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Woodland Hills' Finest

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After a 15-year NFL career, one of the things Jason Taylor did was thank his former high school football coach at Woodland Hills, George Novak. Taylor continues to give back to the community that started him on the path to greatness.

MIAMI - After his 15-year NFL career was over, after he had terrorized his last offensive lineman and after his Dolphins had beaten the New York Jets for the final time, Jason Taylor thanked his former high school coach, George Novak of Woodland Hills.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Novak said when asked for his reaction to Taylor’s New Year’s Day speech. “I got all choked up because Jason has always been one of my favorite players.”

Their association began in the summer of 1991. Taylor, doing yard work across the street from Novak’s house, initiated a conversation. Taylor, who was about to enter his junior year, didn’t think he was eligible to play sports because he was home-schooled. Novak said he’d look into the matter and invited Taylor to a Woodland Hills practice.

“I saw him run one pass pattern,” Novak said, “and I told our trainer: ‘Get him some cleats. He’s on the team.’ “

Taylor was 6-1 and 165 pounds at the time and was used at tight end and safety. He would later grow to become a 6-6, 245-pound defensive end who recorded 139.5 sacks - sixth best in NFL history – but he was nowhere near that player when Novak first got him.

In fact, he had never put on a helmet before meeting Novak.

“I didn’t know Cover 2 from Cover 3 to Cover 1,” Taylor said. “I knew nothing about football. I was a safety, and (Novak) told me to stay deep. That’s kind of how I learned to play.”

Taylor proved to be a quick study.

Novak recalled a game against Cardinal Mooney of Ohio in which Taylor recovered four fumbles to help Woodland Hills win, 12-10. But because of his lack of experience, Taylor didn’t get major-college scholarship offers. Novak convinced Bob Junko, then an assistant at Akron, to look at Taylor. Junko made the trip to watch Taylor play basketball and came away with a steal of a prospect.

Taylor played basketball and outside linebacker at Akron and was switched to defensive end as a senior.

“They put him on national TV vs. Virginia Tech, and they couldn’t block him,” Novak said of Taylor, who had a safety, two fumble recoveries, two sacks, three tackles for losses and 12 total tackles in the 1996 game against the Hokies. That performance and Taylor’s Defensive MVP effort in the Senior Bowl convinced Jimmy Johnson – then in his second year with the Dolphins – to draft him in the third round.

Taylor went on to earn six Pro Bowl berths and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. He sacked 70 different quarterbacks, including Ben Roethlisberger in 2007. The Patriots’ Tom Brady was at the top of his hit list with 11.5 sacks. From 1970 to present, no NFL defensive lineman scored as many touchdowns as Taylor, who had nine. And Taylor’s three safeties are one short of the NFL record.

“I think Taylor is a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, a former NFL offensive lineman. “He was a slender guy, but he played with great leverage. He played the run as well as the pass. You always had to know where No. 99 was.”

Taylor was just as celebrated off the field. In 2007, he was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, awarded annually to the player who combines achievement on the field with exemplary community service. In 2004, he established the Jason Taylor Foundation, which has donated millions to help underprivileged children with health care, education and other needs. Taylor said he identifies with those kids because when he was in middle school, he wore beat-up shoes and high-water pants.

“I hit that growth spurt,” Taylor said, “and my clothes didn’t always keep up.”

In 2005, his foundation took 50 underprivileged kids on a shopping spree to an Old Navy store near Dolphins training camp. Each kid – accompanied by a Dolphins player or cheerleader - got $300 to spend on clothes. Taylor’s foundation has also taken kids to see inspirational films such as “Remember the Titans”.

Novak said Taylor has given back to the Woodland Hills program many times, donating everything from weight-room equipment to cleats. Taylor feels it’s the least he can do to thank Novak.

“George Novak started me on this journey, and I owe him a lot,” Taylor said. “He was the best and still is the best.”

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