Mike Gastineau’s new book Mr. Townsend & the Polish Prince: An American story of race, redemption, and football, written with Joe Purzycki, tells the remarkable story of Joe Purzycki, the first-ever white head football coach at a historically black college, and Nelson Townsend, the athletic director who had the courage to hire him.
In November of 1980, Delaware State College lost a football game to Portland State University by the outrageous score of 105 to 0. In the wake of that loss, athletic director Nelson Townsend decided to hire Joe Purzycki as Del State’s new coach. Purzycki was well-known throughout the state of Delaware.
He had been an all-American football player at the University of Delaware and had won a championship as coach of one of the largest high schools in the state. He was young, charismatic, and in Townsend’s eyes the perfect man for the job.
There was only one problem. He was white.
Delaware State is one of dozens of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in America. No HBCU had ever hired a white head football coach until Townsend hired Purzycki in 1981. The news was not well received.
Students staged angry protests, players boycotted his first meeting, 17 scholarship players quit, Purzycki’s office was vandalized, he received death threats, and the student newspaper derisively nicknamed him “the Polish Prince.”
Townsend and Purzycki stayed loyal to one another through two tough seasons as Purzycki slowly turned Delaware State’s football fortunes around. One of the players who helped was a guy who arrived as a transfer at the start of Purzycki’s second season. He was quiet, maybe even shy, and he was so small that both the coach and the AD were worried that he could handle college football. In this excerpt from the new book “Mr. Townsend & the Polish Prince, they not only find out that he could handle college ball, they even eventually learn his name.
From Chapter 22
Townsend finished his lunch and began walking across campus on a hot afternoon in the summer of 1982. He needed to get back to his office for a meeting with a student who wanted to transfer to Delaware State and play football.
The player and his parents were visiting Dover to check out the campus and meet with Townsend to see what needed to be done. As he got close to his office, he squinted his eyes to make out three people coming from the opposite direction.
“John?” he asked. “Alice? Is that you?”
Indeed, it was. John Taylor and his wife Alice had been Townsend’s classmates at Mary N. Smith High School on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in the 1950s. They exchanged hugs and hellos and laughed the way you do when you unexpectedly bump into someone you haven’t seen for a long time. Eventually, Townsend asked them what they were doing at Delaware State.
“This is my son, JT,” Taylor said. “He’s transferring here this fall and we’re supposed to meet the athletic director and the football coach.”
Townsend laughed at the series of coincidences unfolding in front of him. “I’m the athletic director,” he said as he introduced himself to JT. “Let’s head over to the office and I’ll introduce you to Coach Purzycki.”
His friend’s son was small and as they all talked, Purzycki and Townsend exchanged glances of concern as to whether he was big enough to play college football. He had attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte in 1981 but had been cut from the football team during the preseason, which was another red flag. Still, Purzycki was not in a position to turn away players: He needed all the help he could get.
They returned to Townsend’s office and began the paperwork for JT to become a Hornet. When Nelson asked him why he had decided to transfer he explained that he had become homesick and he thought Del State would be a better fit.
John and Alice Taylor’s son hadn’t even planned to go to college. He got a job driving a truck for a liquor warehouse right out of high school. A few months in, he realized he was hanging around his client’s establishments a little too frequently.
“I need to get out of here,” he told his father, “or I’ll end up no good.” His year in Charlotte with the Golden Bulls had been a bust athletically but he got good grades and was able to transfer into Delaware State. The NCAA ruled him eligible to play in the sixth game of the 1982 season, but he could begin practice immediately.
He had been undersized his whole life and the equipment he was issued at Delaware State hung on his body like a trench coat on a toddler.
“My head was so small that I could almost spin my helmet completely around,” he said. “My shoulder pads were way too big, and my pants sagged the way kids began wearing them in the 1990s.”
The first time he walked onto the field for practice he heard other players laughing at him. They also laughed at Ace Comer who took one look at the new guy and piped up, “Who the hell is this reject?”
Soon enough they found out. Taylor was a quiet, likable guy who showed tremendous ability from the start. “You could tell when he walked on the field that he was something special,” said Steven Holiday.
Assistant coach Walt Tullis decided that the J in JT stood for Jake. And Jake Taylor began working with the Hornets’ scout team during practice.
One day, with Purzycki watching, the scout team ran a play that called for Taylor to run a slant from the left side. He ran the route, caught the pass, put a move on his defender, and sped upfield untouched.
“I come back to the huddle and they called the same play to the other side,” he said. “I did the same thing. Caught the ball, put a move on a guy, and ran away from everybody.”
“I remember his speed was just different,” said safety James Niblack. “He’d get on you and he’d pass you. He was small and quiet off the field. But something happened when he put pads on. He became a different animal and he got stronger and faster. It was like he flipped a switch. He was true to his craft and you could tell he was going places. I remember right away thinking he’d make it to the next level.”
Linebacker Mike Colbert remembered something else about Taylor. After watching the new guy scamper past everyone on the defense, Colbert decided to put a stop to it. On the next play, Taylor caught a pass and Colbert zeroed in on him.
“He was a skinny, scrawny little guy,” said Colbert, who would lead the MEAC in tackles that year. “But he was like running into a brick wall. He was the hardest player I ever tried to tackle. He was a beast out there, he was so strong. He was the best player I ever saw.”
Taylor’s debut as a Hornet came during homecoming against Virginia State. Del State trailed 14-7 in the fourth quarter when he got his chance.
“I came into the huddle,” Taylor said, “and Rod Lester (the quarterback) looked at me and said, ‘we’re gonna run that slant pass you like.’”
Just like he had done with the scout team, Taylor caught the ball, made a move and rolled into the end zone for a touchdown to pull the Hornets to within one with about a minute to play. Suddenly, Purzycki was in position for back-to-back wins for the first time as a college coach and he wanted to go for it.
“I don’t want to tie this game,” he yelled at Billings. “I want to win it. Let’s go for two!” Billings concurred that was the right move.
Purzycki shifted into Dutch Uncle mode: “Now Herky, I need a two-point play … and it better be good.”
“I’ve got a two-point play,” Billings replied. “I don’t know how good it is, but I’ve got one.”
It was good enough to work this time (“Barely,” Billings admitted) and lifted Delaware State to a second consecutive victory and third of the season.
The Wilmington News Journal referred to the hero as “seldom-used freshman Jake Taylor,” which was accurate although to be fair, he had only recently become eligible. The touchdown was his first on offense since his days as a pee-wee football star in the Pennsauken Youth Athletic Association (he had been a defensive back in high school).
He would catch three more passes that season and by the end of the year informed everyone that they had been calling him the wrong name all season. For some reason, Tullis got it in his head that Taylor was named Jake.
“Coach,” he said one day in practice. “My name isn’t Jake. It’s John. I’m John Taylor.”
As in John Taylor, who would go on to spend nine seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, earning two Pro Bowls and three Super Bowl rings, and catch the game-winning pass in Super Bowl XXIII in 1989. THAT John Taylor. The one who would be selected to the NFL’s all-decade team in the 1980s.
Taylor would go on to play four years at Delaware State and establish numerous school records. He still holds the record for receiving yards in a game at the school (223 vs St. Paul’s in 1985) and is third all-time at Delaware State in career receiving yards. Both of those notes are made more remarkable considering Taylor played for a team that ran the Wing-T offense and focused more on running than passing. The two players ahead of him on the all-time list had 201 and 160 receptions in their careers. Taylor rolled up 2426 yards on just 100 career receptions.
Mr. Townsend & the Polish Prince: An American story of race, redemption, and football can be purchased at Amazon.com or requested from your local bookseller.
View the Youtube video of Coach Purzycki talking about the book here.