Former TCU walk-on brings his underdog mentality to his fight against stage 4 cancer

Stats-wise, Phil Taylor barely registered a blip during his four years as a walk-on receiver at TCU: one career reception.

But for pure competitiveness, personal strength and concern for others — for qualities that show a person’s character beyond the numbers — few former Frogs are held in higher regard.

“He definitely set the precedent on how to conduct yourself, not only as a walk-on but as a TCU player in general,” former TCU receiver Deante’ Gray said.

Three years after he graduated, Taylor hasn’t lost his underdog mentality. He needs it as much as ever against the stage 4 stomach cancer for which he’ll undergo a major procedure on Tuesday.

If cancer wants a fight, Taylor intends to give it one. Forty-three hopefuls tried out for TCU’s 135-man roster in 2011, and only six, including Taylor, made it. The next season, the Mission Viejo, Calif., native was invited to fall camp as a member of the 105-man roster, and he would go on to dress for nearly 30 games from 2011 to 2015, playing in five and earning a letter by the end of his senior season.

“Everyone has a part to play, so when you know what your part is, do it well,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t going to catch 50 passes a year. But if I can get this defense ready to go smother Oklahoma, then I’ll take pride in that.”

‘It really, really hurt hearing that’

In the spring of 2016, almost a year after he graduated, Taylor knew something was seriously wrong.

For months, he dealt with stomach and digestive issues. Eventually, Taylor underwent a colonoscopy at the recommendation of several doctors. As soon as he woke up from the procedure, on Dec. 16, 2016, the then 24-year-old was told that he had colon cancer.

“My first thought was, ‘That sucks,’” he said. “But after that my mindset was, ‘OK, how do I get rid of it? What’s the next step to getting healthy?’”

Doctors never told him how long he might have left. Throughout his 28 radiation sessions, which occurred five days a week, he lost 20 pounds and often felt lethargic. His chemo pills caused odd smell aversions and peculiar eating habits, which led his aunt in Fort Worth to joke that he was pregnant.

Gradually, Taylor told friends, teammates and his former coaches about his illness.

“He’s the kind of guy that wouldn’t want a bunch of people worrying about him. He wants people to be happy and live their life,” Gray said, adding that Taylor went out of his way to make other people feel comfortable talking to him about his illness.

That second family — that brotherhood of the locker room — has provided an emotional lift and helped in other ways, like the gas station gift cards to help him get around to all the medical appointments.

When Taylor needs deeper perspective, he remembers other cancer patients he’s seen or kids he’s met during visits to Cook Children’s Medical Center.

“What do I have to complain about?” Taylor said. “What’s so bad in my life that I should always be depressed or pissed off? There’s not enough time for that. Somebody always has it worse.”

Taylor was raised a Lutheran and says he maintains his faith but that it has been tested.

One instance came in June when doctors thought his cancer might have gone into remission. But during surgery they found that although the colon cancer was gone, he now had stage 4 stomach cancer, which meant the tumors had access to every major system below his lungs.

“It really, really hurt hearing that,” Taylor said. “You go from thinking you are done with this horrible thing to being right back in it. I don’t want to call it the worst day of my life, but it was way worse than the day I was diagnosed.

“I don’t want to say my relationship with God is strained. But I’ve had some moments where I’ve said what-the-heck, why? But I try not to play that card because I really believe something good is going to come out of this and benefit someone or something else.

“I’ve also joked that if I am about to meet the guy, let’s not piss him off. My mom doesn’t like that.”

‘Fighting like a champion’

Medical bills get expensive, so Taylor’s aunt and uncle set up a GoFundMe account to help with medical costs, which hit its target in 10 days. It’s at just under $30,000.

In true Taylor form, as stated in the “story” description on the fund’s page, “Phil has selflessly and generously decided that any unused money earned here will go to the ‘Martin Truex Jr. Foundation,’ which supports underfunded cancer research initiatives specific to ovarian and childhood cancer.”

From June into November, Taylor underwent chemo at clinics around DFW. For six months, he had difficulty drinking cold beverages and constantly felt exhausted after the treatments.

His condition and treatment schedule have made other aspects of his life more of a challenge. That Taylor has managed to turn the negatives into positives doesn’t surprise any of his former teammates.

“I remember I ran into him probably a year, year-and-a-half ago, when I was just walking through the stadium and ... we talked on the way out, just seeing how he was doing, and you never would’ve guessed the guy had cancer,” said former TCU kicker Jaden Oberkrom. “He’s just like, ‘Hey man, I’m great, how are things with you? How’s your kicking business?’ and I’m like, ‘Hey man, my kicking business isn’t a big deal, let’s talk about you.’

“He’s just so selfless and fighting like a champion.”

Former TCU quarterback and Alamo Bowl hero Bram Kohlhausen said Taylor was exactly the type of guy you wanted on your football team.

“I wanted to be as liked as Phil, and as positive and as into it and knowledgeable of the game as Phil was,” he said.

Added Gray: “A lot of players that don’t play, they won’t always be into the game, and into what’s going on, game or practice. But Phil, he was always kind of indirectly connected, because he was always paying attention to the game and he really loved TCU and football.”

Through a text to a TCU spokesman, football coach Gary Patterson said: “Phil Taylor is a great kid! Our thoughts and prayers are with him. He’s a Frog! The Frog Family is thinking about him.”

Running routes

Since being diagnosed, his bucket list hasn’t changed.

Taylor’s older brother and his wife are both in the Air Force. While his sister-in-law was stationed in Japan, he went over for a 10-day visit, even though he knew he’d have to walk off his 11-hour return flight and go straight to a chemo session.

He still wants to eventually get married and have kids, but dating has proved to be difficult because he says potential love interests tend to bolt when they learn he has stage 4 cancer.

As a sports broadcasting major, Taylor needed an internship to graduate. After asking around, he landed a position in the TCU athletics video department. Since graduation, Taylor has worked as a freelancer for TCU athletics, the Texas Rangers, the Frisco RoughRiders and a digital sports media startup in Dallas.

“Phil, that guy was a dynamo for us. Always lugging his tripod and camera, staying late and editing, I could tell,” said Mark Cohen of TCU’s media relations department, who got to know Taylor as both a student-athlete and an intern. “That guy’s got a passion for it. You can tell who’s going to really take that opportunity and Phil, he defined that.”

Although he mostly works on the broadcasting side of sports, Taylor still finds himself out on the field. He’s an assistant coach at Prince of Peace, a K-12 private school in Carrollton.

In the fall, he was out running routes with the middle school’s football team. He based plays off TCU’s offensive scheme to guide the team to a 6-3 record.

Now he’s coaching the high school baseball team and in the fall, he’ll be the receivers coach for varsity football.

But despite being physically active in his various jobs, it still took some time to figure out how to balance his work schedule with his treatment. As a freelancer, he can plan his work around his appointments and the rest he needs afterward.

‘I want to be able to give back’

Before he can continue educating young athletes and freelancing in sports media, Taylor must undergo Tuesday’s surgery.

Taylor’s doctors told him that a person with this condition has an average life expectancy of 16 months. Even though stage 4 cancer is unlikely to go away, it could go into remission and leave him without symptoms and needing minimal treatment going forward.

Fortunately, because of his age and otherwise good physical standing, it’s unlikely that the tumors will spread rapidly. At the same time, Taylor will need to continue treatment and could very well undergo this procedure again a year from now.

As usual, Taylor refuses to let the operation, the disease or anything related to it stifle his optimism. In fact, through the experience he’s added a new profession to his list of career goals: getting an associate degree to become an infusion nurse.

“I want to be able to give back, because I have so many people helping me out with this,” he said. “Let’s see if I can go and use what I’ve learned to help other people. And I can relate to them.

“I think it would be a really rewarding line of work.”

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