Former ACU star Taylor Gabriel on his "Turbo" nickname and chances of being X factor
Taylor Gabriel carries the last two $1 bills his mother gave him, his memories of her in his heart and a chip on his shoulder. It’s what has gotten the Atlanta Falcons diminutive receiver where he is today.
“The journey that I have been going on was something that needed to be done,” said Gabriel, a Mesquite Horn and Abilene Christian product. Gabriel and the Falcons will face New England in Super Bowl LI on Sunday.
Gabriel was only 15 when his mother, Kimberly, died unexpectedly on Oct. 6, 2006. She was annoyed with her son that day, jumping on him about his grades.
“She told me she wouldn’t always be around to push me,” Gabriel said. “Then she handed me two dollars and said she would see me later.”
Two hours later, Gabriel was called to the principal’s office where his father, Calvin, sat waiting to deliver the bad news. Kimberly was found dead in her car on the side of the road after an aneurysm.
“I take those two dollars everywhere I go and the Bible that she gave me,” Gabriel said.
After two weeks of grieving, Calvin went back to his job as an IBM software engineer, and Taylor and his sister went back to school. But Gabriel quit football. He also quit caring, and eating, and sleeping, locking himself in his room after school.
After a month, Gabriel finally decided the best thing he could do to honor his mother was to return to football. She always was his biggest — and loudest — supporter.
“I feel like football is the only way for me to really feel that presence of my mom when I’m out there on the field,” Gabriel said. “I feel like that is why I go so hard to stay in the NFL and to be in this limelight, so I could be closer to my mom when I’m out there.”
Gabriel signed with then-Division II Abilene Christian because of his initial SAT score. But he has no regrets. He finished second in school history in career catches (215), receiving yards (3,027) and touchdown catches (27). He also finished ninth in scoring (186).
Gabriel then ran a wind-aided 4.27 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. The only thing Gabriel didn’t offer the scouts was size, at 5 foot 8, 170 pounds.
“I think there’s always going to be a place for people who can play football, and he can certainly play football,” Falcons receivers coach Raheem Morris said. “He’s as tough as it gets. He’s as fast as it gets. He’s as quick as it gets. He can separate with the best of them.
“If you can do all those things and you have some coaches and some players around you who give you the opportunity to go out and execute those things, I think you’ll have a chance,” Morris said.
Gabriel earned a tryout with the Cleveland Browns after going undrafted, but he sprained a hamstring in his first one-on-one drill. Gabriel asked then-general manager Ray Farmer for another chance.
“I asked nicely for him to keep me on the roster until I got healthy, so I could prove to him that I was worth keeping,” Gabriel said.
In two years with the Browns, Gabriel made 64 catches for 862 yards and a touchdown. But Farmer was fired after the 2015 season, and the Browns, who drafted four receivers, including Corey Coleman in the first round, released Gabriel in their final cuts in September.
The Falcons claimed Gabriel, reuniting him with his former offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Kyle Shanahan. Gabriel caught 35 passes for 579 yards and tied Julio Jones with six touchdowns this season, while rushing for 51 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
Gabriel added another six catches for 95 yards in the playoffs.
“What’s one team’s ideal is another team’s [decision] to move on,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “He’s a really nice route runner as well as being able to take it deep, and he’s got a tough side to him where he catches the ball and comes down with it. There’s a nice, complete element to this guy as a football player.”
Turbo Taylor, Gabriel’s nickname, glanced over his shoulder when asked if he still carried a chip.
“It’s just showing people that you can overcome the critics, and you can overcome people doubting you and what you can do and telling you what you cannot do,” Gabriel said. “I just love proving people wrong and showing others that you can overcome anything that gets out in your way.”