By Brad Hicks
Like any coach worth his salt, Taylor Lafever has his own maxims and axioms that he believes, when followed, will lead to success.
“I think attitude reflects leadership,” he said.
“Don’t let what you cannot do affect what you can do,” he later added.
Lafever also said one should always maintain a “healthy fear of complacency,” strive to do his or her best, and never accept average.
Adhering to his adages helped lead to Lafever’s recent involvement with one of the most prestigious franchises in all of professional sports.
Lafever just completed his stint as a summer intern with the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
“It’s been a great opportunity,” Lafever said. “I’ve got to see a lot of things, meet a lot of famous people and great mentors that have kind of taken me under their wing and showed me the way, and I couldn’t be more happy and blessed with this opportunity.”
As a summer intern, Lafever spent a little more than a month with the team and worked to ensure the Patriots players received the care needed to get them through their on-field work in preparation of the upcoming National Football League regular season.
The road that would eventually lead Lafever to the confines of Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, began in Unicoi County. Lafever grew up in Erwin. He graduated from Unicoi County High School in 2013. While at UCHS, Lafever was involved with extracurricular groups such as the Beta Club and National Honor Society. He played saxophone in the high school band.
Lafever also participated in several sports during his time at UCHS. He competed in basketball, baseball and ran cross country. Lafever said he has had a lifelong zeal for sports.
“Growing up, I’ve always had a passion for sports, and I told myself if it wasn’t God’s will and plan for me to play at the highest level that I would do anything and everything I could to get there and work in it,” he said. “Just watching ESPN all the time growing up and seeing these guys getting rehabbed for ACL tears and other injuries, it kind of caught my eye and I looked into it.”
Following his graduation from UCHS, Lafever enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University to pursue a pre-physical therapy major. However, Lafever soon discovered a program of greater interest to him – Athletic Training.
“Once I discovered what that was and got involved, I fell in love with it,” he said.
An athletic trainer is a “jack of all trades” on the field, Lafever said. He said athletic trainers ensure players remain properly hydrated. When a player is injured, athletic trainers go out to provide a quick evaluation of the athlete’s condition. If an athlete requires surgery, a hospital will send the player back to a team’s athletic training staff upon completion of the procedure to begin rehabilitation and prepare the player to once again hit the field.
“The way I like to describe it to people is we’re like an emergency medical technician and a physical therapist kind of combined,” Lafever said.
Those accepted into MTSU’s Athletic Training program have the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom on courts and fields. During his first semester, Lafever worked alongside athletic trainers and others to care for the MTSU football team. It was then that Lafever would make a major inroad toward his internship with the Patriots.
One of the assistant athletic trainers Lafever worked alongside during his time with the MTSU football team had himself just completed a seasonal internship with the New England Patriots. Seasonal interns remain with the team from April through the following Super Bowl.
“Four to six months prior to me meeting him and having that interaction with him, he was working with the Patriots as a seasonal intern and had established himself here and left a good impression,” Lafever said.
Not wanting to let the opportunity pass him by, Lafever expressed to the trainer his own interest in an NFL internship and asked the trainer if he could help Lafever land a gig with the Patriots.
“He said, ‘As long as you work hard and don’t make me mad, I will do everything I can,’” Lafever said.
But the trainer wanted Lafever to get a little more experience under his belt first. During his second semester in MTSU’s Athletic Training program, Lafever worked with the college’s baseball team. This past season, he worked with Vanderbilt University’s men’s basketball team.
In December 2016, a few days after completing his final exams for the fall semester, Lafever received just what he had been hoping for –- an interview with the New England Patriots. Even better news would come just days before Christmas.
“I got a nice Christmas present in them calling me and telling me I was hired on as a summer intern,” Lafever said.
One of Lafever’s first thoughts upon receiving the opportunity of a lifetime was of his hometown.
“It was unreal thinking about how a kid from Erwin, Tennessee, made it into the New England Patriots organization,” Lafever said. “When they called, I remember it almost verbatim, the guy that hired me said, ‘How would you like the New England Patriots to be your first NFL internship?’ And I was literally speechless was my exact reaction. I just kind of paused for 5 to 10 seconds and then just said, ‘Absolutely. That would be amazing.’”
After the Patriots representative offered his congratulations to Lafever, the reality of what had just transpired sunk in.
“I was actually at my grandmother’s house not too far from Chicago when I received the call, and I took off running throughout the house screaming,” he said, “and my family really didn’t know what was going on, but I just informed them that I had been hired on as a summer intern for the Patriots.”
Around seven months later, Lafever boarded a plane bound for Boston. He began his internship on July 25 and, over the next month, would be involved with the majority of the Patriots’ offseason activities including training camps and preseason contests.
During his internship, Lafever said he was responsible for taping and bracing Patriots players along with ensuring they remained hydrated. He has also assisted with rehabilitating injured players when the situation called for it.
The job has been quite demanding, Lafever said. Throughout the internship, Lafever said he worked seven days a week, adding an average day ran anywhere between 11 to 13 hours. Lafever was involved with three of the Patriots’ four preseason games, so heavy travel was required.
“You’ve got to love it to be in it, for sure,” he said.
Along with Lafever, two other summer interns worked the Patriots’ training camps. There are also seasonal interns. The team’s athletic training staff consists of a head athletic trainer and three assistant athletic trainers, with two of these also acting as physical therapists.
One might think that players and officials on an organization the size of the New England Patriots would disregard a summer intern, but Lafever said just the opposite was true.
“These guys, the whole staff, they’ve really embraced me and treated me like family and it’s been a family atmosphere,” Lafever said, “and they really truly care about me bettering myself, not only as a man, but as an athletic training student. It’s been great. They’ve got the best out of me and they strive to get the best out of me, and I would not have it any other way. I’ve loved it up here.”
During his internship, Lafever either crossed paths or interacted regularly with Patriots royalty, including the team’s quarterback and five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick.
“I have interacted with everybody, including Tom a little bit and the coaching staff and Coach Belichick, Rob Gronkowski,” Lafever said. “I mean, we see these guys every day with various things, even just getting them water. I’ve been involved and communicated and have been in contact with, literally, everybody, coaching staff and players included.”
Lafever’s time with the team also allowed him to rub shoulders with Patriots legends, such as Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi. During a joint practice held in West Virginia with the Houston Texans, he saw former Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and friend of Belichick Tony La Russa. More recently, Lafever said he got to meet Kenny Chesney during a recent performance at Gillette Stadium.
“I’ve just had a really once-in-a-lifetime experience in many aspects while I’ve been here,” Lafever said.
Lafever completed his internship on Aug. 31, the evening of the Patriots’ final preseason game. The NFL’s regular season will kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7, when the Kansas City Chiefs take on the New England Patriots.
Should the New England Patriots repeat as Super Bowl champions, Lafever is doubtful he would receive a championship ring. An invite to the big game after parties is unlikely. But Lafever said he will walk away from the experience with something more valuable – the knowledge that a strong work ethic and the right attitude are essential in helping one achieve his or her goals.
“I’ve come up and made the most of it, and I’ve learned a lot about myself,” he said.
Earlier this week, Lafever returned to school. He is set to graduate in May 2018. He has already begun developing a game plan for his life once he completes his undergraduate, and he is keeping his eye on the big leagues.
“I’ve got several options, and I’m just praying and seeing where the Lord wants me to go and what He wants me to do,” Lafever said, “but my options I’m kind of looking at now, as far as the upcoming years, three to five years, are going to get my master’s degree in something athletic training related, whether that be exercise science or strength and conditioning or go to physical therapy school and get my doctorate in physical therapy and kind of continue to pursue the professional and elite sports level, whether that be NFL or Division I sports or Major League Baseball or whatever it may be.”
Lafever said he wished to share his experience with the Patriots to serve as motivation for current UCHS who fear they may be overlooked for opportunities because of where they live. He said with hard work and a positive demeanor, big goals can be accomplished despite being from a small town.
“I want them to have some optimism about it and see that with God and a great work ethic … that anything is possible, that they just have to keep their nose to the grindstone and keep working every day,” Lafever said.