Student Athletes, Part 2: Don’t Lose Sight of Them, or of the Value of What They Do. Consider Boston College’s Paul Taylor

It’s almost November 2014, and the embarrassing stories and commentary about college sports and athletes continue thick and fast. This time it’s the University of North Carolina’s long history of “paper courses” for big-time players. Last month it was a college football player who took money for his autograph. Earlier we heard more than one credible allegation of sexual misconduct by college football stars.

I hate hearing these stories. It’s not that I doubt them. It’s not that I want them squashed so that the games can go on. It’s not that I want the miscreants to escape with a tut-tut followed by a rah-rah. I hate these stories because they cast a dark cloud over all the rest of the college athletes. The noise about the bad actors can obscure the stories of the vast majority whose accomplishments both on and off the fields of play are exemplary and worthy of emulation.

So here’s a blog post in counterpoint to what we’ve been hearing and reading lately. It’s a profile of Paul Taylor, one of ten such pieces that I wrote for the Boston College Hall of Fame induction earlier this month.

Paul Taylor photo for bioPaul Taylor: Boston College’s First Rhodes Scholar and First Hall-of-Fame Fencer

The fastest moving object in sport, save for the bullet in shooting, is the tip of the sword in fencing. Smaller than a dime, it explodes at the target from a meter away. The target is you, the fencer. You must defend yourself with no more than a slender blade and all the guile, cunning, and wit you can muster.

Fencers are either tacticians or warriors. Paul Taylor was a warrior. He wielded the foil and, as Boston College fencing coach Sydney Fadner puts it, “He was aggressive. He was confident in his attacks. He went out after the touch, rather than waiting for the touch to come to him.”

Over four years of hand-to-hand combat up and down the 14-metre strip, Paul Taylor’s approach paid off. In the five-touch foil bouts – three per fencer per meet – Paul amassed the highest winning percentage, .673, in Boston College history. He had 103 career wins and 50 losses. No other BC fencer to date has 100 wins in foil, where one scores a point only through a touch of the tip to the foe’s torso.

Paul twice qualified for the NCAA National Championships, advanced another time to the NCAA Northeast Regionals, and in senior year he finished fourth in the Intercollegiate Fencing Association (IFA) championships.

Foilists must be durable, patient, strong, and smart. Coach Fadner explains that foil encounters can run longer those of the epee and the sabre, and that Taylor displayed both the creativity and the endurance to advance and retreat relentlessly until scoring the touch.

“Paul was the total package. He worked very hard and he made the people around him better. He was naturally talented as an athlete and could have been successful in any sport. He was always confident but never cocky; he was very humble about it all, actually,” she said.

Paul believes that his weakness was that very aggressiveness, stating “If I err on the side of anything, it’s in not being quite patient enough.” He then went on to explain that mental acuity and adaptability are essential to fencing success. Every opponent has strengths and weaknesses that the fencer must ward off and exploit, recognizing both in split seconds through the thrusts and parries as the blade tips seek their target.

Fencing is also an unusually physically demanding “asymmetric” game. One’s front leg is always the front leg, with stress and strain on hamstring and quadriceps throughout the advances and retreats. The back leg remains in back, with the calf and Achilles tendon working overtime. A genteel sport, it’s not.

BC 2001 Fencing Team poses on -- appropriately - the library steps. Freshman Paul Taylor is at left end of second row.

BC 2001 Fencing Team poses on — appropriately – the library steps. Freshman Paul Taylor is at left end of second row.

If you wonder which institutions of higher education do well in fencing, look to the elite academic schools — the Ivies, Duke, Stanford, Penn State, Northwestern, and Notre Dame. Paul was admitted to Duke but took a liking to Boston College during a campus visit to his sister Lisa, a member of the Class of 2001. He stopped by the Physics Department in Higgins Hall, and professors Kevin Bedell and Mike Graf showed him around.

“I had a really nice feeling about Boston College, right from the beginning,” he said. “Not many places would do that for some random person walking in the door. I liked that the department was small, and you could get to know the professors. And it was that way with the Classics Department. I had taken Latin before BC and wanted to continue with it.”

Paul compiled a perfect 4.0 grade point overage over four years in his dual major of physics and classics. He is the first Boston College student to be named a Rhodes Scholar. At graduation he received the Edward H. Finnegan, S.J. Award, the school’s highest academic honor and the only one awarded university-wide.

A native of Elm Grove, Wisconsin, Paul discovered fencing while at a summer camp in Milwaukee. In high school he played basketball and baseball. But he flourished with the swordsmanship learned mostly from a Russian-speaking immigrant named Boris Shepsulevich. It made for “interesting communications,” as Paul describes it.

Boston College teammates elected him captain in both his junior and senior years. But all along the way he had been a leader anyway. As a freshman, recalled that year’s captain Greg Shea, Paul quickly took the top spot among the trio of fencers competing in foil.

“I was shocked at how talented he was. A lot of guys have swagger coming in. But he took advice very well, and you never knew how much better he was than everybody else. He had a quiet confidence,” said Greg.

Haynes Ko earned a spot on the team during his junior year thanks to Taylor’s tutelage. He’d been in a recreation class that met before fencing practice, and he asked Taylor to teach him the sport. Paul stayed after practice regularly and schooled Ko in footwork and blade work. By the middle of junior year, Ko was the number-two fencer on BC’s saber unit.

While teammates looked up to Paul both in competition and in academics, not everyone was aware of his other passion: social services. He tutored BC students in calculus and physics and taught inmates at a youth detention facility. On most Sunday mornings, he volunteered at Haley House, a soup kitchen near Copley Square. He was Haley House Volunteer of the Year in 2003.

Paul became interested in astrophysics during a summer internship at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard. Astrophysics, like his college major physics, deals with calculations and simulations. Astronomy, on the other hand, is observational, a geography of the heavens. At Oxford he earned a doctorate in astrophysics, working on computer simulations of collapsing stars, testing progenitor conditions for gamma-ray bursts, a type of sidereal explosion.

After teaching a year at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) near Capetown, Paul began postdoctoral work on functional magnetic resonance imagery (MRI). He is now concentrating on brain research with MRI, targeting both children exposed to fetal alcohol syndrome and people who have tested positive for HIV. He also teaches at AIMS facilities in South Africa, Ghana, and Senegal.

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