By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Not yet 30 years old, Ben Taylor found himself asking that question all-too-familiar for those seeking to change their career paths -- what, exactly, am I qualified to do?
For the previous five years, that had been an easy answer. Taylor had been an NFL linebacker, an ultra-exclusive group consisting of only the very best players. The former Virginia Tech star had spent five years playing for the Cleveland Browns, then another for the Green Bay Packers, and had eight surgeries to show for it. When Taylor didn't latch on with another team for his sixth season, he decided the time had come to retire.
Now what? Four years later, Taylor found the answer in Front Royal. The Northern Virginia Daily's Baseball Coach of the Year, Taylor delivered a slew of firsts for the Hawks' baseball program in his rookie season as a head coach.
"This is my first year coaching, first year teaching -- a lot of firsts," Taylor said. "It was a first year for a lot of things -- our first winning season, our first district championship, first regional berth. Just a lot of firsts for a lot of people."
But first, there's the path Taylor took to get from there -- the NFL -- to here.
It started, of course, in a bobsled.
Taylor took advantage of an opportunity to train with the U.S. Olympic bobsled team for a time in Lake Placid, N.Y., shortly after filing his retirement papers with the NFL.
"It wasn't much of a tryout; it was to see if you wanted to do it or not," Taylor said. "They invited me to go out and train at their Olympic facility. I wanted to see how it was because they go to Europe for months on end, just a ton of travel. It was a neat experience, but it wasn't something I was going to do long-term."
Naturally, Taylor's thoughts soon turned back to football. He joined Mike Clark's staff at Bridgewater College, and for the next two years delved into the long grind of practice, recruiting, training, scouting -- it added up to hours and hours, just as Taylor knew it would.
Taylor's wife, April, has always supported his career aspirations. But with two young boys to raise, Taylor decided it was time to look elsewhere to work.
Again, the question -- what, exactly, am I qualified to do?
This time, Taylor's own family tree provided the answer. His father, Ben Taylor Sr., had coached him in baseball up through high school in Bellaire, Ohio. Both his sisters teach, and have coached. His grandmother was a teacher. His great-grandfather was a teacher. Various aunts and uncles have been teachers.
Through Shenandoah University's career-switchers program, Taylor soon had a teaching certificate of his own. And when he landed the job at Skyline, Taylor was ready to go -- sort of. Although he'd learned the game from his father and had been a good ballplayer himself, Taylor worried that 12 years away from the game might have taken a toll.
"Baseball's definitely a little more laid-back," Taylor said. "You're not nearly as intense, and I had to learn that early on. I was always taught to make things happen, and a lot of times I would press to try and make things happen. But I tried to learn something every game and I was able to lean on my assistant coach, Dale Settle, a lot. He was a great resource for me."
Settle saw the positive response Taylor's regimented approach drew from the Hawks. His brand of discipline -- heavy on structure and work ethic, but with plenty of room for fun -- was just what Skyline had been lacking, in Settle's view.
Taylor's infield skills, however, were a different story. Still built like an NFL linebacker, his batting skill has become the program's long-term project.
"He just sprays it all over the place," Settle chuckled. "We're trying to get him to hold the knob of the bat; he's trying to hold it halfway up. It's something to see."
Infield butchering aside, Settle saw the first-year coach rapidly absorb the situational baseball lessons he sought to master.
Taylor could count on his father, recently retired after four decades as both a baseball and softball coach, to provide plenty of feedback as well as a role model for what it takes to become a successful coach.
"His expression is that luck is when preparation meets opportunity," Taylor said. "He's the over-preparer. He scouts games; he'll go anywhere to scout anybody. Just the willingness to prepare was his forte, to know what was coming before it happened."
Taylor's team had its early-season struggles, starting off 2-5 in the non-district portion of the season. But that first Northwestern District game, a 3-2 win against perennial power Sherando, and a 1-0 win against James Wood four days later, proved that Taylor was on to something. His team, stacked with eight seniors, had the talent to compete with anybody in the district.
And the Hawks did just that, beating each of the other four district schools at least once in the regular season to force a one-game playoff against Sherando for the regular-season championship. An automatic Region II berth, a tournament the Hawks had never reached, was the prize for the winner.
Skyline pulled off a 2-1 win on the strength of Eli McEathron's two-strike suicide squeeze with the bases loaded to plate the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Taylor, who also coaches Skyline's wide receivers and linebackers during football season, is looking forward to trying to improve on this year's 13-11 overall mark next season.
"The group of guys I had, there was no question they had talent," Taylor said. "It was just a matter of getting it pulled together. A lot of good guys -- maybe a little bit of an attitude adjustment on how to approach the game and just sports in general. We got it turned around pretty quick. I'm excited. I'm looking forward to next year."