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Saying Uncle

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor credits his success to hare-raising workouts and the man who devised them

As a teenager andhigh school football player in the blue-collar outskirts of New Orleans,Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor didn't have access to cutting-edge workoutequipment or techniques. He and his uncle Herman Francois with whom Taylor wentto live in seventh grade, had to improvise. Most days--summer and schoolyear--Taylor and Francois woke at midnight to work six hours for a janitorialand construction firm run by Taylor's aunt Judy. Around dawn they gatheredwhatever equipment they could find and headed to a nearby field.

Using bricks,flour, ropes, tires--and even a live rabbit--Francois devised a fitness regime.Soon, says Taylor, "I started noticing that in the fourth quarter of games,guys were taking deep breaths, but I felt great. He trained me into who I am,especially mentally. I realized if I could do [Francois's workout], I could doanything."

The speedy,6'1", 191-pound Taylor, now 26, kept that mind-set while on his unlikelypath from walk-on at Louisiana-Lafayette to shut-down NFL cornerback who earnsnearly $6 million a year. While he now employs more conventional trainingmethods, Taylor still feels Francois's impact. After last February's Super Bowlwin they celebrated on the field in Detroit. Says Francois, "I kept saying,'Boy, you didn't have to go to any gym, and it all finally paid off.'"


In place of theweight sleds football players use, Taylor tugged the heaviest thing around: his150-pound uncle. Francois sat on an old tire, and Taylor, attached to the tireby a rope tied around his waist, pulled him down the field as fast as he could,100 yards at a time. "In high school I only weighed about abuck-sixty," says Taylor. "It really worked my whole lower body."Recalls Francois, "Cars would stop and see a guy sitting in a tire with awater bottle and a kid pulling him. The drivers would say, 'What the heck areyou doing?' I'd say, 'I'm trying to get this young man into the best shape ofhis life.'"


Rocky Balboachased a chicken to improve his agility; Taylor turned to an even quickerbeast. "When I was 14 or 15, I saw a rabbit in the woods," recallsTaylor. "I told myself, I bet you can catch one of those. I told my uncleabout it, and he said, 'Let's go.'" Francois began picking up rabbits fromthe local pet shop and releasing them on the fenced-in field, one at a time.Ike would chase them until he couldn't run any more. "The rabbits helpedwith his initial burst," says Francois. "The zigging and zagging alsotaught him to swivel his hips." Says Taylor, who had an AFC-high 24 passesdefended last year, "A rabbit makes sudden moves--when it would cut, Iwould cut. I came close, but I never caught one."


Standing fiveyards apart and each holding a brick, Taylor and Francois would simultaneouslylob the bricks to each other for 20 to 25 minutes without rest. The drillhelped Taylor develop the strength in his hands, wrists and shoulders that heneeds to make arm tackles and also to improve concentration and catchingskills. (He had interceptions in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl lastseason.) Francois says the exercise took the place of a JUGS machine--whichTaylor now jacks up to 40 mph in practice.


Using householdbaking flour instead of the usual spray paint--"I didn't know where to buythe stuff, and I didn't have anything else but the flour," hesays--Francois marked out 30 yards worth of lines, five yards apart. Thechallenge was for Taylor to take long strides and land on each line when doingwind sprints. "I was tall, and he said I ran like I was short," Taylorrecalls. "This helped me to open up my strides, like a track guy." Thetraining yielded dividends: After not being invited to the NFL combine as acollege senior, Taylor stunned scouts by running a 4.18 40-yard dash at a hisschool's pro day and became a surprise fourth-round draft pick.


Photographs by Greg Nelson