Dan Chase and Billy Taylor
by Jan Schlain
When Dan Chace was growing up on Ann Arbor's northwest side, he and his friends would pretend to be Michigan's All-American running back, Billy Taylor.
When Chace was ten years old, Taylor walked into his classroom to give a talk. "That was like Elvis arrived!" recalls Chace by phone from Torrance, California. "After it was over, I told my teacher that I really wanted to ask for his autograph. She said, 'Hurry up! Go take your football!' She gave me a Magic Marker--I ran out to the parking lot and caught him before he left. He signed my football in the parking lot of Newport Elementary School."
Chace graduated from Michigan, class of '83, went on to Yale Drama School and then out to California to become an actor. Taylor, less than a week after the 1972 Rose Bowl game, lost his mother to heart failure, then in quick succession his aunt and girlfriend were murdered. He plunged into alcoholism and crime and ended up in jail. He recovered briefly then slid into homelessness. Taylor had lost all chances of a pro football career, and Chace lost his hero.
Fast-forward forty years. Chace, in L.A., discovers online that Billy Taylor has written his life story. He buys it, reads it, and learns Taylor's almost miraculous account of how he quit drinking, returned to college, and earned a doctorate in education. "I called him," Chace recalls, and Taylor invited him to visit Get Back Up, the 160-bed, nonprofit recovery facility he operates in Detroit. Chace did, and was so moved he decided to shelve his acting career and recruit an old U-M friend, Bob Hercules, to co-produce a one-hour documentary of Taylor's story. Perseverance: The Story of Billy Taylor premieres at the Michigan Theater on November 16 (see Events).
Chace let go of the childhood football Taylor had signed for him when he learned of his hero's arrest for attempted bank robbery in 1975. "That was frightening," Chace recalls. "The crime seemed scary to me in a way. So really I wrote Billy Taylor off at that point. The football that had kind of been preserved got thrown back into service, and eventually it got worn out and lost."
Forty years later, Taylor gave Chace another football. "I'm looking at it right now," Chace says. "It says, 'To Dan, Don't lose this one.' It's signed, 'Your friend, Dr. Billy Taylor Number 42.'"
[Originally published in November, 2012.]