Throughout his youth, Jeffrey Allen Taggart qualified as the pied piper of Lackawanna.
When he organized pickup basketball games, everyone showed. When first-timers popped in tentatively, unsure if they fit into the clique, Taggart made it known there were no exclusions.
His welcoming nature and disarming smile spread a message that went, “Come on. Join in. We’re all in this life together.”
“He was like the one that everybody gravitated to,” said his older brother, William Taggart Jr. “We could go in any neighborhood in Buffalo – East Side, West Side, South Buffalo – everybody knew Jeff. No problems. Everywhere we went.”
William Taggart Sr., a retired Lackawanna police officer, said Jeff provided the family with instant name recognition. “You could be somewhere, and if they said, ‘What’s your name?’ and you’d say, ‘Taggart,’ it meant something,” he said. “Not that they knew us. They knew him.”
Twenty-five years ago today, special plans were in order. The final game of the regular season had arrived, and Canisius College was playing Niagara University. Jeff, a Canisius junior, was nearing his 21st birthday and a postgame celebration was in the works at his grandmother’s house.
William Sr. cruised on patrol with his partner. William Jr. helped finalize party preparations before catching the game at Memorial Auditorium already in progress.
Some 10 minutes were gone on the game clock. The teams were in timeout. Jeff Taggart, sitting on the Canisius bench, collapsed.
“It looked like he was in trouble,” recalled the Griffs coach at the time, Marty Marbach. “His eyes were rolled back. I had a sense of urgency not knowing that he was actually going to die, but I thought that this is something very serious.”
An ambulance rushed Taggart, who suffered a heart attack, to Sheehan Memorial Hospital. William Sr., who kept tabs on the game via radio, made a beeline for Sheehan. He was joined there by William Jr., who’d been informed of his brother’s plight upon arriving at the Aud.
Nothing could be done. Jeff Taggart, the Buffalo News High School Player of the Year in 1985 as a Lackawanna High School senior, the pied piper of his hometown, died en route to the hospital from cardiac arrest. He was three days shy of his 21st birthday.
Lawsuits and investigations ensued. Was the situation handled properly? Could more have been done to treat Taggart on the scene?
Nothing damaging resulted. The hard and tragic truth is that college athletes dying suddenly from often-undetected heart conditions is not as uncommon as one might think. It happened twice at Canisius. Richard Jones, a 21-year-old junior basketball player, died after collapsing during an on-campus workout in 2004.
Almost two years to the day of Taggart’s death, on March 4, 1990, Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles died after collapsing during a West Coast Conference Tournament game. He was 23. Boston Celtics All-Star Reggie Lewis, who played against Taggart while at Northeastern University, collapsed and died during a pickup game at Brandeis College in 1993. He was 27.
Memories of Taggart’s death abound.
“After the game, I remember the school president, Father [James] Demske at that time, taking me into one of the adjoining rooms in the locker room to let me know he had passed.” Marbach said. “And we had to go into the locker room to tell the team.”
“We’d had another kid on the team who had had some seizures, so we’d kind of seen stuff like that before,” said Mike O’Sullivan, a freshman on that team. “We just assumed that he was going to be OK. We had played the game, and we were in the locker room changing, and at least in my mind, I just thought he was going to be fine.”
Then came the tragic news.
“A few guys reacted, kind of screamed out a little bit, but I think a lot of guys were just shocked, just really quiet, because again we just assumed he had a seizure or something happened, he was dehydrated, and they took him away and he’d be fine and at practice the next day,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan remembers returning to campus and using the pay phones to call home. Teammate Chuck Giscombe was in the booth alongside him:
“I just remember Chuckie and I being at the two phone booths, and he just broke down, punching the wall, and kind of the same thing happened to me talking to my mother.”
Profound disbelief and sadness spread throughout the Canisius community, the local basketball community and Taggart’s Lackawanna neighborhood. Cars filled the street in front of the Taggart home, and friends both close and casual came to express condolences and try to reconcile the passing of one so young and so vibrant.
“Everybody came down,” William Jr. said. “Everybody just started pulling up. Once they heard the news, they just came down here. There were so many people. So many people.”
“The community stood by the family so strong, there wasn’t a day go by there wasn’t somebody who didn’t say something to try to get you over that feeling,” William Sr. said. “And you appreciate it. It was appreciated because the thought they were giving to it is they wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
The next day, on the other side of the country, Taggart’s high school coach, Bill Bilowus, headed out for a morning run with Jay Hoagland of East Aurora High School. They were in San Francisco for a principals conference, and Hoagland already had combed the morning newspaper. He knew what had happened. A quick inquiry made it apparent that Bilowus did not.
“We went out and ran the 5K, and when we got done, he showed me the paper, and the headlines of the paper were ‘Canisius’ Taggart Dies on Court,’ and I tell you, I just fell on my knees and started crying right in the restaurant,” Bilowus said. “I could not believe it. Like, what a freaking shock, you know? And I’ll never forget that day in San Francisco. It was just one of those unbelievable moments that you never forget in your life.”
“It’s still vivid in my memory that whole night and the aftermath, going to Mr. and Mrs. Taggart’s house,” Marbach said. “But it seems like every year, every time I read in the paper about an athlete dying suddenly from that very same disease, the enlarged heart, it just brings back a lot of very emotional memories of that.”
An ESPN.com story published last year reported that the National Collegiate Athletic Association estimates that heart trauma fells maybe a dozen college athletes every year. The article also reported that the NCAA commissioned a study to “assess the feasibility of screening every Division I athlete for heart abnormalities that trigger the trauma.” The NCAA has not responded to multiple inquiries by The News requesting verification of this report and an update on the status of any study.
“It’s really just a tragedy, and it continues to happen – that’s the thing,” Marbach said. “It really comes down to maybe the athletes getting a single chest X-ray, because … an enlarged heart is easily missed, and a lot of time insurances don’t provide for just automatically getting an X-ray of your heart just from costs and premiums. Even today, a simple X-ray could possibly be saving some of these young people you read about all the time.”
A short walk from the Taggart home in Lackawanna’s First Ward sits the Jeffrey Allen Taggart Playground, replete with three basketball courts and a granite marker identifying the memorial. William Jr., Jeff’s elder by 4 years, finds on that asphalt a tranquility otherwise elusive to this day.
“The only thing that keeps me really going is coaching the kids,” he said with tears welling. “I haven’t got into it as far as high school, … but I just do it on the playground level, where I can talk to the kids, teach them the fundamentals of the game, things that they need to know.
“It ain’t all about running up and down the court. You gotta know how to go left-right, you gotta make a left-hand layup, you gotta box out. You may be scoring, but your teammate is open. You gotta move the ball.
“Those are all the things that me and Jeff grew up playing that way. Jeff just took it to a different level.”
Taggart’s legacy goes well beyond the asphalt. It’s also flesh and blood. In high school, he fathered a child. Her name is Jeffonia Alene Bevineau, and here is her email message:
“Today, on the 25th anniversary of the day God chose to take my father, Jeffrey Allen Taggart, home to be with him, I continue to count my blessings. I often wonder what life could have been like with my dad here with me. I am now 28 years old and I thank God for every day he has blessed me with. Life is good!
“I am … married to a wonderful man [Sean Bevineau] and have a 4-year-old daughter [Jayla Skye]. We live in San Antonio, Texas. I am a graduate of Park University where I’ve completed my bachelor’s degree in business administration and currently work for a Fortune 100 company as a project manager. My future plans are to complete my master’s degree. I am determined to carry on the great legacy of my dad and make my family proud. My father is gone, but will never be forgotten. I believe that there is always victory in God’s plan.”
A picture hangs in the Taggart home of Jeff on the basketball court. Superimposed in the corner is a photo of Jeffonia when she was 3.
The Taggart family – William Sr., William Jr. and the youngest brother, Keith – attended the final Canisius home game Saturday afternoon as guests of the college. (Mildred Taggart, the family matriarch, died last year). A moment of silence was observed.
“I know that God gave Jeff what Jeff was supposed to have,” William Sr. said. “I never thought about why? Whatever God had planned for Jeff, … it was good, because Jeff had a good life, better than a lot of other young men or older people have had.
“My father lost his mother when he was a young man. He was maybe in his early 20s. And when Jeff died, he told me – they called me Bubba – he said, ‘Bubba, you’re going to feel a lot of emptiness. There’s a hole in your heart. But eventually, it’s going to get smaller and smaller and smaller. You’ll always feel it. It will always be there. But it won’t overwhelm you as much as it is at this time. You’ll learn to adjust to it, live with it and accept it. But right now, you can’t do any of those things.’
“And he was right. When it happened, it was taking 24 hours of my day from me. It doesn’t do that anymore.”