Veteran’s day in Pittsburgh

For Taylor, this may be last grasp

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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PITTSBURGH — The irony isn’t lost on Jason Taylor.

As a member of the Miami Dolphins for more than a decade, Taylor made no secret of his dislike for the New York Jets and their fans in particular. As a free agent in 2009, Taylor indicated that he’d consider retiring if the only job offer he had was from the rival AFC East club.

But today, Taylor is a member of those same Jets, and he will play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first conference championship game of his stellar 14-year career wearing the green and white of the team he once loved to hate.

He smiled when asked if he ever believed that his ticket to the Super Bowl might come from the Jets.

“No, of course not,’’ he said. “I don’t think anybody did.

“[But] this is what I came here for. I’m happy to be here, and I’m glad I’m here.’’

As if watching the Jets play for a chance to go to Dallas and represent the AFC weren’t painful enough for Patriots fans, if New York wins, two of New England’s biggest nemeses — Taylor and teammate LaDainian Tomlinson — will be headed to the Super Bowl.

It would be a first for each. Both men are certain to head to the Hall of Fame one day but right now they lack the team success they crave.

Tomlinson has at least gotten to this point before, when he and the Chargers faced the Patriots in the 2007 AFC title game. San Diego lost that game, and Tomlinson spent the majority of it on the sideline, bundled in a parka, unable to play because of a knee injury.

He believes the conference championship game is the worst one to lose, and he was left with an empty feeling afterward, as if all the work San Diego had put into the season had been for naught.

Which is why Tomlinson has been talking with his younger teammates, many of whom are making a second straight appearance in the AFC title game (the Jets lost in Indianapolis last year) about how special these opportunities are.

But perhaps no one appreciates this more than Taylor, who is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2001.

“Rex [Ryan, Jets coach] called me out one day after practice and asked me to tell the team the last time I was in the playoffs and how long it’s taken for me to get back,’’ said Taylor. “The message has been told.

“I won’t be quiet about it. I think some of these young guys can come in and see a guy who’s had success in this league and had a decent career and say, ‘Well, he’s had a chance to do everything.’ But I’ve never been to this point.

“Fourteen years to get to where we are today is a long time.’’

Tomlinson’s San Diego teams were among the most talented in the league when he was there, but they always fizzled in the playoffs, including the 2006 divisional round when the Patriots — with a big assist from Troy Brown — made a big comeback against them.

He has been to the Super Bowl as a spectator, enjoyed the parties, but he wants the thrill of going as a member of a team involved.

“I don’t know if I can put it into words, but I can definitely imagine the feeling,’’ said Tomlinson. “Every year, you see a team that walks off that field in the AFC Championship game going to the Super Bowl and you see the excitement on guys’ faces, the atmosphere, and just how proud guys are.

“I really can’t put it into words, I just know I have the vision of what it may feel like.’’

Adding to Taylor’s emotions is the fact that he will be playing in his hometown. He was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, a lover of basketball who was talked into trying football by George Novak, the legendary Woodland Hills High coach, when Novak spotted Taylor doing landscaping work one day.

Despite being a Steelers fan, Taylor had never played organized football. Given that Woodland Hills has more alumni currently playing in the NFL than any other high school in the nation, Novak clearly knows potential when he sees it.

“I’ve seen a lot of highs, seen a lot of lows, had a lot of individual success, but didn’t get a chance to taste that team success,’’ Taylor said. “This is the ultimate team game. That’s what you want. You want the ring.

“All the other things are great — the Pro Bowl and all that . . . is fine — but if you’re not winning against a team and getting a chance to be a champion, it’s not worth it.

“Anybody that’s interested, I’ll tell them about it and let them know that this is not a right. It’s something you earn, it’s a privilege and it’s an honor.

“Don’t take it for granted, but definitely take advantage of it.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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