins said.

The duo excelled on the freshman football team in 1990 until Wiggins got called up to the varsity, leaving Taggart behind.

Some still doubted that Taggart had a future at quarterback because of his lack of size.

“He was always skinny,” Wiggins said. “He was told he couldn’t play quarterback.”

By his sophomore year in 1991, Taggart, made varsity as the backup quarterback weighing 150 pounds.

“If that,” Wiggins said. 

Senior Tommie Frazier started at quarterback. The Manatee legend that went on to lead Nebraska to a national title dominated growing up playing football, basketball, track and field and baseball.  Over his final two seasons at Manatee, Frazier rushed for 1,600 yards and 33 touchdowns while passing for 2,600 yards and 30 touchdowns

“He always did something that made you say, ‘wow,’” Taggart said.

That didn't stop Taggart from competing against Frazier daily. Manatee’s coaches fostered the mentality of always trying to take someone’s job and to be leery of someone taking yours.

So, Taggart challenged Frazier in practice as best he could. 

“I just wanted to prove myself,” Taggart said.

His first big moment came sooner than expected when Frazier went down with an injury.

“Everyone was nervous,” childhood friend James Bacon recalled. “Tommie was the God around here.”

Classmates began asking Cynthia Butler, then a senior, if her little brother would be ready for his first start?

Truthfully, she had her doubts.

“I said to myself, ‘oh no, he’s going to embarrass my name,’” she said.

Hardly. Taggart dominated, running the Hurricanes' option offense to near perfection while leading Manatee to an easy victory that led to him receiving conference player of the week honors.

“When he started that first game, oh my gosh,” Cynthia said, “That’s when I started believing in him.”

Wiggins even left the stadium impressed that night.

“I realized he was special when he came in and took over for Tommie Frazier,” he said.

Taggart wasn’t surprised by his performance. He had been preparing for that moment his entire life.

“That was the coming out party for Willie Taggart,” Bacon said.

At least one person wasn’t enamored with Taggart’s showing.   

“Tommy wasn’t happy about (my performance),” Taggart said. “I remember sitting by my locker after the game and had all of the news reporters talking to me. I’m feeling big time, at the time, and Tommie walked by and said, ‘enjoy that while the can. I’ll be back next week.’”

Taggart respected Frazier's competitive reaction. 

“I wanted to live up to the legacy,” Taggart said. “I wanted to be on that level.”

--- Unstoppable duo

The Manatee offense belonged to Taggart and Wiggins in 1992 and the duo led the Hurricanes to a 13-1 record and a 5A state championship.

In 1993, the pair led Manatee back to the state championship game but they failed to repeat as state champions.

During both seasons, Taggart proved himself as a playmaker and as a leader. Wiggins said Taggart proved to be coachable and a good motivator that teammates respected. 

“He got along with people,” Wiggins said. “Nobody hated him.”

Manatee ran the option and Taggart’s slight of hand and speed made him a dangerous weapon. His poise allowed him to pull the team out of jams.

“If we’re down and we needed a play, he would come through,” Wiggins said.

Still, Taggart was very slight. When defenders caught him, they would make him pay. One particular rough tackle of Taggart left Wiggins concerned for his friend.

“I ran over to him to make sure he was alright because the way he was tackled it was like someone throwing a towel over their shoulder and slamming it down,” Wiggins explained.

Over those two seasons, Wiggins, named Florida's Mr. Football as a senior, rushed for 3,867 yards and more than 45 touchdowns. Taggart, all-conference and all-state, went 26-4 as the starting quarterback, passing for more than 3,000 yards while rushing for nearly 1,000.

Taggart ended his high school career feeling good about himself. He believed his dreams were playing out perfectly. 

“I felt like I was good enough to play in the NFL,” he said.

Recruiting began slowly for Taggart, however. While Wiggins landed at a national power like Nebraska, Taggart received minimal interest. Only a couple of programs reached out to him. Even by track & field season in the spring of 1994, Taggart was unsure where he would end up in the fall.

Meanwhile, 800 miles north, Taggart's name sat on the recruiting list of a desperate college coach in need of a savior. 

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