Falcons' Taylor Gabriel honors late mother after nearly quitting football

Lindsay H. Jones
USA TODAY Sports
Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel had six TD catches in the regular season, tying for the team lead.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Using permanent ink, writing red letters almost too small to read, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel scribbled the name of his late mother on his cleats.

When he was a child growing up in Mesquite, Texas, Gabriel's mother was the one who pushed him. But when Kimberly Gabriel died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 2006, when Taylor was 15, it nearly made him quit football.

But it was her passion for the sport, and belief she instilled in Gabriel about his abilities, that sent him back to his high school squad after a month away. Now he honors her daily and will do so Sunday, when he’ll play in his first Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

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“She was hard on me. She was more of a dad than a mom when it came to football. She drove me real hard, focused on me getting better and playing through pressure and things like that,” Gabriel told USA TODAY Sports.

"She wasn't the, ‘Oh, you'll be OK,’ type of mom. She was the, ‘Get back out there,’ mom.”

Gabriel knows she would have adored seeing one of her three children on the NFL's greatest stage.

“She loved football. She was a big Tom Brady fan. She liked him because he was efficient, he was a grinder. She loved his story, his background, how he came up,” Gabriel said.

But she certainly would have been proud of her son's own NFL story, from Gabriel's successful tryout with the Cleveland Browns in 2014 to his development into an X-factor with NFL’s most exciting offense this season. Gabriel caught six touchdowns in the regular season and averaged 16.5 yards per catch as he emerged as a nice complement to all-pro Julio Jones. Not bad for a player who was cut by the lowly Browns, for whom he played in 2014 and 2015, after preseason.

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“It was all over the tape, he did a bunch of good things in every facet of the game,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “I thought he had a real good preseason, so we were hoping he’d get let go. And he did, and we were fortunate that not a lot of teams claimed him.”

Shanahan was Cleveland's offensive coordinator in 2014, when Gabriel made the team as an undrafted rookie. He wound up as the Browns’ third-leading receiver that year (36 catches for 621 yards). When he became available in September, his shared history with Shanahan made Gabriel attractive to the Falcons, even if he didn’t fit the ideal physical profile of an NFL receiver.

“I guess (Shanahan) saw I wasn't scared — I wasn't scared to block, I wasn't scared to go in there and put my head down,” Gabriel said. “I think he liked that about me, and I'm glad that he brought me here so I could have this opportunity."

It also helped that he had the type of blazing speed — Gabriel unofficially ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash at his pro day at Abilene Christian in 2014 — that head coach Dan Quinn covets.

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“We saw a guy, you know — number one — he could fly. Doesn’t need a big explanation or be a great evaluator to figure that out,” Quinn said last week.

“But what I can say is we saw the competitor there. And so knowing Kyle, we said, 'OK, how would we feature him? What would we do with him here?'

"And that’s the part for us that we like doing. So we had a clear vision of what he would do.”

At 5-8 and 165 pounds, Gabriel isn’t going to out-muscle many defensive backs. But that speed that was so evident — along with his strong, sure hands and precise route running — it instantly made him a valuable asset, especially when teams devote more attention to Jones.

“I can beat man-to-man coverage. That’s one thing I’ve been good at all year,” he said. “When they try to double Julio, you have to have man-to-man coverage somewhere.”

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Gabriel said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots’ game plan for Jones might leave him with some of those big play opportunities Sunday, exclaiming: “Bill Belichick is crazy, man, you never know what he’s going to do."

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Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones

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