With dozens of players on Murphy High School’s on-campus football field, the most accomplished among them was the only one not suited up on Friday afternoon. Murphy used its annual Blue and Gold spring game as the backdrop for recognizing school alumnus and New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth.
“On this field — a lot of blood, sweat and tears, man,” Stallworth said. “Four years here, it’s crazy. All the guys that I build a relationship, built a bond with, some of my closest friends played together on this same field, so it brings back a lot of memories.”
Stallworth got another when the school declared Friday as Taylor Stallworth Day and presented him with his Panthers’ jersey, in a frame engraved with his accomplishments as an All-State defensive lineman, player in the Alabama-Mississippi High School All-Star Classic, member of the Class of 2014 and “Murphy Panther football great.”
Stallworth wears No. 76 for New Orleans, but the jersey in the frame bore the undefensive-tackle-like number of seven.
“When I first started playing in my 10th grade, I had number 92,” Stallworth said. “My grandma, she was born on Nov. 7, and her favorite number was seven, and my whole life growing up, I played baseball and I had number seven. So I’m like, ‘I’m going to dedicate my senior year to my grandma,’ because she was dealing with cancer, so I switched my number to seven for her.”
After playing for the Panthers, Stallworth went to South Carolina and last season played for the Saints, making the NFL team’s roster as an undrafted rookie.
“I just knew that I just got to stay focused,” Stallworth said of earning a spot with New Orleans as a college free agent. “God’s got the will for this. He put me in that opportunity. He knew what I was going to do with it, so I just had to take it day by day and give it all to God.”
Stallworth said he would give the same advice to any of the Panthers’ players participating in Friday’s spring game.
“Stay focused on your goal,” Stallworth said. “Don’t let nobody say you can’t do this, you can’t do that because there’s so much else you can do in life.”
Murphy football coach Rico Jackson held up Stallworth as proof of that.
“He walked the same hallways that you guys did,” Jackson told the Murphy students gathered in the bleachers. “That just shows you that you can reach your dreams if you work hard enough.”
Jackson is preparing for his first season at Murphy, so he wasn’t Stallworth’s coach with the Panthers. Current St. Luke’s coach Ronn Lee guided Murphy during Stallworth’s seasons with the Panthers.
“We had a few good ones to come through here,” said Lee, who coached Murphy for 10 seasons. “We had a few great ones to come through here. Taylor Stallworth is one of the greatest to come through here.”
Stallworth said the time that he spent at Murphy had a profound impact on his success because of Lee and other coaches and instructors as it established “the connection with the people that you respect and want you to do great in life because some of the closest people that I still talk to still work at this school.”
Brett Tessler, Stallworth’s agent, told the gathering he could see how Murphy High had helped shape his client.
“There’s definitely something special about this guy,” Tessler said of Stallworth. “After having a chance to meet many of you and having had a chance to see where he comes from, it’s no coincidence.”
Stallworth played a reserve role for the Saints in 2018. He played 318 defensive snaps — 31 percent of New Orleans’ total. In 14 regular-season games, he recorded eight tackles, including a sack of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on Nov. 29, and recovered a fumble.
In the Saints’ postseason opener, New Orleans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Stallworth made a career-high three tackles in a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in relief of Rankins. The next week, Stallworth added two tackles in New Orleans’ 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game.
“You never want that to happen to nobody, not even the other team,” Stallworth said of Rankins’ injury. “But when it happened, I know I have to step up now. My role on this team got even bigger now because one of our main players is gone. Really just had to have the next-man-up mentality.”
One year in the NFL has shown Stallworth that he “actually can do more than I thought I could. I’m going to really focus on that this whole year, doing whatever it takes because the sky’s the limit for me, basically, so the things that I need to work on I’m going to work on because I want to be great.”
Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter at @AMarkG1.
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