Wheelchair-Bound Baseball Star Learns First Hand About Fair Housing
Johnathan Taylor looks forward to the day that he can get one more at-bat. The former University of Georgia (UGA) baseball star realizes he must first walk, but believes that will come in time with more rehabilitation.
“I’m going to keep pushing,” he said. “I’ll always see myself walking again. Never back down.”
Regaining his ability to walk may seem like a big hurdle for the 24-year-old who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2011 game against Florida State University. Doctors were not encouraged that he’d fully recover from breaking his neck in the devastating outfield collision that changed his life.
And while Taylor maintains hope, each day brings its own set of challenges for the kid from North Cobb High School who was a threat on the base paths. Maneuvering his wheelchair over a large crack in the sidewalk or the high threshold of a door can be difficult. So, too, can bathing in a bathroom that isn’t very wide and doesn’t have a roll-in shower.
Studying Residential Property Management at UGA
Taylor can relate to the frustrations of disabled men and women who live where space isn’t at a premium in some apartments and rental homes. He has the unique perspective of being on both sides of the field, as a resident who needs accommodations and understanding how Fair Housing laws should be applied by the multifamily housing industry.
Two years before his injury, Taylor developed a keen interest in apartments while studying residential property management at UGA while pursuing a consumer economics degree. His interest piqued as a sophomore in 2009 when he studied how the Fair Housing Act applies to landlords who must make accommodations for the disabled.
“I was just amazed by it,” he said in May. “My biggest takeaway was the Fair Housing law, and the certain rules that landlords must abide by when trying to make accommodations with (disabled) residents.”
Little did he know that one day he would have to ask the landlord for accommodations at the rental home that he shares with his mother and grandmother.
Fair Housing Never A Concern On the Field
Taylor’s interest in Fair Housing laws was mostly left in the classroom when it was time to suit up for the Bulldogs baseball team. On the field, he moved effortlessly with fleeted feet and stole 60 bases his junior and senior high school seasons. After earning a scholarship at UGA, Taylor spent the next two years swiping base after base – 36 in all, which ranks seventh in school history.
Major league scouts congregated at Bulldog games and took notes. He was destined for a pro career, and hoped one day to be considered in the same class as his childhood idol, Hall of Famer and Major League stolen base record holder Rickey Henderson. The Texas Rangers were planning to draft the center fielder after his junior season.
But the road to the “Show” took a detour in the third inning against Florida State University in Athens, Ga. Scouts were again on hand and watched as Taylor and teammate Zach Cone, two of the Southeastern Conference’s fastest outfielders, collided chasing a sinking line drive.
Both dove for the ball, and Taylor’s head slammed into Cone’s hip. Taylor injured the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae in his neck, and Cone, who had streaked from left field and caught the ball, suffered a concussion. Both lay motionless, silencing the crowd.
Taylor was rushed by ambulance to St. Mary’s Hospital while Cone walked off under his own power. The next day, surgeons stabilized Taylor’s spine, which fortunately was not severed. Six days later he began therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and started a long road to regaining his upper body strength so that he could manage a wheelchair.
He made quick work of his rehabilitation program. Within three weeks, he graduated from in-patient care to the “Day Program” at Shepherd Center.
Fair Housing Coursework Helps Make a Difference at Home
After a few weeks of day therapy, Taylor itched to get back to his coursework so he wouldn’t be behind. His mother asked Professor Dr. Debbie Phillips to help her son stay on top of his residential property management homework while continuing his rehab. She eagerly went to bat for Taylor, funneling assignments to him so he could keep pace.
Phillips, who has been teaching at UGA since 2004, is a 25-year veteran of apartment industry education and helped develop UGA’s residential property management program. In the last 10 years, the program has grown around her with a rich stable of lecturers that includes Fair Housing expert Nadeen Green. A widely known author and speaker in the apartment industry, Green has been a favorite lecturer among students, says Phillips.
Under Phillips’ watch, Taylor immediately focused on the design and construction components as they relate to Fair Housing accommodations. The rental home that he, his mother and grandmother lived in would have to be modified for accessibility or they would have to find a new place to live.
After working with the landlord, the necessary accommodations were made and the family stayed. Hardwood floors replaced carpet in the house and bathrooms were made accessible. The shower was enlarged so he can roll in his wheelchair.
“Everything is smooth,” Taylor said. “It’s good.”
Phillips grew especially close to Taylor while helping him stay in stride. She was most impressed with Taylor’s drive to get back in the classroom and make the most of his disability.
“This speaks to the character of this individual,” she said. “I can’t help but get happy tears when I see firsthand what people can achieve when they set their mind to something.”
In a list of students over the past 10 years that tops more than 7,000, Taylor stands out among most, she says. She often points to his relentless work ethic when other students aren’t living up to their potential.
“Johnathan has taught me courage, strength, tenacity and most of all, leading by example,” she said. “When some of my other students at times want to cut a corner or use an excuse for not doing their best on an assignment, I pull out J.T.’s picture. I can tell them that excuses aren’t what makes champions, and that they have J.T. as an excellent example of a champion.”
Getting to Know Residents and Doing Something “Special” is Critical
Taylor is shy by nature as he prefers to walk the walk rather than talk the talk. Throughout his baseball clear, he led by example, and the numbers speak to that. At UGA, he posted a career batting average of .312 in 117 games. As a senior as North Cobb, he led the team to the 5A state final four while batting .378.
He doesn’t, however, hesitate to talk about how his life took an unexpected turn that spring day as two southeastern rivals battled. He’s spoken openly about the “incident” and accepts what happened while maintaining a competitive edge. In a 2012 interview with Sports Illustrated, he was asked if wanted to see the video of the collision, but declined because he already knew what happened. “We did hang on to the ball, you know?” he told the writer.
Communication, Taylor says, is nothing to keep quiet and is critical at the property level with residents, whether disabled or not, and prospective residents in the community. That’s how, he says, you get to know their stories and best provide services.
“You go out there and spread the word about your community and get more residents to come in,” he said. “And when they come to visit, you want to sell them because you do something special than the other apartment communities. Before that potential resident leaves, give them something special that other properties can’t offer.”
At UGA, he got a taste of working with apartment staff and residents and performed shopping reports. He and fellow students observed how employees worked through issues in their communities, and they made phone calls to apartments to measure the customer experience. He also gave tours and showed prospects amenities like the pool, tennis courts and clubhouse.
Taylor came away with a true appreciation for residential property management, and credits the work of Phillips, who often visited him while rehabbing at the Shepherd Center.
“I feel like more students should take this course,” he said. “People don’t understand what’s going on in the residential property world. They need to get a good understanding of it.”
And properties should be diligent about making accommodations, right down to fixing the cracks in sidewalks.
“Rough sidewalks are very hard for somebody in a wheelchair to roll around and be accessible,” Taylor said. “Keep those sidewalks smooth. And build more units with roll-in showers. Some people have a hard time transferring into a shower because of upper body strength.”
Keep a Good Attitude and Don’t Back Down
Taylor graduated from UGA with his consumer economics degree last fall and is considering going back to school. He has since turned his focus to financial planning, which is offered along with consumer economics and housing curriculum in Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and started an internship with a private company to study life insurance.
He doesn’t rule out that his thirst for working with people could one day open a door in the multifamily industry.
“My passion is the love for the community and interacting with the regulars,” he said. “Every day, the (employees) have to do a good job of keeping a good attitude and be able to communicate. In order to keep your business going you have to be comfortable and build relationships with residents.”
Taylor maintains that positive attitude in hopes that he’ll one day be back in the batter’s box for the Rangers, who drafted him two months after the injury in the 33rd round. He realizes the road ahead is a long haul filled with processes, much like those he’s learned in residential property management, and he has to continue to apply himself.
He works out at a nearby gym and now is able to stand with the use of a machine. He’ll keep pressing forward and seize whatever opportunities lay ahead.
“I’m blessed to be here,” he says. And you can bet he won’t back down.
(Images used with permission from Johnathan Taylor and Debbie Phillips)