Even now, 20 years later, there are times when Adam Taliaferro wonders what might have become of his life if not for the injury.
He wonders if he would have made the NFL.
He wonders if he would have become a lawyer.
He wonders if he would have become a politician.
He wonders and sometimes he gets wistful – especially about playing in the NFL, his dream since he was 7 years old – and then he walks into the hospital room of a patient who is rehabilitating from a spinal-cord injury.
Or he speaks to a group of schoolchildren. Or he cuts through bureaucratic red tape and makes a real difference for one of his constituents.
Then he doesn’t wonder anymore.
“It brings a smile to my face,” Taliaferro said. “No longer is it a frown when I think about my injury. It makes me smile because I know how many people we’ve helped.”
It will be 20 years ago on Sept. 23 when Taliaferro, then a freshman cornerback for the Penn State football team, suffered the injury in a game at Ohio State that changed his life in ways he never could have imagined.
It will be 20 years ago since he underwent emergency surgery, was airlifted back to Philadelphia, began the rehabilitation process, and was told by doctors that there was a 3% chance that he would walk again.
A little less than a year later, on Sept. 1, 2001 – 10 days before 9/11 – Taliaferro wore his blue No. 43 jersey and led the Penn State football team on the field for the season opener and just kept walking into an improbably rich and rewarding future.
The NFL dream never came true. But Taliaferro earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and his law-school degree from Rutgers Camden.
He became a pharmaceutical representative, a tireless advocate for patients. He married his wife, Erin, and became the father of Cruz, 4, and Chloe, 2. He became a politician, now serving as a New Jersey state Assemblyman.
And he watched as his namesake organization, the Adam Taliaferro Foundation – created to arrange for life-long care for him – became a beacon of hope and a source of financial, logistical, and emotional support for dozens of people who have suffered spinal-cord injuries and their families.
“I tell people all the time, I really believe that the injury was horrible but everything that came out of it was a blessing,” Taliaferro said. “The foundation alone wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this injury.”
The 20th anniversary gala for the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, originally set for March 27, has been postponed by the coronavirus outbreak. Officials hope to reschedule the event for the fall.
Taliaferro credits the board of his foundation, headed by president Tom Iacovone, for the successful execution of its mission.
“I’m just the namesake,” Taliaferro said. “I’m surrounded by so many great people.”
Taliaferro is the guy who regularly visits patients such as Jaden Leiby, the star quarterback for North Schuylkill High who suffered a neck injury in November and continues to undergo treatment at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.
“Adam has been a huge inspiration to me since the day I met him,” the 18-year-old Leiby said via text. “Aside from our injuries, I feel we are a lot alike as people, we would do just about anything for anyone, and we both love and cherish the game of football despite what happened to us.
“Adam will always be a huge part of my life. I’ve never met a better man.”
Penn State coach James Franklin said the football program likely will honor Taliaferro at a game, either this season or perhaps in 2021, which would mark the 20-year anniversary of his near-miraculous emergence from the stadium tunnel before 110,000 cheering spectators.
“Adam is an inspiration for all of us,” Franklin said in a phone interview. “What happened to him was tragic. But the way he handled it, and the way he has used his platform, has been fantastic.
“He means so much to the Penn State family.”
Sitting in a diner in his home district in Gloucester County, Taliaferro marvels at the twists and turns of his journey since he approached Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks and prepared to make that tackle.
At Eastern High in Voorhees, Taliaferro was one of the best football players in South Jersey history. He scored 66 touchdowns in two seasons as a running back, and excelled as a defensive back as well.
He was a rare true freshman to crack the starting lineup under late coach Joe Paterno, who was famously reluctant to place his trust in rookies.
“From the age of 7, my dream was to play in the NFL,” the 38-year-old Taliaferro said. “That’s all I wanted to do. I never envisioned doing anything else outside of playing football.
“When I got to Penn State, I thought it was going to be reality. I thought I was going to play there for three or four years and go to the NFL.
“That dream was taken away. I’d be lying if I did say that even after 20 years, I still don’t think about what it would be like.”
Taliaferro said he harbored some bitterness after the injury.
“It took me a while,” he said. “For the first five years after my injury, I was like, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’
“My dream was to play in the NFL, and you see your teammates and people you know playing in the NFL and you think, ‘That could have been me.’ ”
Franklin said Taliaferro is inspirational because he turned a devastating development into a positive outcome for himself and others.
“It’s a lesson for all of us,” Franklin said. “There’s often opportunity in adversity, just depending on how we want to deal with it. Adam is such a great example of that.”
Taliaferro said it took time to realize he could leverage his own misfortune to help others. But he said he had plenty of early inspiration from family and friends, from the people who rallied around him to create his foundation, and from the “angels” at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
“It took my injury for me to really see the good in people,” Taliaferro said. “I used to just be focused on myself, my life, my dreams. But when you have a therapist that you never met in your life working so hard to try to help you through the toughest of times, it inspires you to want to do more.”
Taliaferro said he became a politician because of his experiences after his injury.
“I realized I was given this gift of people who cared about me so much, who helped me so much,” Taliaferro said. “I knew I should try to pass it along and help others the way I was helped.
“That’s how I look at public service, trying to help people in my own little way. That all came through my injury.”
While Taliaferro still sometimes thinks about the NFL career he might have had, it’s not for long because there’s always an email from somebody at the foundation, or a call from a constituent, or a smile from a patient in a rehabilitation facility, or a tender moment with his wife and children.
“I’m at peace,” he said. “I wouldn’t have met my wife if it wasn’t for this injury. I wouldn’t have my kids. I wouldn’t have been able to join with all these great people and help so many other people.