When people are asked to describe a close friend in a word, it’s common to find them gazing at the distance as their brain scrambles to find the appropriate response. The momentary lapse for thought, varying from Joy from Inside Out-like efficiency or workers in SpongeBob’s brain office scrambling through burning ruins, leads to mixed responses.
Poll anyone close to tight end Clifford Taylor IV, a 21-year-old graphic design senior, and they snap back like parrots repeating the one word they know: determined.
So when Taylor announced he wanted to join the football team his sophomore year, they didn’t doubt the 6-foot-5, 245-pound athlete’s odds to make the roster. But, there were surprises.
Taylor ended his four-year athletic career at Olympic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a three-year captain and two-time all-conference player. However, he earned his accomplishments on the hardwood playing basketball. In fact, until he started playing in Florida’s intramural league, he never played competitive football during his life.
He wanted to be an outsider. When Taylor was accepted to UF in 2017, like his father decades before, he packed his bags and moved more than 450 miles south to Gainesville.
As a freshman, he was interested in walking on to the basketball team, so he reached out to then-assistant coach Dusty May to find out he could join the team. Before anything came to fruition, May left UF to become Florida Atlantic’s head coach. Taylor’s plans fell through. To keep himself active, he spent the year playing rec-league basketball when possible.
The next year, his roommates needed someone for a spot on their intramural flag football team. Taylor loved watching football; he never considered playing. But, he took their offer.
Without knowing, the boy who grew up watching Tim Tebow roll through the college football landscape would be on his way to joining the very team he idolized.
“Once he's hooked on one certain thing, you're really like not gonna get in his way,” Noah Perets, a 21-year-old UF senior studying marketing, and Taylor’s friend said.
Jared John, Taylor’s childhood friend, and now-21-year-old Florida State University student, said college technically wasn’t the first time Taylor tried playing football.
When the two were in seventh grade, John convinced Taylor to join his middle school team. During the first practice, they took their turns against tackling dummies during one of the first drills. They put their hands in the dirt one-by-one, made their best Ndamukong Suh impressions and brought down the dummies. When it was Taylor’s turn, he bounced off the bag.
However, when Taylor started playing intramural football at UF as a sophomore in 2018, it was a different story.
Perets, one of Taylor’s IM teammates, said defenders stood no chance against him.
“You could see that his natural talent would show,” Perets said. “I could miss my throw by about three yards up, three yards left, three yards right, three yards down, and he's gonna come up with it.”
Growing up, Taylor was always the biggest kid in class. Both his parents were athletes, too. His mother played basketball and taught him the sport when he was two years old. His father taught him baseball. The concoction of genes and years on the court laid the foundation for Taylor’s athleticism.
It was Taylor’s intelligence that gave him an edge against the competition, John said.
“He was definitely one of the better players on the floor,” John said. “He wasn’t always the most dominant, but what separated him was his own IQ.”
His flashes of dominance on the gridiron eventually caught the attention of Gators players watching his games. After a game, Taylor said former walk-on Robert Clay walked up to him and asked if Taylor ever thought about playing football.
“Honestly, it never crossed my mind,” Taylor said. “I was just doing this for fun.”
Taylor said Clay encouraged him to try out as a wide receiver or tight end.
That chance encounter coincided with Florida’s upcoming matchup against the visiting LSU Tigers. It was one of the countless games he attended at The Swamp, but this time the atmosphere was infectious. Any doubts about walking on were washed away.
However, Taylor needed to hone his gifts if he wanted to make the change from Gronkowski-like performances against intramural teams to wearing orange and blue for the Gators.
Perets said Taylor’s hands were like bricks when they started training, so he worked with Taylor to improve his route running and catching for three months. Perets said they took turns texting each other three times a week when either got the itched to practice.
So Taylor did as he always does: he worked and blossomed. They practiced running routes 30 to 50 times each practice, paired with drills to improve Taylor's catching.
“It was really good for him to see some sort of live-action out wide and running routes, and using his hands and body position to Moss defenders,” Perets said.
Even with the work he put in to get better, faster, stronger, there was no guarantee he would make the roster the following year. He would be trying out against players who likely had years of experience playing football.
For those close to Taylor, there was little room for doubt.
“You don't just walk onto an SEC football team unless you're Clifford Taylor,” John said.
Taylor was a diehard Gators fan growing up; the kind of kid that would call out fans of rival schools when he’d see them in class, John said. The months he spent practicing came to fruition when he made the team in February 2019. While kids grow up dreaming of playing for their favorite college football team, few ever get the opportunity to make the cut.
“It was like, ‘Okay like, this is real,’” he said. “This wasn’t a dream. This isn't like just a joke anymore. This is like the real deal.”
But storybook endings don’t come without twists.
While he made the team, Taylor couldn’t practice because his class schedule conflicted with Florida’s practices. It wouldn’t be until June that he would get to work with the team officially.
When they were in school together, John said Taylor frequently doodled in his notebook.
Basketball served as an outlet for Taylor; it just wasn’t enough.
So Taylor drew when he could. When he wasn’t, he was playing the piano, drums or trombone. It wasn’t a surprise for anyone passing by his Charlotte home to hear faint sounds of R&B, soul or Earth Wind and Fire from one of Taylor’s instruments.
“If I wasn’t playing sports, I definitely would wanna be a musician or producer,” Taylor said.
When it wasn’t basketball season, he designed graphics for other athletes, a hobby he continued as a Gator. It’s a talent he said was self-taught, and as he refined his art, he realized that graphic design was his passion.
“Once I got to Florida, it shed a whole new light as far as my major goes,” Taylor said.
As social media evolved, so did Taylor.
Around the team, Taylor is known as the “social media guy.” On Twitter, he has more than 1,000 followers. Instagram, more than 52,000. TikTok, more than 180,000. His success on those platforms, where he frequently blends his sense of humor with life as a college football player, comes from a lifetime of expressing himself.
He said he’d received offers to work as an ambassador once his UF career comes to an end.
“My first day on the app, I had about 10, which were close friends, then the next day after my first vid went viral, I already had about 6,000,” he said about his TikTok following. “I thought it was a one-time thing, but I did another, and another and haven’t stopped since.”
Taylor said he gets most of his ideas after practice. He said he treats TikTok like a competition, and when inspiration rears its way in his head, he always wants to produce the video before someone else does. Some videos take five minutes to make, but he said it’s not rare to have one take 20 minutes to write, film, edit and post.
“In this era, social media is almost essential to one's life, and I think being able to have a relatively good platform to share my fun, goofy side is truly a blessing,” Taylor said. “I never in a million years thought I’d be what people call TikTok famous.”
John first met Taylor when the two were in the same sixth-grade class.
A Florida State Seminole fanatic, John walked in on that first day with a shouting Seminole temporarily tattooed on his arm. It wasn’t long until Taylor took notice and asked about the tattoo.
According to John, Taylor said, “This won’t be a good friendship.”
“He's always the center of attention,” he said. “He’s kind of hard not to be around. He’s always a good time to be around.”
But, even with Taylor’s inviting personality, it’s easy for a walk-on to get lost in a roster of more than 80 players.
Taylor, who joined without the clout of a high rating on Rivals or 247Sports, said he was initially intimidated. Quaylin Crum, a walk-on athlete and close friend of Taylor’s, said it wasn’t long until the team embraced the new tight end in the locker room.
Throughout this summer, head coach Dan Mullen repeatedly expressed that each player should use their platforms to amplify their voices. Quarterback Kyle Trask’s tweet in support of the Black Lives Matter movement gained more than 4,000 likes and 600 retweets, Trevon Grimes’ received more than 800 likes and 93 retweets.
While in Gainesville, Taylor attended protests and used every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame and a megaphone to make sure his voice was heard.
But still, he jostled over the idea of using his social media to raise further awareness.
“I used to be intimidated when I use my voice because I figured, ‘Okay, well, if I use it, are they really gonna listen to a walk-on who's never played before?’” Taylor said.
But following an intimate conversation with Mullen, the head coach’s vote of confidence gave Taylor the reassurance that his voice matters.
So, he put himself in the fight for equality.
On Sept. 14, 2014, Taylor and a friend went to a nearby Marshall’s with their allowance burning through their pockets. They walked around and left without purchasing anything. When they walked out to the parking lot, Taylor said two police officers stopped him, and Taylor was told he “fit a description.”
Taylor said he was brought to the ground for around 10 minutes.
“Why aren't you checking my friend?” Taylor said. “Why are you just trying to embarrass me in front of everybody right now? And, a cop looking at me with a straight face literally said, he said, ‘Are you gonna make me say it?’.”
When he was pinned to the ground, Taylor said he fought through waves of emotions as he struggled to understand why he was forced into that position.
“As a kid, you never expect that to happen,” Taylor said.
So he used his presence on social media to leverage his voice. He fought for racial equality; he fought for the rights of college athletes. And as he and the Gators held conversations discussing racial inequality in America, his anxiety disappeared.
“I think the intimidation factor kind of shied away, quite a bit actually after they allowed me to, you know, use my voice,” Taylor said.
But, Taylor’s messages combating racial inequality in America weren’t limited to social media.
Perets said he and Taylor would regularly talk about race in the U.S.
“He knows that there actually is an issue going on because he's lived it firsthand,” Perets said.
Taylor’s schedule is simple.
He wakes up each morning at 5 a.m., eats what he can, and by 6 a.m., he’s lifting weights.
Later, he has a team meeting at 8 a.m., class from 8:45 to 2:30 p.m., another team meeting at 3 p.m., practice starts 45 minutes later, and ends at 5:30 p.m. After, it’s time for homework.
The life of a student-athlete is simple, right?
“I mean, it is a hectic schedule, but it's not as bad as some people portray it,” Taylor said.
Because Taylor loves being a Gator, he relishes the fulfillment that comes with pursuing his passion while living out a childhood fantasy.
While he doesn’t know what the future holds, few can doubt he will make the most of it.
Contact Christian Ortega at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @unofficialchris.