Possessing toughness and a high pain tolerance are traits that have made Mike Taylor into the football player he is today.
Take, for example, a story the former Wisconsin linebacker shares from the 2011 season — one he said "not many people" even know about. During a Nov. 12 game against Minnesota, he tore the meniscus in his right knee. But rather than rest for the recommended six-week period, which would have caused him to miss two regular season games, the Big Ten championship and possibly the Rose Bowl, he immediately underwent a knee procedure the following Monday with one goal in mind.
"A pretty big surgery," Taylor said, "where they removed a big chunk of my meniscus."
Five days later, he was on the field for a game against Illinois. He recorded 13 tackles and recovered a fumble.
This from a guy whose medical procedures also included a neck surgery before his freshman year at Wisconsin, surgery to repair a tear in his right anterior cruciate ligament seven games into his freshman season and another right knee procedure the following year.
Toughness, in other words, has never been a question with Taylor, whose 378 tackles while at Wisconsin rank eighth in program history.
So you can imagine the pain two sports hernia surgeries in the span of less than two months must have caused to force him out of action entirely following his senior season. He missed the NFL Combine, missed his pro day at Wisconsin and in turn missed out on a chance to be drafted and play in 2013.
That’s why the opportunity he’s been granted this week means so much more: Signing a futures contract with the Seattle Seahawks to join the team this spring in an attempt to make the squad.
"It’s an opportunity," Taylor said. "Nothing is guaranteed. I’m very thankful for the opportunity. I hope and am going to try to make the best of it."
The odds of Taylor actually sticking with the defending Super Bowl champions appear long given the number of players involved. Seattle can have up to 90 players when offseason programs start in the spring. Only 53 make the final roster, and a maximum of eight more players can stay on the practice squad.
Still, Taylor remains confident in his abilities now that he is finally healthy. Former Badgers safety Chris Maragos went undrafted in 2010 and became a key special teams player for the Seahawks during their Super Bowl run, so Taylor has a prime example of what sheer hard work can accomplish. Seattle also has developed an affinity for former Badgers players, with O’Brien Schofield and Russell Wilson on the roster. The Seahawks recently signed former UW tight end Travis Beckum to a futures contract as well.
Taylor himself is a grinder who already has impressed the Seahawks enough to garner this opportunity. In December, he spent one week on Seattle’s practice squad, playing everything from linebacker to scout-team receiver to fullback to tight end over the course of three practices.
"When I first went there, I knew that even then, nothing is guaranteed," Taylor said. "This could be my only day. I went day to day. Every time I went out to practice, I ran my hardest, tried to show them what I could do. I hope or I think that they saw a little bit of that and it helped get me back there.
"It was a pretty good experience. Just coming into an NFL locker room. Seeing what the atmosphere, the environment is like and then also practices. Kind of seeing where you are. How you measure up with the other guys. I was only there for a week. But I got three practices in. I think I did pretty well, running around, kind of getting to know how practices went. Just getting up to the speed of the game."
During his four-year career at Wisconsin, Taylor started all 47 games in which he played. The native of Ashwaubenon, Wis., registered 378 tackles, including 273 over his final two seasons as an outside linebacker. In 2012, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media for a second straight year.
Taylor has stayed in shape by lifting weights at his former high school with his brother, Rob, who is two years older, played football at UW-Stevens Point and was quarterback for Ashwaubenon’s 2005 state championship team. Taylor has resorted to running in the snow during the winter or pulling sleds. And on weekends, when he visits the family cottage in White Potato Lake, he has continued to perform individual workouts.
If he can play at the same level he showed in college, he believes an NFL team will want him on the final roster.
"I’m not worried at all about the transition from college to the NFL," Taylor said. "I don’t think that’d be too big of an issue. Speed-wise or strength-wise, I’d say I’m right up there. And confidence-wise, I’ve played in 50 games at Wisconsin, in the Big Ten Conference. Played against my fair share of NFL linemen from Wisconsin, running backs, Russell. It’s not like I haven’t gone against better competition, so I’m not too worried."
Now, it’s up to Taylor to show coaches his worth when practices begin in the spring. And he’s hoping the time off for recovery will give him a better chance to show everything he has to offer.
"I had almost a year off basically from playing football, hitting people and hitting the ground and going through the whole grind," Taylor said. "I’m stronger and faster than I ever was. It definitely helped."