LAURINBURG — Being stubborn, prayer, and hard work is what Hilee Taylor credits for his success playing football in college and the National Football League.
Taylor, a 2004 graduate of Scotland High School, was a defensive back for the Fighting Scots who received interest from the University of North Carolina during his junior year after playing against former University of Florida quarterback Chris Leak.
“We didn’t have social media to broadcast our talents,” Taylor said. “We had to take advantage of the opportunities when we played against four and five-star recruits. Leak had over 50 scholarship offers at the time and I knew if I could sack or pressure him that I would gain some interest from schools.”
His performance against Leak did the trick and Taylor received an offer from the University of North Carolina where he played four years, 2004-2007, for the Tarheels as a defensive back. As a senior Taylor was named UNC Player of the Year after having 49 defensive tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and 10.5 quarterback sacks — the fourth highest in UNC history. Taylor also set a Tarheels record as a true freshman with 4.5 sacks.
The pressure to succeed on the field and in the classroom was something Taylor admitted he struggled with, but knew all his hard work would be worth it in the end.
“There was a good amount of pressure to perform both on and off the field, which I embraced,” Taylor said. “I struggled sometimes, but was driven by the fact that someone donated a scholarship. I didn’t want to let them or my family down. I sacrificed a lot of holidays, time with family, and partying to give my best effort in the classroom and on the field — it was worth it.”
After a successful four years with UNC, Taylor entered the 2008 NFL Draft and was selected in the seventh round by the Carolina Panthers — becoming one of just 12 Laurinburg residents to play a professional sport. At the time Taylor said he felt he should have been drafted higher, but looking back he is now just grateful for the experience.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Taylor said. “I was happy to be drafted, but felt I should have gone higher. Throughout the years I’ve come to realize that it was a blessing to be drafted and play in the NFL. Only a few in the world get to have that privilege.”
Playing in the NFL was something Taylor said he dreamed of as a kid growing up in Laurinburg and knew if he woke up everyday with a mission to do the best he could at everything that his life would eventually fall into place.
“I visualized it everyday and prayed about it,” he said. “Some days were tougher than others, but those were the days I visualized it the most.I had the mentality that if others could make it, so could I.”
Taylor played with the Carolina Panthers for three seasons from 2008 to 2010. During his time with the Panthers,Taylor recorded four tackles and one sack. After the 2011 NFL Lockout, Taylor was waived by the Panthers and picked up by the Detroit Lions. Due to a prior injury, Taylor failed a physical with the Lions and chose to retire from football. In 2012, Taylor signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a short time before making his way into the Canadian Football League to play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Retiring early in his career wasn’t something Taylor said he planned to do, but the pros out weighted the cons. Taylor said the Panthers was a great organizations where he met some good people.
“It was an honor to play for a team that represents the Carolinas,” he said. “I made my way to Canada because I failed a physical from a previous injury. It was a blessing to be able to play against in Canada and win a championship.”
Taylor joined the Roughriders in 2013 when the team finished 11-7 for second place in the West. The record allowed the Roughriders to host their first playoff game since 2010 against the BC Lions. Taylor and the Roughriders won the game 29-25 to advance to the Western Finals. The team defeated the Calgary Stampeders, 35-13 to advance to the 101st Grey Cup — Canadian League Football’s version of the Super Bowl. Taylor and his team won the Grey Cup 45-23 defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The main difference between Canadian League Football and the NFL, according to Taylor was the having to play one-yard off the ball. Taylor played defensive end in the CLF just like he did in college and the NFL.
“The position I played with the Roughriders, I had to be a yard of the ball. The “get off” had to be perfect, in terms of timing,” Taylor said.
Taylor ended his football career for good after the 2015 season with the Roughriders. During his time playing in Canada, Taylor opened his own business, The Laundry Basket, a 24-hour laundromat in Mebane. In 2015, Taylor took a second job working a client advisor for Hendrick BMW in Charlotte.
“Growing up my Dad owned a few businesses and seeing him be able to provide for our family, in addition to my mother’s income and his job, inspired me to be an entrepreneur,” Taylor said.
Being a former pro-athlete Taylor emphasized the importance of young people having a plan for their lives after their athletic careers end. Taylor said getting a high school diploma and a college degree is critical for success after athletics.
“You’ve beat the odds of getting a diploma. Now it’s time to pursue a degree. Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith and push your limits,” he said. “Whatever you believe in, hold on to that belief. Let no one or anything stop you. It’s very important that have a plan. You have to be stubborn and let nothing stop you from attaining the goals you have in mind.”
Taylor said for those Scotland High School graduates that will begin their college athletic careers in the fall the two more important things to remember are to have fun and be confident.
“It’ll be as hard as you make it or as easy as you want it to be — the choice is yours,” he said. “Studying your schoolwork and playbook, makes the process easier. The four or five years you’re in college fly by you have to be sure to make the most of it. You get out, what you put in.”
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170.