Jonathan Taylor’s interest in studying the universe – and how it works – led him to a unique academic path at Wisconsin
Lori Nickel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist.” – Stephen Hawking
MADISON – The leading rusher in the NCAA doesn’t just break tackles all over the football field. He also dashes off to class. Being a serious student means getting to his seat as early as possible.
“I don’t really like squeezing in. I feel like everyone is looking at you if you’re coming in late: ‘Excuse me, pardon me …’ ” said Jonathan Taylor, the Wisconsin Badgers sophomore running back. “I like getting there early so I can choose my seat.”
Choosing Wisconsin, for many running backs, might be a no-brainer considering the school’s legacy of success at the position. But for Taylor it was a close call. There’s so much more to him than carrying a football for thousands of yards in a season.
There’s the side of him who wants to study everything in the universe.
Harvard wanted him for his honor roll status at Salem (N.J.) High School, not to mention his 2,815 rushing yards his senior season. Taylor visited the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three times and allowed himself to dream of studying to become an astrophysicist there.
He met so many other brilliant minds, diverse in thought and background.
“I never judge a book by its cover anyway but they didn’t seem like they had their noses in the air,” said Taylor of the prestigious university. “I loved the vibe there.”
But there was something about Wisconsin – and chasing two dreams at once – that appealed to Taylor. He could play championship-contending football at a top university without sacrificing the curious student within.
“This was the best balance for me,” said Taylor.
There was just one little glitch. The University of Wisconsin doesn’t offer astrophysics as a major.
Taylor could have become a double major in astronomy and physics, but he was told that might be too rigorous for a Division I athlete. So for now, Taylor is a philosophy major with an impressive 3.3 grade point average.
“Philosophy is the study of, how do we know what we know?” said Taylor. “There’s also the study of reality. Like, what’s real? And there’s also a study of ethics. You study different historians and philosophers. You look at what they studied and learned and try to apply it to today’s world; that’s applied philosophy. You have the philosophy of the mind.”
Alan Sidelle, professor and chair of the Philosophy department at Wisconsin, thinks Taylor’s choice of philosophy complements his interest in physics.
“We often get students in science – like physics – who are interested in the fundamental questions connected with their science, or science in general,” said Sidelle. “With questions like: What is evidence? How are we justified in belief about things we cannot directly experience, like electrons, black holes or dinosaurs? Do there have to be some fundamental physical building blocks? What is a law of nature?”
Taylor has the mind for this kind of stuff. In fact, he said, sometimes it’s tough at night to settle his thoughts in order to sleep. He learned to keep a master schedule of all his assignments and is so disciplined he manages his free time during the football season by splitting it in half; an hour for work, the other half for personal time. He knows it’s going to get tougher, with advanced classes like metaphysics philosophy possibly in his future, but he’ll figure it out.
He’s also had to calm his mind at times when it comes to football. As complex as the game is, with 22 different moving parts on every play, it would be so easy to overthink it.
“Once you realize it you’re like OK, wait a second, I’m thinking about this way too much,” said Taylor. “It’s very simple. I have one job to do. This is all I need to worry about. This is all the coaches need me to do. The other 10 guys are going to do what they’ve been asked to do. So let me just tone it down and do my part.”
Taylor has done his part well for UW this season. Leading the nation in rushing at 165.8 yards per game, he was a first-team pick on all four major All-American teams in the past month. Next week, he’ll be on the field when the Badgers play Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Still, I’d like to cover this bright young man in bubble wrap every Saturday.
With his kind of mind, doesn’t he fear what the violence of football can do to it? Doesn’t he know that CTE is present in the brains of so many deceased football players who have been studied?
Taylor might spend the next few years of his future playing football, but the rest of his life using his brain to make the world a better place.
Yes, he said, he knows all this.
But Taylor, who questions everything in class, has decided not to go too far in questioning the risks of football.
By the time Taylor realized that head injuries were all too common for football players, he knew he was a gifted athlete.
“Once I was really aware of the whole protocol with concussions was junior year, going in to senior year,” said Taylor. “At that time I’m playing my best football in high school.”
As far as Taylor knows, he’s never had a concussion. Maybe a headache when he was a kid, after he got his “bell rung,” he said, but nothing diagnosed.
He vows that if he takes a hit to the head and doesn’t feel right, he will speak up, and sit out, no matter how big the game is. “And the training staff here, they won’t let you play,” said Taylor. “They will make sure you have the proper time to recover.”
All he knows is he won’t stop playing the game at full speed. He said that running fast and hard at all times, even headed out of bounds, prevents him from dropping his guard. He’s heard that helps avoid injury.
Taylor acknowledges there are some plays where he thinks, “That could have been bad.”
All he can do is wear the customized Riddell Precision-Fit helmet provided by the Badgers and forge ahead.
Where to? A run at the Heisman next season? An NFL future? A job in astrophysics one day?
Taylor shakes his head. Those answers will come.
But this much we do know: Jonathan Taylor is set up for a universe of possibilities.
Lori Nickel’s new weekly sports column will delve beyond the play on the field to tell the stories of the athletes, trends and issues Wisconsin fans follow with so much passion. Read more here.