Zach Taylor was still fidgeting with his silver medal when he walked into the air-conditioned weight-room-turned-interview-room. A sophomore sprinter for Mississippi State, Taylor had just done something almost no one expected him to do – at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Starkville, he beat out competitors from all across the conference and placed second in the decathlon, one of the most difficult events in the game, qualifying himself for the NCAA Championships in Oregon next month.
Those running with – and mostly behind – Taylor, hadn’t calculated him in their plans. MSU’s coaches and players, while confident and proud of him, didn’t think he’d do anything like that. Even Taylor himself, he admitted, had projected he would finish around fifth or sixth in the highly-competitive SEC.
No one expected him to do what he did. No one except for his dad, that is, and it was that man, James “J.T.” Taylor, who Zach first thought of when he was presented with his silver medal and when he stepped onto the podium as a winner on Friday afternoon.
Nearly six months ago, last November, Zach received a call. His father had been in an accident and it was serious. Within the hour, Zach was on a plane to Charlotte to get to the hospital where his dad had been taken and where his mother was waiting. He was scared for the worst, and shortly after arrival, his fears were confirmed. Try as doctors might, the injuries were too severe. J.T. Taylor passed away.
From that moment, Zach’s life went into a tailspin. After losing his father, his grades slipped, his focus waned and over the course of a few months he gained 20 pounds, a huge jump for a college athlete.
Finally, roughly two months ago, Zach emerged from the emotional turmoil and started to turn things back around. His coaches moved him around within the track program, helped him in get shape and taught him to channel his emotions, exhausting them through the healthy means of training and competition. Steve Dudley, MSU’s head coach who Zach considers a second father, has been at the center of it.
Throughout it all, since November, Dudley has called Zach nearly every night to check on him and talk to him. Dudley has called Zach’s mother to do the same. Thursday and Friday, as Zach worked his way through the 10 events it took to finish the decathlon, Dudley watched from the side as the young man who had been through so much fought his way to the top of the leaderboard.
“I’m blessed to have a coach like him,” Zach said. “He’s really like my second dad right now. He’s stepped up and taken a big part in my life, been there for me through everything.”
Coming into the SEC Championships this weekend, Zach had dropped the extra weight, he’d picked his grades up and he had trained daily for months. But despite all the work, he still didn’t quite expect this.
Not only did Zach beat the competitors, he beat himself. Zach set a personal record in eight out of the 10 events in the decathlon, an incredible rarity in such a competition. He was initially surprised by the result, but as he shared in emotional moments after the meet, he probably should’ve seen it coming.
“Before every meet this year,” Zach said, “I went and talked to my dad. This time, he told me some good things. I’ll keep that between me and him, but he told me some good things.”
Zach’s father, watching from above, knew the young man his son had grown into and knew the successes which would come. Those big moments came for nearly all of Zach’s teammates, too, as Bulldogs placed in or won event after event in the first two days of the meet. Zach was competing for his dad, but not him alone. Zach and his teammates were also running for Daundre Barnaby.
A former Olympian, Barnaby was a sprinter for Mississippi State from 2009-13, and while training with the Canadian National Team this March, Barnaby tragically drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, passing away on March 27 while preparing for what he loved the most. At the SEC Championships this weekend, MSU’s players and coaches all wore hats with the letters ‘F.L.B.’ stitched across the front – Finish Like Barnaby.
As Zach ran, jumped and threw his way to the conclusion of the decathlon, it was Barnaby and his father who spurred him on in the toughest moments.
“Both of those started to come through my head,” Zach said. “Every time I started to feel like I was hurting, any time my legs got tight, that went through my head. ‘I gotta finish. I gotta finish.’”
And finish he did, the most incredible performance of his young career, thanks to his father, the man who had more confidence in him than any.
“He motivated me through the whole thing. Every time I felt down, I just had to push harder,” Zach said as tears welled up, physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day. “He’s looking down smiling right now.”