The straightest line between the points of Mesquite, Texas, and NRG Stadium in Houston is 250 miles. Taylor Gabriel (’15) took the scenic route.
Barely three years since completing his record-setting career at Abilene Christian University, Gabriel will be the latest Wildcat player to reach the Super Bowl when his Atlanta Falcons take on the New England Patriots Sunday in Houston. He follows former ACU greats Clint Longley (Cowboys, 1976), Wilbert Montgomery (Eagles, 1981), Cle Montgomery (Raiders, 1984), Dan Remsberg (Broncos, 1987) and Danieal Manning (Bears, 2007) into the NFL’s championship game.
Gabriel was a three-sport standout, playing basketball and running track, at Mesquite’s John Horn High School where he became all too familiar with adversity. When he was 16, his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Playing with her as his inspiration, Gabriel enrolled at ACU when the program was still NCAA Division II and left after the university’s first year in Division I as one of the finest receivers in school history. On Oct. 26, 2013, against New Mexico State University, Gabriel set the single-game record with 15 catches. He ranks second all-time in receptions (215), receiving yards (3,027) and touchdown catches (27); fifth in all-purpose yards (3,880); and, when you add his two rushing and two punt return touchdowns, sixth in total TDs (31). He also threw a touchdown pass for good measure.
Working out for NFL team scouts at ACU’s Wally Bullington Practice Facility before the 2014 draft, both Gabriel and teammate Charcandrick West (’16) ran a wind-aided but no less blinding 4.27 40-yard dash. At just 5’8”, the diminutive speedster was simply hoping for a chance.
“I know I’m a little guy,” Gabriel acknowledged that day, “but I’m gonna go out there and fight, claw, bite somebody if I have to.”
His own size and that of his alma mater may have conspired against Gabriel on draft day. His name was never called. But two days later, he signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns and, against the odds, made the team’s opening day roster. (West would latch on as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs and square off against his fellow Wildcat twice in the next three seasons.)
As a rookie, Gabriel caught 36 passes, including a touchdown, and incredibly led the AFC with 17.3 yards per catch. He wound up having a better first year than the Browns’ most celebrated signee, Texas A&M University’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Gabriel’s numbers dropped slightly in 2015 as his team slogged through a 3-13 season, due largely to poor play by Cleveland’s three quarterbacks. The biggest highlight for one of the fastest Wildcats ever may have been when he walked: Gabriel completed his coursework online during the offseason and graduated from ACU.
Despite the promise he showed in his first two NFL seasons, the Browns, mired in mediocrity and in the midst of yet another head coaching change, cut Gabriel just before the first game of 2016. Within hours, he had signed with the Falcons whose offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, had coached Gabriel during his rookie season in Cleveland. After sitting out the first week while adjusting to his new team, Gabriel gradually became a key cog in the Falcons’ offense. Beginning with a 33-32 victory over Green Bay Oct. 30, he scored seven touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing) in a seven-week span and emerged as an internet sensation (#TurboTaylor) with one dazzling play after another. And the more Gabriel played, the better the Falcons did. Atlanta went 11-1 when he caught at least two passes. (His new team seized upon his success and even took to Twitter with a knife-twisting mock, thanks to his old one for letting him go.)
Atlanta won its division and secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed, which earned them a spot in the second round of the playoffs where they defeated the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. After the game, a video of the locker room celebration went viral with Gabriel in his No. 18 jersey front and center with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who (by the looks of his moves) may have, like the former Wildcat, also attended a college that prohibited dancing. In the NFC Championship game the next week, Atlanta again defeated Green Bay, this time in a rout, 44-21, to earn the franchise’s second ever trip to the Super Bowl.
Sunday, scores of ACU alumni and fans will wave their pom poms for Gabriel – most figuratively but at least one literally. His high school and college classmate Cassie Brooks (’14) is a former Wildcat track and field athlete and now an Atlanta Falcons cheerleader.
Gabriel can join Cle Montgomery as the only ACU alum to play on a Super Bowl champion, and Atlanta can claim its first NFL title. They’ve made it this far in no small measure because Gabriel keeps coming up big.
The Wildcat-turned-Falcon is still clawing.