Taylor Moton hit his knees and pounded the ground with both fists after the final snap, the reality of the situation sinking in as the dying seconds ticked off the play clock at Ford Field.
Western Michigan University had won the Mid-American Conference championship, besting Ohio 29-23, and capping a 13-0 season. A crowd of 45,000-plus brown-and-gold-clad fans were at full throat in downtown Detroit.
The Okemos High School grad panned the crowd, embracing the moment. His 6-foot-5, 328-pound frame was still. Sweat and tears ran down his face. His new MAC Champions hat, already dark grey after a hard day’s work, clung to his shaved head.
He was looking for his parents. Then his eyes moved toward the rafters.
“He’d be very proud right now,” Moton said, pointing toward the sky. He was talking about his late grandfather, Thomas Gunnings.
And, then talking to him, “This is for you.”
During Moton’s redshirt freshman season in 2013, the Broncos floundered to a 1-11 record. Many of his friends and teammates left the program. He was a phone call away from leaving himself.
This was his reward for staying.
His mother, Sonya Gunnings-Husband, leaned over the railing in Section 127 behind the Broncos’ bench, hugging and congratulating Western Michigan players and coaches as they greeted the crowd. She was waiting for the arrival of No. 72.
►Related: WMU senior, Okemos grad Moton tabbed first team All-MAC
Mom and son locked eyes. He extended a taped up, gloved hand up to his mom.
“I’ve been bawling like a baby,” she said from the bleachers. “I am so proud of you.”
(Story continues below the photo)
Playing for him
Thomas Gunnings was larger than life to a lot of people in mid-Michigan. He was an esteemed psychologist, activist and educator, the first African American faculty member in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University. His obituary called him a “Spartan legend.”
Gunnings passed away unexpectedly in August 2010, just after Moton’s 16th birthday.
His grandfather was proud of a lot of accomplishments in his life, but there was no greater source of pride than his grandson.
“My dad worshipped the ground Taylor walked on,” Gunnings-Husband said. “He always called him the ‘brilliant big man.’ Dad would be out of his mind right now. He would be his No. 1 fan.”
Moton thinks of his grandfather often.
“He is the reason I got into football in the first place,” he said. “He was like a father to me. I saw him every day, and he was a giant part of my life. He never missed a game.”
Moton’s biological father died when he was 4. His mother married Delbert Husband, who made a seamless transition into the family. Gunnings-Husband said she and her son needed a hero, and they got that and more.
►Related: Your Cotton Bowl ticket to see Western Michigan costs less than a beer
Husband became the main male figure in Moton’s life.
“I don’t consider him a stepdad,” Moton said. “He has always been there for me. I am blessed to have him in my life.”
For Taylor, his grandfather’s passing couldn’t have come at a worse time. After a standout junior season at Okemos High School, the recruiters were calling.
It was almost time to make a decision.
Becoming a Bronco
Before there was boat rowing, a Cotton Bowl berth, College Game Day and a rock star head coach, Western Michigan was a middle-of-the-pack team that mostly toiled in mediocrity for the last couple decades.
In high school, Moton dreamed of playing college football in one place — East Lansing. The University of Michigan sent some recruitment letters, but his mom, an assistant dean in MSU’s College of Education, joked that she wanted nothing to do with U-M.
During his senior season in 2012, Moton helped lead Okemos to the district playoffs for the first time in 25 years. He was named to the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association All-Star team. He was also named Lansing State Journal’s “Athlete of the Year.”
“Taylor is a special young man, and we all knew that,” said Paul Palmer, Moton’s head coach at Okemos. “I knew Taylor’s best days were to come. He was raw but had tremendous talent.”
Surely, Sparty would come calling.
But Western was the first school to seek Moton’s services. Then came offers from MAC rivals Ball State, Bowling Green and Central Michigan, where his brother Jason Husband played.
►Related: Western Michigan Broncos bound for Cotton Bowl Classic
Big Ten schools Indiana and Minnesota came into the picture late, and MSU finally offered him a preferred walk-on opportunity. It came without a scholarship.
“I didn’t see the point in doing that,” Moton said.
Neither did his mom.
“I wanted my son to go where he is wanted, believed in, and a place that would develop his talents,” she said. “I tell him all the time that you have to love who loves you back. It was a disappointment to not go to MSU, but it was very short lived.”
The decision came down to Western and Indiana University, Palmer said. On the way back from a trip to Bloomington, Moton received a phone call. Indiana wanted him.
But Western had been the first school to make an offer. Western stuck it out with him during the recruiting process. Now, it was his turn to commit to them.
After redshirting his freshman year, Moton was slated to become a starter on the Broncos’ offensive line. But during the offseason, the school fired head coach Bill Cubit and replaced him with PJ Fleck, an NFL receivers coach who cut had his teeth coaching in the MAC at his alma mater, Northern Illinois.
In Fleck’s first season, Moton started all 12 games on the line, but the wins weren’t coming. Western lost its first eight games en route to a one-win season.
His teammates were leaving in droves. Moton wondered if 2013 should be his last year, too.
“There was definitely a time when I wanted to give up, quit and move on to do something else with my life,” Moton said.
He discussed options with his parents. He spent a few sleepless nights.
And he started to get a good feeling about his new fiery, enthusiastic head coach. It didn’t hurt that he was getting plenty of playing time.
“Toward the end of the offseason, I just told myself how good we could be and to trust the process,” he said. “I thought, things are only going to get better. I just put my trust in coach Fleck.”
Sitting in a jam packed hotel lobby in downtown Detroit before the game last week, Moton’s parents were trying to wrap their heads around the turnaround in Kalamazoo. Every other person that passed the couple said “row the boat” or “Go Broncos.”
They remember paltry crowds at home games and lopsided losses.
“It’s really thrilling,” Gunnings-Husband said. “To keep with the Bronco theme, I can’t believe it’s his last rodeo.”
“I love that I have been able to watch this happen,” he said. “These are the highlights of his life.”
Rowing the boat
In his postgame press conference deep inside the bowels of Ford Field, an elated Fleck was adamant about one thing – this team was a special one.
“They kept their oars in the water,” he said.
“Row the Boat” has been the Broncos’ mantra since Fleck arrived.
“Those who stay will be champions,” Fleck said, quoting the late U-M coach Bo Schembechler from the podium.
Moton, quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Michael Henry are the only players who remain from that 2012 recruiting class. And they are now indeed champions. It’s still a surreal thought for Moton.
“These are the best friends I have ever had,” he said during the postgame celebration last week. “I have never won a championship before.”
When Moton lines up against Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 2, he will be the new “iron man” of Western Michigan football. It will be his 52nd straight start, the most in the program’s 110-year history.
There is also another reason for the senior to celebrate – the clock will start ticking on the NFL Draft.
A recent article from 247sports.com calls Moton “elite” and says that he could be the highest drafted offensive lineman in school history. NFLdraftscout.com ranks Moton as the sixth-best tackle in the nation. His draft stock could rise more after playing in the annual Senior Bowl Jan. 28 in Mobile, Alabama.
Palmer, who was the coach at Okemos from 1990 to 2011, said Moton is taking all the hype in stride.
“I think Taylor’s thoughts right now are to play in the Cotton Bowl,” Palmer said. “After that, it’s one step at a time. The opportunity is there and someone will be very fortunate to draft him. Taylor is a very grounded young man, so he is going to do it the right way.”
Moton admitted he has been hearing the outside noise, but his focus is on his current team and the goals that are still within reach. He said he would stress himself out if he put too much weight into the draft.
His family, on the other hand, is enjoying the experience.
“His mom will text me and say ‘did you see where that website ranked him?’” Husband laughed.
And believe it or not, she wasn’t buying the hype early on, he said.
“I believed the NFL was always a legit possibility. She didn’t,” he said, pointing to her and smiling. “He has the determination to finish and be the best. Plus, his body just blew up, too. Taylor has got it in him.”
Gunnings-Husband just wants her son to be happy and successful. Moton has already earned his bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan and is working on an MBA in accounting. She takes great pride that her son is a college graduate, the rest, well, that’s just an added bonus, she said.
She isn’t worried. She believes in her son. And so do plenty others.
“Taylor has been a fortunate young man,” she said. “He has tremendous character and garnered tremendous respect. Everyone loves him.
“He’s a winner.”
Contact Cody Tucker at (517) 377-1070 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @sewyopoke.