For a while, a young Robert Taylor lived with his father in an apartment in Northern California. That was before Keith Taylor had kicked his cocaine habit, before he spent time in and out of jail, before he discovered the work he adores, helping others overcome their addictions.
By the time Robert was 5, it wasn’t clear who was raising whom.
“Robert basically took care of me,” Keith Taylor recalled by phone this week. “Cooked for himself, fed himself, put his clothes on. He was doing laundry.”
That’s how Robert Taylor’s mother, Liz Julien, describes him. She’s not invoking her Asian heritage in any way (Robert is half African American, half Filipino), just using a term anyone might apply to her son.
“Wise beyond his years,” she said.
A senior safety for the 15th-ranked Washington State football team, Robert Taylor uses that “old soul” term sometimes, but not in reference to himself. His thinks fellow defensive backs Jalen Thompson and Deion Singleton are classically old souls. And he admits to some pretty immature moments during his college career, especially at UC Davis a few years ago.
The whole picture is different now, for both father and son.
With two interceptions and two fumble recoveries this season, the undersized but strikingly fast Robert Taylor personifies the “Speed D” mentality that often sets the tone for the Cougars, who take a 6-1 record into a home game against Colorado on Saturday (7:45 p.m., ESPN).
Last summer, dismayed by the Wazzu secondary’s lack of unifying identity in 2016, Taylor invited his fellow defensive backs to his home and nominated a nickname for the group, “Hot Boys,” in honor of a 1990s rap group. They liked it. Now the Hot Boys are a prime reason the Cougars lead the Pac-12 in pass defense.
For Taylor, maybe old-school rap evokes the bachelor pad he shared as a youngster with his father in South Lake Tahoe, where Keith Taylor had moved to escape a turbulent past in Oakland, Calif. It was a phase of their lives that ended abruptly when Keith Taylor was arrested for drug possession and Robert, aged 6, went to live with his mother in the California Bay Area.
She had moved there after ending her relationship with Robert’s father, but she had remained a big part of her son’s life. Now she raised him as a single parent for a few years before marrying Jarmar Julien, a former San Jose State running back who’d spent some time with Kansas City Chiefs.
The football education Robert Taylor received from his step-father helps explain the self-assurance he displays for the Cougars, despite a peripatetic playing career that included stops at four Bay Area high schools and three colleges.
He found his footing after transferring from UC Davis to City College of San Francisco, where he thrived as a sophomore before heading to WSU in 2016. He’s on target to graduate this school year in general studies, with an emphasis on communication, after which he'll pursue a career in football – first playing, then coaching.
That’s one reason he’s feeling good about things now. Another is the recovery his father has made.
The final of Keith Taylor’s jail terms for drug possession lasted an entire year and freed him from a cocaine addiction that had gripped him for perhaps two decades, at one point pushing him to the edge of homelessness.
Upon his release from jail 14 years ago, he underwent three years of treatment through a mental-health program with El Dorado County Mental Health. Now he gladly works for that agency as an “intensive case manager,” helping patients put their lives back together.
“I was able to get a job, work on my health, find a home, find a car, spend time with my family,” said Keith Taylor, 53, who has six adult children, all of whom are doing well. “I support my kids and grandkids any way I can. I’m not trying to make up for my absence (in their lives). I’m just trying to be there for them now. Because I know I can never make that up.”
His familiarity with police, the judicial system, incarceration and, of course, drug addiction all come in handy in his work.
“I love this place,” he said, maintaining a tone of frank humility that he believes has been crucial to his recovery. “I’m dedicated to this place. I’m grateful they hired me, gave me this opportunity to save my life. My life is to help others out. That’s my reward – to see people recover.”
When his father was in jail, Robert Taylor felt his absence all the more keenly for their closeness during his early years. If he’s resentful about the rupture, he doesn’t express it.
“I felt like it made me a stronger person,” he said recently. “And it definitely built some character, not having him there for a bit of my life. It helped my mom and me build a closer relationship.”
Liz Julien also works in the mental-health field, as vice president for human resources for Felton Institute in San Francisco. She and five siblings grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic, academic-minded Filipino-American family in the Bay Area.
Her father, who was in the military, died 12 years ago but her mother lives with the Juliens these days and is a part of Robert Taylor’s life. Liz Julien wishes she had taught Robert their native language, Tagalog, so he can always understand what Grandma says. Maybe someday. But there’s no lack of communication between mother and son.
“My mom – that’s my best friend,” Robert Taylor said. “I talk to her about everything.”
When Keith Taylor was sent to jail the first time, his ex-wife decided not to cut him off from her only child’s life.
“Rob always knew where Keith was,” Liz Julien said by phone. “I never tried to sever their relationship. But I did tell Keith, ‘You have to get yourself better. You have to get yourself together for you to be able to be a part of Robert’s life. Otherwise you can’t.’ I always made sure Robert knew who his father is.”
That’s important to Keith Taylor, who grew up in hardscrabble East Oakland and is trying to break a family chain of turmoil and negligence. His relationship with his own father was off-and-on.
“When I got into recovery and started working Steps – 12 Step meetings – I started learning about myself,” he said. “For a lot of years, I had a lot of resentment, growing up in Oakland, watching fights and domestic violence, watching OD’s, watching people sell drugs. Police coming by, picking people up and taking them away. That was my upbringing. That was all I knew.”
A tattoo on Robert Taylor’s chest, bearing the words, “Against All Odds,” alludes partly to the challenges stemming from his father’s ordeal, and partly to his own football journey – for example, his relative lack of size at 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, and an initial lack of attention from college recruiters. In elementary school he was told he had anger-management issues, and to this day he’s clearly got a chip on his shoulder. He embraces the nastiness of football, particularly on defense, and expresses it in surprisingly frank language.
Superimposed on all these things is something else.
“I do know Rob’s an old soul,” his mother said. “He knows a lot of old music. His approach to life is kind of oldish as well. Even his approach to women is old-soul,” she said, meaning courtly, gentlemanly.
“I think that’s one of the things that stands out with Robert. That’s why he’s looked up to as a leader too, because of his maturity. His old soul kind of resonates.”
Maybe it started resonating at that bachelor pad in South Lake Tahoe, as his father was battling his addiction. It would be years before Keith Taylor would truly break the oppressive chain he’d felt in East Oakland. But it finally happened.
“I’m just blessed that my kids are a part of my life,” he said.