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November 28, 2003

Losing Himself to Find Himself


Once he was L. T., the Giants' lethal linebacker and sometime cocaine addict with a dangling "LT" diamond earring. Now he's Lawrence Taylor, actor, author and occasional drug counselor, without the earring.

"I haven't worn that earring in three or four years, maybe five," he said. "L. T. died a long time ago, and I don't miss him at all."

Now 44, Taylor was speaking on his cell phone from Florida, where he has lived since leaving the Honesty House rehabilitation center in Stirling, N.J., in 1998. He is busy doing films, television and memorabilia shows. His autobiography, "LT: Over the Edge" (Harper Collins), written in collaboration with Steve Serby, is now in bookstores.

If it were a movie, it would have an R rating, maybe an X. It reads more like a Playboy magazine than a playbook.

"It's pretty risqué," Taylor said. "As soon as I read it, I called up my ex-wife, Linda. I told her, `Darling, I just want to apologize to you right now because I swear I didn't realize I was that bad.' In the book, I apologize to her, too. If I had been what I am now, we never would have been divorced, but I was young, I was dumb, I was in the biggest candy store in America and I didn't know how to handle it."

This book is Taylor's second. His first, "LT: Living On the Edge," (Times Books), written with David Falkner, appeared in 1987 after the Giants won Super Bowl XXI.

"When they started talking about writing another book," he said, "I had finished drugs, but I still had so many other problems, I wanted to wait until I had an end to the story. Even though I was clean, and I've been clean for over five years, I had no idea what direction my life was taking. It took me a good three years to get rid of those problems. I had the divorce, the paternity suits, the problems with the police. After being on this drug ride or whatever you want to call it, once you're clean, you think things will automatically get better. It doesn't work that way. Whatever you do, at some point in time you have to pay the piper. There's no free ride. You got to pay for everything you do. When it's happening, you hide it, you keep putting it on the back burner, but my back burners were all full. I had no more back burners.

"Once I got clean," he continued, "I remember thinking, `I got sober for this?' But somebody told me: `Take one problem at a time. You can't handle all your problems at once. Take one, knock it down. Another one, knock it down.' That's what I did. I never thought I'd get rid of 'em all. But one case got settled, then another got settled, then another, and it was over. I didn't have to worry about nobody stopping me."

Much of this book is about those problems that eventually got solved, especially his drug problem. Interspersed with the voices of teammates, family and friends, it's a wild story about the wild life of a wild guy, with a sober ending.

"But that guy's not wild now," Taylor said, as if the L. T. of those days were somebody else. "My life now is not the life I could have had. I think with my talent, I could've been on top of the world, but after what I've been through, I'm so grateful to live this life I have now. I'm very thankful for what I'm given every day. To be able to make my choices. If I don't want to do something, I don't got to do it.

"Unless," he added, laughing, "my wife says I got to do it."

His new wife, Maritza, was an extra on the film "Any Given Sunday" when he met her. Tomorrow is their second wedding anniversary.

"She's rough," he said, laughing softly. "You got to be on your p's and q's all the time. You know how women are — they want to be Mrs. Taylor, then all of a sudden they want to be Mr. Taylor."

He lives in the South Beach section of Miami Beach, but he said he is building his dream house. Asked where, Taylor said: "Just say Florida. I don't want any unexpected guests." When he's not working, he is usually playing golf.

"Good things keep happening," he said. "I find a way to keep on keeping on. I've had more chances than I deserve and I've been very fortunate that I've made them work. There's a lot of things I want to do. For every door that's closed, there's another one open. When somebody says, `We don't want to use him because he had this past problem,' guess what? There's somebody who says, `We want to use him because he did have this past problem and he's an inspiration to other people.'

"I was fortunate. Because of all the things I got caught up in, I could've been dead. I could have O.D.'d. I could've got shot. So I'm just so happy and so pleased and so grateful that I was given another chance to be able to say yes or no to a situation when it comes up. To make a choice. I've been to the top; I've been on the bottom. I can't ever fault a guy for getting caught up in drugs because I know how it happens, but I'll always be there to help."

In his new life, Taylor occasionally talks to church groups and individuals with a problem.

"Just last night," he said, "a person I know called me because she has a problem with trying to stop drinking, and boom, I called a support group and told her, `Get on the phone right now and talk to 'em.' If you need help, I'm not going to say what to do, you do what you want to do. But when you stop all the talk, let me know and I'll help you if I can."

Taylor appreciated the people who tried to help him during and after his Giants career, which ended after the 1993 season.

"There's a lot of people who could've helped me, but I wasn't ready," he said. "I was not ready. And if you're not ready, you're not ready. But if you're ready, if you're tired of it, I'll help you."

After his two-month stay at Honesty House in 1998, he sold his home in Upper Saddle River, N.J., and moved to Florida.

"I truly wanted to get away from the stuff," he said. "Everything I knew was in Jersey. I'd been in Jersey since 1981. All my friends in Jersey were either drug dealers, pushers or hookers. I didn't have any friends anymore. I didn't want to see them; I didn't want them to see me. I didn't want them to know what I was doing, and if they was doing what I was doing, I didn't want to be around them.

"In Florida, I've got all new friends. They know the history, but they've never seen the history. They've never seen that side of me, and I don't want to show them that side of me. I would love to say it never happened, but it did. I think it made me a better person to be around now, a more rounded person, a more grounded person because, like I said, L. T. died a long time ago, and I don't miss him at all."

When his Giants career ended, his former coach, Bill Parcells, warned him that he was no longer L. T., that he was just Lawrence Taylor.

"That went in one ear and out the other," Taylor said. "You think you'll always be L. T., you'll always hear people calling, `L. T., L. T., L. T.,' but Bill was right. Don't get me wrong. Lawrence Taylor, every now and then, he might stay up to 10 o'clock. I'm about as tame as it gets. I'm up at 5 o'clock every morning."

When Wellington Mara, 87, the Giants' co-owner, was honored recently at a surprise party for him that Frank Gifford arranged, Mara spoke fondly of Taylor, who was there along with dozens of other former Giants players.

"Nobody did more for me than Wellington Mara," Taylor said. "He didn't have to save me, he didn't have to keep helping me find help. He could've gotten rid of me. He could've said, `I don't need this problem.' And he never lectured me. I could tell he disapproved, but he never told me, `You got to do this, you got to do that.' He'd say, `You know this isn't right?' but he never lectured me. He allowed me to make my own mistakes. I got to respect that. And when he sees me, there's always a smile on his face."

At Taylor's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, his son, T. J., was his presenter; he has three daughters — Whitney, Paula and Tanisha.

"You think about all the things you put your kids through," he said. "The times they didn't want to go to school because they were embarrassed. The times they turned on the TV and their dad had done something. So at the Hall of Fame, when my son said that if he could pick anybody to be his father, he'd still pick me every time, I almost lost it."

On the phone, Lawrence Taylor's voice softened again.

"I've been really, really blessed," he said. "I can't say it any plainer than that. I'm not worthy of being here, but guess what? I am. And I'm working hard to stay here. I don't want to go back that way."

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