Thirty-three days after the largest earthquake in 40 years caused a 40-foot surge of water to ravage Sri Lanka, killing more than 6,000 Sri Lankans and demolishing the possessions of many more, Aaron Taylor journeyed to the small island off the southeast coast of India.
"I went there to help people rebuild their lives, and it was much heavier than I anticipated," said Taylor, the Packers' first-round pick in 1994. "I'd never been around that much devastation and loss."
Since retiring from the game, the former offensive lineman has built houses for tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, run with the Bulls in Spain, analyzed college football in front of a national audience, taught English in Peru and Chile and traveled through 13 countries in Europe.
Few would have guessed that a football career including back-to-back sectional title at the high school powerhouse in De La Salle High School in Concord (Calif.), two-time All-America honors at the University of Notre Dame and a Super Bowl title with Green Bay Packers would become the pedestrian part of Taylor's life.
Traveling has become a passion for him since his NFL career ended after the 1999 season with the San Diego Chargers. Ready to embark on a backpacking trip through New Zealand last year, he had a moment of introspection. He decided he could have all the adventure, all the hiking and meet all the interesting friends while also helping the disadvantaged.
"The trip to New Zealand was a self-serving trip, which isn't bad to do, but I've done a lot of that," he said. "I thought after the tsunami why don't I do all things I like about traveling ... and do some good."
When he first arrived in Sri Lanka on January 29, Taylor rented a van and procured a driver and a translator. After finding out from village leaders what goods they needed, he would drive to Colombo, the capital, and deliver food, hygiene products and other supplies -- from crayons to volleyballs -- to those whose homes were destroyed. He estimstes hr contributed $5,000 out of his own pocket.
After networking with some of the other people there, he joined a non-governmental organization called Asiana Education Development. With AED he helped build a temporary school in the northeastern part of the country.
During the last six weeks of his 10-week stay, he built 40 temporary homes in the southern village of Kosgoda. Despite never having constructed more than a birdhouse, he did everything from serve as a de-facto foreman on the construction sites to swing a hammer. He located spots for homes, a challenge considering the shortage of land. He drafted proposals for the houses, met with the government for approval and hired a contractor.
"That was probably the most challenging, overwhelming thing I've ever done in my life," he said of the project.
Taylor said eventually he will return to Sri Lanka, but his next visit will serve as a social call, reconnecting with the friends he made, rather than an altruistic one.
"I'd done as much as I could possibly do and did as much as I was willing to do. There comes a point where people for their own sake -- and my own sake as well -- need to do for themselves," Taylor said. "I did the best thing I could and left it in their hands."
Helping others has become a focus for Taylor during his offseason from ABC's college football studio show. He has set up a non-profit endowment to which he donates his entire ABC salary. He also substitute teaches at Pioneer Elementary School in Escondido, Calif., a suburb of San Diego. A full-time version of that job occupied his life before he landed a dream vocation at ABC.
Teaching second-graders fulfilled him. After ABC told him they wanted to audition him for their signature college football show, a job many spend their entire lifetime striving for, he thought first of his students.
"You're going to have to give me a two or three-day heads up because I'm going to have to find a substitute teacher," he told producers at the network.
Landing the ABC studio job was a stroke of luck. After teaching English to teenagers in Chile and Peru for five months, Taylor served as a studio analyst for College Sports TV in 2003. He admits he accepted the job more so that he could afford to live in New York City rather than to analyze football. In an industry where people step on each other to secure an on-air gig, the TV stations chased Taylor rather than the other way around. He does not even own an audition tape, a staple for any aspiring broadcaster.
"I don't even know how I got this job at ABC," he said. "Everything I was doing was geared toward teaching."
CSTV sent a 10-second clip of one of his studio snippets to the Sports Emmys. To this day, Taylor does not even know which clip, but the footage impressed ABC. When he returned home from school one afternoon, he was shocked to hear a message from a Packers public relations official, saying ABC wanted him to audition for a studio spot to replace Terry Bowden. He assumed an old football buddy was playing a prank on him.
"I thought it was a joke at first," he laughed.
ABC auditioned twelve to fifteen people for the studio analyst. Although Taylor had limited experience, the television executives loved the chemistry and energy he displayed. In June of 2004, he landed the job.
"It's serendipitous how everything came together," he said. "I couldn't have more fun on Saturday afternoons."
During the college football season, he arrives at work at 9 a.m. on Saturday for a 35 to 40-person pre-production meeting with all of the crew, producers, editors and studio analysts. They discuss every eventuality during the broadcast. He then heads to the makeup chair. The newbie on the staff with John Saunders and Craig James, Taylor must head to the makeup chair first. Entering his second the year, he's still the low man on the totem pole.
"They don't make me get doughnuts or coffee, but other than that, I do everything," he joked.
At 11:00, they do a run-through and tape some analysis for later in the day. Once the games start at noon, Taylor and his studio mates try to absorb as much college football action as they can. They watch as many as 10 different games on 10 different televisions. The most challenging part occurs when the halftimes begin. They quickly go from one regional game to another, and keeping the various games straight while concisely analyzing the action becomes difficult.
"It's absolute chaos for about 30 minutes," he said.
The studio analysts repeat the process for the afternoon games, making for a 12 to 15-hour day.
The hectic scene and fast pace is nothing new to a man always on the go. He traveled to Japan two years ago. Next summer Taylor wants to travel to Croatia or Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. He spent July running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain where they gored about 180 people.
He endured a few scrapes but from people -- not bulls. In the same way he used to pancake defensive linemen, the frantically fleeing people toppled Taylor.
"The people are clearly the factor you have got to watch out for," he said.
Despite his exotic trips, he sometimes longs for the midwestern tranquility of Green Bay, where he started 46 regular-season games from 1994 to 1997.
"I miss Green Bay, and I miss the people, and I miss my friends," he said.
He has visited Green Bay about once a year for the last three or four years, attending a Packers game or hunting with a friend who lives in Wausau, Wis. He still talks to several Packers officials and players, including center Mike Flanagan and director of college scouting John Dorsey, a few times a year and has great memories of his time with the Packers.
"I don't know if there's another professional sports franchise that existed while I was playing that felt more like a family," he said.
Taylor played with the Packers for four years and with the Chargers for two more years before retiring from professional football.
His playing days may be over, but his life is just beginning.