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On the day after Christmas, Detroit native Darius Taylor Jr. had more than 100 friends and family members watching at the Quick Lane Bowl as he sliced, powered and even cartwheeled his way to 208 rushing yards against Bowling Green.

For Gophers fans, it was another reminder of the true freshman's talent. For Taylor, it was a chance to show how far he's come since leaving for college.

One prominent family member, though, could not be there to see the big homecoming at Ford Field. Darius Sr., the running back's father, was 330 miles away at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich., incarcerated since 2012 for murder.

The younger Taylor is preparing for his sophomore season with the Gophers, returning as the team's leading rusher and a player around which the offense revolves.

He's developing into a vocal leader, too, and he spoke about his family situation in an exclusive interview with the Star Tribune. With his father in prison, Darius Jr. was raised by his aunt, Shanika Dennis, and his paternal grandmother, Carletta Taylor, and he praised both for their tireless work over the past 13 years.

"They really helped me and steered me in the right direction to make the right decisions," he said, "and they still do to this day."

Taylor speaks to his father via phone almost every day, strengthening a bond that endures over a long distance and through difficult circumstances. "He's been really big for me," Taylor says of his father. "I never really lost contact with him, ever."

Darius Sr. cherishes those conversations and draws inspiration from them.

"He means everything to me," Darius Sr. said by phone from the Chippewa prison. "He's my motivation to get out of here. I'm doing everything I can to get out of here."

Darius Taylor Jr. and his father, Darius Sr., at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich. Photo courtesy the Taylor family.
Darius Taylor Jr. and his father, Darius Sr., at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich. Photo courtesy the Taylor family.

Photo: Courtesy of the Taylor family

A difficult beginning

The Darius Taylor Jr. story started in Detroit, a city that in 2022 had a poverty rate of 33.8% and a median household income of $36,500, according to a study by the City of Detroit, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. Detroit's violent crime rate in 2022 was the second highest nationally, trailing only Memphis.

Taylor's mother was 16 when he was born, and his father was 19. Extended family would play a big role in raising him.

In 2009, after a heated argument in Detroit, Darius Sr. exchanged gunfire with the father of his girlfriend's child that left the other man dead. Taylor was 4 years old and in his father's car at the time of the shooting. He said he has no memory of it.

Darius Sr. was a fugitive for two years before being apprehended in Tennessee in 2011. His attorney argued self-defense in his 2012 trial, but he was convicted of second-degree murder and two felony weapons charges and is serving a 32-year sentence. He lost a 2014 appeal, and his earliest potential release date is Aug. 2, 2043, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

With his father in prison, Taylor first lived with his maternal great-grandmother, Bertha Amiker, until she received a terminal cancer diagnosis. His mother wasn't heavily involved in raising him. In stepped his aunt and grandmother on his father's side, who have raised him since he was 6 years old.

"Darius continuing to do well in academics and on the field, that's super impressive," said his aunt, Shanika Dennis. "I didn't even expect all of this. In my mind, I just wanted him to graduate from high school."

Knowing the importance that extracurricular activities play in keeping children from finding trouble, Taylor's aunt got him involved in football and wrestling. By eighth grade, his football talents stood out, and he became a productive wide receiver as a sophomore. A coaching change at Walled Lake Western High School brought in Kory Cioroch and a new position for Taylor: running back.

The transition wasn't smooth at first.

"We butted heads early," Cioroch said. "Like I do with my best players, I pushed Darius to bring out the best. He eventually developed trust in me and the coaching staff."

Taylor responded as a junior by rushing for 1,379 yards and 22 touchdowns. As a senior, he rushed for 2,450 yards and 36 TDs.

"We didn't have anybody to run the ball, so that's when [Cioroch] made the switch," Taylor said. "The rest is really history."

Cioroch helped provide a male presence in Taylor's life, but the coach is quick to credit the work that Dennis put in.

"The job she did taking him in as her own son and raising him in a tough situation is incredible," Cioroch said. "She was very young, but she made sure he was doing the right things."

Darius Taylor Jr., center, with his aunt, Shanika Dennis, left, and grandmother Carletta Taylor.
Darius Taylor Jr., center, with his aunt, Shanika Dennis, left, and grandmother Carletta Taylor.

Photo: Courtesy of the Taylor family

A presence on and off the field

Taylor burst on the scene for the Gophers last fall, rushing for 799 yards despite missing the final five games of the regular season because of a hamstring injury. When he was healthy, he made an impact by averaging 133.2 yards per game. By comparison, the national leader in that category last year, Missouri's Cody Schrader, averaged 125.2 yards over 13 games; Taylor didn't play enough games to qualify.

Darius Sr. watches Gophers games on TV from prison. He beams with pride over his son's quick development.

"He showed that he's a beast and a big dog who can play with the big boys," Darius Sr. said. He was especially impressed with the bowl performance in Detroit. "He was anxious to play because of the injury, and I told him to just go out and show them who you are. Let them know you're here."

With Gophers fans concerned that Taylor could transfer schools, he was quick to announce through the Dinkytown Athletes name, image and likeness (NIL) collective that he'd be returning to Minnesota for the 2024 season.

The 6-foot, 215-pounder is poised for another big year and has spent the spring and summer preparing his body for the wear and tear of the season and becoming familiar with new quarterback Max Brosmer.

A major in Business Marketing Education, Taylor also is working with Minneapolis-based agency Team IFA on NIL deals, which can be a game-changer for athletes who come from less-than-affluent backgrounds. His latest venture is with Slice Brothers Pizza, a Black-owned pizzeria in Minneapolis. Later this summer, Slice Brothers will debut a specialty pie called "DT1″ that features pepperoni, bacon and hot honey drizzle.

Adam Kado, co-owner of Slice Brothers, sees Taylor as a great fit for his restaurant and his goals of being a community partner and working with athletes.

"If I'm going to structure a deal with a kid like him, I'm going to make it as equitable as possible because I can relate," Kado said. "Deals like this are exciting to me. I have a passion for athletes."

For Taylor, the chance to help his family is a priority with NIL deals. He remembers the second job that Shanika took delivering packages to help pay for his football training sessions, and he now has a chance to give back.

"This gives you an opportunity to kind of take care of yourself, and if you're a higher earner, take care of your family, too," Taylor said. "I've been taught by my aunt and my grandmother to build generational wealth. In my community, it's been like a generational curse. Not to call it a curse, but that's just life. … They helped me see a bigger picture."

Gophers running back Darius Taylor, left, meets with Slice Pizza co-owner Adam Kado about a deal at Team IFA headquarters on June 21.
Gophers running back Darius Taylor, left, meets with Slice Pizza co-owner Adam Kado about a deal at Team IFA headquarters on June 21.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Building a family bond

Those looking at Taylor's family dynamics from the outside might think he's had to clear giant obstacles to be where he is now. That's not how he views it.

"There's really nothing I had to overcome," he said. "My grandmother took me in first and really was my rock. She took care of that mother role for me. And I have my uncles and my dad's friends around me and coaches growing up as father figures. I don't feel like I was missing anything."

Taylor also has leaned on his father for advice, be it over the phone or during two- to four-hour visits to the prison a couple of times each year.

"Now that I'm an adult, he's able to talk to me about different things and help me and guide me through certain stuff," Taylor said. "Also, on my end, just teaching him things about the college landscape. He just got his GED and applied for college courses."

While raising Taylor in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield, Dennis wanted to keep him away from situations in Detroit that can quickly deteriorate.

"Her emphasis was just to keep me out of trouble," Taylor said. "It's really easy to get into trouble anywhere, but it's really, really easy to get into trouble in Detroit."

Darius Sr. had advice, too: Control your emotions.

"Something that he really taught me to do was just control myself. Don't be angry," Taylor said. "You can't control the consequences, but you can control the decisions you make."

Along with his passion for football and his schoolwork in business and marketing, Taylor is interested in prison reform.

"The prison system is great, honestly, because it puts away people that have committed heinous crimes," he said. "But I also think that there are some people that are in prison that probably shouldn't be, and I feel that it would be good to help them get out of those situations or get into a program afterward for rehabilitating them back in the world."

That impresses his father.

"He's got a big heart," Darius Sr. said. "He's seen people he's grown up with and me in here since he was 6 years old, so he's trying to help where he can."

In turn, Darius Sr. tries to be as positive an influence as he can be from afar.

"The only thing I can do is talk to him, and I try to talk to him as much as I can. I try to give him an outlook on life," Darius Sr. said. He tells him to work hard. "Anything that he wants to do in life, he can do."