Once-paralyzed player is rapidly climbing political ladder

Mel Evans/2014 AP file photoFormer Penn State football player Adam Taliaferro

Mel Evans/2014 AP file photoFormer Penn State football player Adam Taliaferro

TRENTON, N.J. — Every step used to be a miracle for Adam Taliaferro. Now the onetime Penn State defensive back — whose NFL dreams were ended by a devastating spinal cord injury — is running.

Fifteen years after a hit left him motionless on the Ohio Stadium turf, Taliaferro is one of New Jersey's newest lawmakers, a temporary fill-in who plans to seek a full term in November.

It has been a rapid rise for Taliaferro, an accidental politician whose remarkable story and deep desire to help others put him on the political radar four years ago. First elected as a county freeholder in 2011, Taliaferro was sworn in last week to replace an Assembly member who stepped down.

Taking the oath of office was just the latest in a series of unexpected steps for Taliaferro, who was paralyzed from the neck down in 2000 and given little chance of ever walking again. The injury set him on a path of service instead of Super Bowls.

“It 100 percent changed me,” Taliaferro said. “Before my injury what was important to me was my family but also football — it was my dream to play in the NFL. It really teaches you to appreciate everything.”

It took eight months for Taliaferro to learn to walk again. By then, he'd been inundated with donations intended to help him pay for his care. Instead, he used the money to establish a foundation to give emotional and financial help to people with similar injuries. So far, the Adam Taliaferro Foundation has distributed more than $1 million.

“Everyone that we help I see myself in them,” he said. “My biggest thought is I want everyone to have the same chance of recovery I had.”

It was the foundation that put Taliaferro on Senate President Steve Sweeney's radar. Taliaferro says Sweeney told him he could help more people as an elected official and encouraged him to run for Gloucester County freeholder as a Democrat.

That was the first time he considered elected office, and the “ability to help people with problems” serves as his guiding political philosophy, he said.

In a district with a wide gap between the highest and lowest earners Taliaferro will have his work cut out for him, said his predecessor, Celeste Riley.

“I think he'll do it. He's a hard worker and people like to have an example of what it means to work hard and face adversity,” she said.

Taliaferro, 33, was born in Pittsburgh, but moved to Voorhees, New Jersey, as a child. After attending Eastern High School, he had scholarship offers from 30 universities to play football but the choice came down to Penn State and Tennessee. The decisive factor, he said, was that Penn State was close enough to home for his parents to come watch him play.

Taliaferro was just five games into his true freshman season when he was injured while making a tackle against Ohio State. He remembers thinking he had only hurt his arm when he couldn't lift it after the play, but knew something serious happened when he couldn't move his leg.

Doctors only gave Taliaferro a 3 percent chance of ever walking again, but the immediate medical attention he received on the field and his excellent physical conditioning helped his recovery, he said. Though he would never play football again, Taliaferro graduated from Penn State in 2005 and the Rutgers Camden School of Law. In addition to his blossoming political career, he is a health care policy analyst at Bristol-Myers Squibb — and a Penn State trustee.

Though Taliaferro's political profile has grown quickly, he said he has given little thought to where his new job might lead. Instead, he said he is focused on the task in front of him.

Former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who led the defense during Taliaferro career, saw a student athlete with tremendous potential.

“So smart, you could tell he was mentally ahead of where the other guys were,” said Bradley, now an assistant at West Virginia.

Bradley said he wasn't sure how his and Taliaferro's political views might align — Bradley declined to say where he falls on the political spectrum— but he said he was confident in Taliaferro.

“He'll do the right thing,” Bradley said. “I know him.”

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