Otis Taylor might be 73 years old now, but he still will be dressed fashionably and impeccably every day at his Raytown home, friends will tell you.
Last they saw, his face was smooth and pristine, unblemished by the furrows of worry or stress or even the merest telltale signs of age.
That’s because his every need is met as if telepathically, without Taylor so much as having to utter a word — particularly to his infinitely devoted sister, Odell.
“Otis is living the life of luxury,” Ollie Gates, a dear friend, says as he musters a sad chuckle.
To view Taylor’s frame is to assume he could put on cleats right now and resume his stellar career with the Chiefs, says Stu Stram, a son of late Chiefs coach Hank Stram.
To see him, adds another of Hank Stram’s sons, Dale, is to imagine that if you threw up a ball, he’d leap up to catch it.
Just like he would have at the first of 50 Super Bowls commemorated last Sunday.
Taylor always seemed like he was an infallible immortal and there was nothing he couldn’t do on his way to revolutionizing the receiver position with then-Chiefs records of 410 catches and 17.8 yards a catch — numbers that don’t do justice to his snubbed candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
All of these current images of Taylor are true.
But all of them also are a mirage of sorts.
Ultimately, they are poignant points of contrast that render friends of Taylor marveling amid their anguish over his mournful existence over the last decade-plus — a story conspicuous even among the many of hardships or premature deaths of the 1966 Chiefs.
“Poor Otis,” you’ll hear again and again, from Gates to Bobby Bell to the Stram boys to anyone who’s seen him, really.
“It’s tragic,” said Dale Stram, who now lives in Louisiana and last saw him in 2014.
It’s one of the most piercing things Gates has ever seen, a fact that makes Bell wince and the Stram boys shake their heads and might make about anyone just want to weep.
Ravaged by what the family in a 2012 lawsuit against the NFL attributed to Parkinson’s disease and associated dementia initially diagnosed in 1990, Taylor is bedridden, non-verbal, unable to walk and dependent on a feeding tube in his stomach for all sustenance.
The suit asserts that the NFL is legally responsible for his injuries, noting that Taylor suffered seizures in 1969. Obtained by a California “Patch.com” site in its reporting of the Junior Seau case, the suit further states Taylor suffered “multiple repetitive traumatic head impacts, sub-concussive and concussive injuries” during practices and games.
“None of which,” the lawsuit states, “were ever acknowledged or treated by any health care professional.”
In joining the broader legal action against the NFL, the Taylors sought a court-supervised, NFL-funded medical monitoring program that will “facilitate, treat, (diagnose) and care for Plaintiff Otis Taylor for the rest of his life, limited though it may be.”
“Limited” means that Stu Stram could walk into Taylor’s room and playfully invoke his father’s high-pitched “Otis” call, and only hope to see Taylor’s eyelids flicker.
“Odell thought he opened his eyes,” Stram said. “But you don’t know what he knows and doesn’t know. It just breaks your heart.”
“Limited” means Gates entering, holding his hand a while and talking to Taylor some, and maybe playfully hollering to see if the lids will flutter.
“Limited” means Bell could sit there a few hours with no evidence Taylor ever knew he was even there. “Unreal,” he calls it.
Financial relief for Taylor and his family is in limbo as the $1 billion settlement is stranded in a federal appeals court.
“Pending the appeal, it could adjust the amounts that people are due either way,” said Bill Kenney, the family’s co-counsel in the suit.
What clearly isn’t subject to change, though, is another contention of the suit: that Taylor requires “constant medical care and supervision.”
And this is where a heartwarming element of this crushing story comes into play.
More than a decade ago, as her brother’s deterioration became evident, Florence Odell Taylor, a licensed vocational nurse since 1959, abruptly abandoned her life and home in Houston to be at his side.
As soon as she was done helping her mother through Alzheimer’s, that is.
It’s not known whether Taylor’s sister was named for Florence Nightingale, perhaps the most famous and influential of nurses, but the woman better known now as Odell surely has honored that namesake.
She just about literally hasn’t left her brother’s side since.
As you read these words, she is next to him or feeding him or bathing him or turning him in his bed or cutting his hair or rubbing his feet or dressing him or otherwise ministering to him.
Bell has heard it said that when Taylor was taken for a doctor’s visit a few years ago, the doctor called in other nurses and wanted them to behold the 200-pound plus bedridden man with no bed sores.
You might say Odell does nothing but this from the moment she gets up, but that would be understating the all-consuming allegiance of a woman who makes her bed of a chair by him.
“She’s always up,” Gates said. “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
Odell deferred an interview request to Taylor’s wife of 29 years, Regina, who referred to herself as a private person and politely and understandably declined, citing her husband’s condition. (It should be noted that Regina has graciously brought Odell into the couple’s home.)
So it’s not known precisely what other medical care he receives or how they cope financially, for instance, though Taylor was ahead of his time not only as a player but also as an athlete looking to the future.
While he was still playing for the Chiefs, he worked for a local bank, where he converted a largely ceremonial title into real work, and opened a popular night club, the Flanker’s Lounge.
He later worked 11 years as a scout with the Chiefs, hoping to become a receivers coach. But he was dismissed with others in the personnel department in 1989 when Carl Peterson became the club’s president and general manager.
Taylor then spent several years working as a community ambassador for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
But while Regina only recently retired, Taylor has long since been unable to work.
And it’s easy to forget that players of his era earned geometrically less money than those of today.
Taylor, for instance, was reported in 1967 to have been the highest-paid receiver in the AFL, at $60,000 a year, and was offended by the report … because, he’d later say, he was making only $35,000 then.
Moreover, pensions from that era and the NFL’s “88 Plan” surely are insufficient for the care Taylor needs.
As written by Kansas City concussion litigation expert Paul D. Anderson on NFLConcussionLitigation.com, that plan does little to “reimburse/compensate caretakers who have to give up their livelihood and jobs to care for their loved ones.”
As in any excruciating end-of-life scenario, there are many variables and unknowns in all this.
But there are important things for all of us to ask ourselves here, whether what you think football might do to you, or what you’d want done for you if you were incapacitated late in your life.
Not everyone, after all, has Odell Taylor to stand by them.
In the history of the world, Ollie Gates says, this is “the greatest love you’ve ever seen from one person to another.”
The last time Odell spoke publicly was for a story in The Star a decade ago, when she said, “I’m just glad to be here with him.”
That hasn’t wavered since.
“She sacrificed her entire life for somebody else,” Stu Stram says, “and that’s not normal in this world.”
Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868 or @vgregorian.