Nick Taylor has dreams of playing football at the highest levels.
The Avon Middle School eighth-grader already stands 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 220 pounds and at 13 years old, a growth spurt on the horizon, so he’s not focused on becoming the next Tom Brady or Wes Welker. He wants to play in the offensive line.
New Britain PAL Raiders
Playing with the local program – Farmington Valley MudHogs – didn’t offer the kind of challenge that Taylor and his father Rich desired, so they switched to the nationally recognized, ultra-competitive United Youth Football League (UYFL) entry, the New Britain PAL Raiders.
The Raiders, who have competed for national championships in Florida and Arizona over the years, play in the Candlewood Valley League, a conglomerate of UYFL teams from Connecticut and adjacent New York.
The Raiders went 10-0 in the regular season while allowing just one touchdown. They lost to Bridgeport – a team they defeated during the regular season – in a bid to compete in the UYFL nationals, but Nick was named to the league All-Star team that played two games in Plant City, FL, from Dec. 2 to 11, 2011.
The Taylors knew that venturing to New Britain would prove as much a cultural challenge as an athletic one.
“The first day was tough. I was pretty nervous,” Nick said. “A while before the season started, we would meet on Mondays and Saturdays with the coach to do an hour, an hour and a half of practice. I got to know a couple of kids on team. They really just took me in. They were really friendly. Football is a big part of their lives.”
Rich couldn’t be happier about how the transition turned out.
“It was a great, great experience and Nick made a lot of good friends,” he said. “It wasn’t hard. The kids accepted him. There was no favoritism. They trained very hard and they liked it.
“It was hard-core football. Nick fit in perfectly. For a kid who’s 13, he’s already scoping out where he wants to go to college (Stanford). I couldn’t be happier with the guys in New Britain and how they helped my son.”
A Cultural Awakening
Nick received a first-hand lesson on how a boy from the inner city can encounter family-related issues his suburban friends can afford to take for granted.
“Some of their parents couldn’t drive them to and from practice and they’d have to walk a mile or two home,” Nick said. “Me and my dad tried to help. One kid lived with his aunt so we drove him home a lot. It was kind of a rough neighborhood. I realized that I was lucky to have the simple things I might take for granted, like family and home.”
He quickly noted that kindness and friendship transcend social and economic barriers.
“I felt like I was able to deal with things better because these kids had so little and I have so much,” he said. “I felt like I wanted to give them things. We would bring pads to practice. I felt sorry for them because they have good hearts but they haven’t been treated the way they should have been.”
Nick’s insight enabled him to make the transition.
“He’s one of the only kids I ever talked to who really takes pride in being a lineman,” said Joe Miano, Nick’s head coach of the Raiders.
“Kids at that age want to be the guy who throws, catches, runs or makes the big hit. He takes pride in blocking for the quarterback, the running backs and the wide receivers. He told our quarterback he was looking forward to blocking for him this year and that caught my attention from day one. He took his position seriously. He wanted to be the best lineman in the league and worked hard every day at being the best.”
Miano had heard through a third party that Rich Taylor was interested in his son joining the Raiders. Rich made contact with Miano and set up a meeting. From a football standpoint, Nick enthusiastically breezed through his first Raider practices. Miano wondered about the social ramifications.
“With the initial meeting, that was one of my concerns,” said Miano, one of many former New Britain High athletes that possesses a buoyant spirit for the city and its sports programs.
“When you hear about certain towns and compare it to what you see in your own town, it’s completely different. Me being from New Britain, the style of play and energy from fans and the parents are different. We addressed it as a concern. He’d be coming into an established team with veteran players.
“I prepared the parents for what kind of league we’re in and the passion our fans have. I told them if it was something they could accept, Nick would be fine, but it’s tough to come to the realization when coming from Avon to New Britain. It’s nothing negative, just something to adjust to.”
Transition from MudHog to Raider
While the Taylors believe the switch was beneficial for Nick, they remain indebted to the MudHogs program. Nick’s mother Christina is the MudHogs' fundraising director and a staunch supporter of the league. The Taylor’s younger son plays with the MudHogs.
“Nick did all he could with the MudHogs,” she said. “There was no one his size and they didn’t have the level of competition.”
The competition stiffened considerably when Nick played in the UYFL’s all-star tournament. The Candlewood Valley entry opened with a 34-13 win over the Tampa (FL) All-Stars Dec. 6, 2011, but lost to Chicagoland 42-0 three days later in the tournament championship game.
“It was a good experience getting to travel far with a team,” Nick said. “I knew some of the kids before. As we started practicing, I started becoming friends with some that I didn’t know. Some of them are in New York but I got their phone numbers.”
Christina marveled at the benefits her son soaked up both on and off the field as a result of his experience.
“I’m glad he absorbed the bigger picture,” she said. “It was the opposite of the movie, ‘The Blind Side,’ He was the outsider but it didn’t faze him.”