From a peak of glory to rock bottom: Former MVP Wolverine helps others 'Get Back Up'

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

From collegiate football superstar to homeless drunken derelict to successful Ph.D., Billy Taylor has trod a perilous path. But now he helps those who have reached rock bottom to also ''Get Back Up.''

Taylor is founder and CEO of Get Back Up, Inc., Residential Treatment Services (GBU), which he started in 2009. The 30,000 square-foot, 160-bed facility is one of the largest of its kind in the state.

The facility treats substance abuse offenders and helps them put drugs and alcohol behind them and prepare for a life after treatment.

Clients are referred to the program from the criminal justice system, including the Department of Corrections and courts, and also community service agencies and hospitals.

In addition to treatment for drug abuse and mental illness, GBU provides occupational training, including culinary arts education with a full commercial kitchen.

Few collegiate football players have had careers as sparkling as the one Taylor put together as a Wolverine.

''My senior year at Michigan was a great year,'' he says. ''We were 11-0, I was voted Most Valuable Player and scored the winning touchdown to beat Ohio State in the closing minutes of the game. We went to the Rose Bowl.''

At that moment, Taylor stood atop a peak in his young life. He didn't realize then that the down slope ahead of him was steep.

''Four days later my mom died of a heart attack. It knocked me down,'' he says. Taylor and his mother had been extremely close.''I was depressed and started to drink. I remember going a week without eating. Just crying and drinking.''

But fate wasn't done with young Billy Taylor. Two more powerful blows followed in rapid succession.

''Then in June, my uncle--my mom's brother--shot and killed my aunt and then killed himself. Because my father had passed away when I was five, he had been like a father to me,'' Taylor says.

''Once again, I was devastated. I was still reeling from my mom's death and now Uncle Eugene and Aunt Hattie were gone.''

Those key figures were associated with Taylor's past, but the next losses ripped away a big part of his future.

''I thought I could go on, play ball (in the NFL) and deal with it. I went away to training camp with the Atlanta Falcons,'' he says. ''The first pre-season game was in San Diego and I injured my knee. I was put on injured reserve and sent home in September. In October, my girlfriend Valerie was stabbed to death at a roller rink just outside Detroit.''

Brought to his knees by tragedy and with his support system taken away by death, Taylor plummeted off an emotional cliff.

''Those three things in nine months sent me on a downward spiral of depression, drinking and drugs, which eventually led to my incarceration,'' he says. ''I was totally self-destructive. I never thought consciously about killing myself, but my behavior was suicidal. When you're pumping poison into your body every day, that's slow suicide. I got high to live and I lived to get high.''

Taylor finally hit rock bottom when he no longer had a place to live.

''The last two years of my addiction I was homeless on the streets of Detroit,'' he says.

Taylor's future was probably measured in months, or perhaps even weeks, when he was shocked back to examining what his life had become.

What woke him up?

''God. One word. I had an epiphany,'' he says.

''I heard a voice. I had been drinking and praying. I had prayed for years, but I thought the Lord wasn't listening. That morning, Aug. 17, 1997, I was sitting on the steps of a vacant, boarded up building. When you're a homeless alcoholic, you check your 'perimeter' and make sure there's nobody around. As I started to drink that liquor I clearly heard four words, 'William Taylor, come forth.' I jumped straight up in the air and dropped the bottle, which burst on the cement. I began to yell and curse at whoever had scared me. I ran around the building and up the alley, but no one was there. Finally, I looked at the sky and said, 'My God, is that you?' ''

For many addicts and alcoholics, the realization that they must do something dawns slowly. But Taylor, like the good running back he is, covered that ground quickly.

''It shook me to my core. That was the turning point. I knew what I had heard and I knew I had to stop,'' he says. ''August 17 of 2012 will mark 15 years since I have had a drink or used drugs.''

Although returning to the NFL was obviously not an option, Taylor started to ponder the possibility of attaining his other two goals: A doctorate and owning his own business.

''In my first year of recovery, I started to dream again, he says.''

The eventual result was a masters degree in education from U-M and, eventually, that coveted doctorate, also in education.

He then laid the plans for what eventually became Get Back Up, fulfilling the final ambition of owning his own business.

Every day now he helps young men who are at some stage of the same process he went through himself. This gives him instant credibility that transcends any theoretical approach to alcoholism and drug addiction. And Taylor knows from harsh personal experience that every junkie and drunk has a ''back story'' that goes beyond just a desire to feel good.

''Here at Get Back Up, we try to get to the real reason you're using,'' Taylor says. ''I've found that 'denial' is not necessarily a river in Africa. People are in big denial here. We try to break down that wall.''

Looking at young people who might follow in some of his footsteps, good and bad, Taylor worries about what he sees as a fading emphasis on academics in some collegiate athletic programs. He believes he could never have made it back from the precipice without education.

''I'm grateful I played in an era when there was a true focus on education,'' Taylor says. ''When I talk to young kids I remind them 'You are a student athlete. Student first and athlete second. Your education, in most cases, will take you further than your athletic abilities. Less than 2 percent of NCAA players wind up playing on Sunday.''

Considering the physical wreck he had become in the 1990s, Taylor looks exceptionally fit today and says he takes good care of himself.

''I've told all the coaches since I left U-M, including Brady Hoke, 'If you need me and I'm in the stands, I'm still good for one play.'''

Published: Mon, Jun 18, 2012