Smallest Falcon Gabriel making some of the biggest plays

Smiles are in no short supply for Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel these days, here celebrating a victory over Arizona. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Smiles are in no short supply for Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel these days, here celebrating a victory over Arizona. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The morning began no differently at the Gabriel house than any other, Kimberly Gabriel riding herd on her three children.

“I’m getting ready to go to work and she is getting ready to drop the kids off at school,” remembered Calvin Gabriel, husband and father. “She is giving the kids that morning speech — you know, be polite, do this, do that.”

“And, you,” Kimberly said, turning to the middle child, 15-year-old Taylor, “you bring those grades up, mister.” To which she added the punctuation of a swat on the butt.

“An hour later,” Calvin said, “I got the call that she had a traffic accident and found it was due to the aneurysm.” Just that suddenly, without the first symptom or warning, Taylor’s mother and Calvin’s wife was dead, at just 43.

This week, 10 years later, Taylor Gabriel stood in the Falcons’ locker room, getting the star treatment, a receiver bracketed by curious media. In the last game, he had turned two innocent screen passes into touchdowns of 25 and 35 yards, running the best-in-league Arizona defense dizzy. Why, it seems like just about any time Gabriel touches the ball these days he is predestined for the end zone, getting there so quickly that he seems to be straddling the border between illusion and reality, one foot in each.

Even the famous Samuel L. Jackson knows him now, Tweeting in the midst of the Falcons 38-19 victory Sunday: “Cards couldn’t find Gabriel, but he found the End Zone!!”

And the more he talks, the more it becomes clear that when you give Taylor Gabriel something important, he’s going to wrap both hands around it and not let go.

Whether it’s the $2 Kimberly gave him for school that October morning in 2006, the last transaction between mother and son. He has saved those dollar bills all these years like they were high-value bearer bonds, his own emotional trust fund.

Or the advice she laid on him that day. It was her voice in his head that prompted Gabriel to go back to Abilene Christian during the NFL offseason and finish his degree last summer in information systems.

Or this, the opportunity the Falcons presented Gabriel when they plucked him from the waiver wire after the final cuts of the preseason.

Yeah, you could say he has taken that unsettling development and made something of it: The guy has at least one touchdown in the past four games — as many as headliners Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman have combined. The last two of those games, he has touched the ball six times, and scored on three of those (five TDs in 24 touches the past four). While unsustainable, such a ratio is nonetheless attention-grabbing. This last-moment pick-up has become an integral part of the Falcons’ multi-purpose offense, another well-used wrench in the set.

Even the poor, poor, pitiful Cleveland Browns, the winless team that cut him after drafting five wide receivers this year — Gabriel can’t bring himself to pile on. He does nothing but value the team that originally brought him into the NFL as a diminutive undrafted free agent from D-II Abilene Christian in 2014. No gloating. No I’ll-show-yous. Just: “It’s not just (taking) the high road. I appreciate them for giving me an opportunity in the NFL. I’m grateful for everything that they did for me.”

The success finding Gabriel now would not be nearly so sweet were it expected.

Like he said, somewhat proudly: “All my life I’ve been undersized and underestimated.”

Sure, his dad believed in him. That kind of comes with the job (Calvin’s other job is as an IBM system analyst, in Dallas). Why wouldn’t he? Calvin was there the first time Taylor carried a football, at 8, after asking to be moved off defense. The boy took it the length of the field, in what remains to date his father’s favorite Taylor Gabriel moment.

“From that point on I told myself I would never doubt him. And I haven’t. Look where he’s at,” Calvin said.

His mother believed, too, naturally. Both her father and uncle were enshrined in the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame, so the game was personal. Her death, just as Taylor was recalibrating how seriously he wanted to take football, tipped all the scales.

“I used it to fuel me, to push me harder than the next person. I used it more in a positive way. I knew it was something she wanted me to do,” he said.

When he was 3, little Taylor would line up pennies on the floor and move them around like players on the field. “Go pennies, go pennies. Make a touchdown, make a touchdown,” he’d sing-song as he ran his penny plays.

Gabriel was intent upon taking the game outdoors, for real. So, out back of the family home in suburban Mesquite, Texas, there grew a makeshift practice field, the centerpiece of which was an old tire and a rope. Dragging that around couldn’t help but put a little starch in the boy.

“He was smaller than the other kids, but he wanted to play,” his father said. “I was like OK. He was really good at it. I just wanted to make sure his size didn’t stop him. We went through the drills, the tire drills and the bag drills. And his mom would get mad — you’re making him cry, she’d say. No, I told her, I’m making him tough.”

Ah, yes, the size thing. That’s the toy poodle in the room. At 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, Gabriel fits no preconception of a professional football player. Even the slackers who cover him have to lower their microphones and digital recorders to get them to chin level.

There’s no disguising size, and Gabriel’s lack of it dogged him throughout big-time high school football and lesser-scale college football in Texas. And he just kept out-running the limitation (although turning a 4.27 40 during his Pro Day in college wasn’t enough to get him drafted).

And when you finally make it — Gabriel’s 17.3 yard per catch led the AFC his 2014 rookie year with the Browns — only to be dumped by this bottom-of-the-barrel franchise two seasons later, you have to wonder whether the size thing had finally become terminal to a football career.

But don’t worry, his agent advised a distraught Gabriel. “I told him, ‘Taylor, today I know you don’t feel good. That’s OK. But tomorrow’s going to bring a new opportunity,’” Dallas-based Scott Casterline said. “‘I promise you that at 4 o’clock the next day (when teams could make waiver claims) you’re going to say you know what, this is a good deal.’”

Prophecy fulfilled. He’s with a winning team and an offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, who was the OC in Cleveland in 2014 when Gabriel did his best work. Now, while it is not a recognized statistic, he certainly is a team leader in touchdowns per inch.

In prosperous days like these, size doesn’t seem to matter nearly so much. It’s like Gabriel’s father used to tell him when the boy wondered why he wasn’t bigger: Matching all that speed with more bulk “wouldn’t have been fair,” dad said. “God knows what he’s doing.”

Now Gabriel can look across the Falcons’ locker room at the famous fellow at the other end, the statuesque receiver Julio Jones, and just laugh when asked if he didn’t wish he was built more like that.

“Man, I like being fast,” he said, beginning to cut up.

“I don’t think I want to be that big (6-3, 220). Julio’s too big.”

There’s the key to what makes Gabriel work, when every metric says he shouldn’t. You take whatever comes, good or ill, and wrap your arms tightly around it. And you run with it.