It wasn’t long ago that Jamal Taylor was manning the 50-caliber gun atop his Army unit’s MRAP vehicle while on the road in Afghanistan.

Taylor has always wanted to be out in front.

Fifteen meters ahead of a slow moving convoy of Army vehicles, he scoured the vast desert around places like Kandahar. Scouring for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), snipers, or anything out of the ordinary that could potentially force the decision to deviate from their selected route. Bullets had hit the side of the MRAP as the team rolled out of the front gates of their Army military base. Ping-ping-ping.

Taylor’s been on the front lines and on the move, facing adversity since the day he arrived in this world. Born a crack baby on the West Side, hardship came early and often. Neglected, severely malnourished and likely to end up either dead, in a gang or addicted to drugs, he was put in foster care by the age of 7.

That was when Taylor says he first found himself in the starting blocks. Crouched in a sprinter’s position, arms out, head up, he could see the track out before him. Linda Vasquez, his foster care guardian at the time, could see it too. As soon as he had the energy, Taylor and Vasquez would go jogging every morning around Oak Park where he attended grade school. She adopted him three years later. By then, he was outrunning her.

Despite his early troubled years, Taylor, who turned 25 this year, is not running from anything. He ran at Oak Park’s Emerson Junior High and then at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he graduated in 2005. During his senior year, he qualified for the Class AA State Track Meet in the 800-meter dash.

“He was competitive in every race he ran,” recalls Jose Sosa, Taylor’s former high school cross-country and track coach. “Jamal was always very dedicated and a real character. The kids congregated around him. Cross-country and track kept him on the straight and narrow. To this day, when we do our stretching routines, we finish with something called the ‘JT Strut.’ So Jamal still has some influence around here.”

Whether it was cross-country or track, Taylor was running and strutting, always toward something.

“He could barely walk when he first came to me, and he definitely couldn’t run,” recalls Linda Vasquez, a social worker. “You’d never know by looking at him now what he went through.”

Life in the desert

After high school, Taylor took some college courses at Triton College in River Grove, and also worked at part-time jobs while continuing to run. In 2008, at the age of 21, he joined the Army for one simple reason: “I wanted to fight for my country.”

Immediately after he enrolled at Concordia University Chicago and ran for the cross-country team, the war called. Taylor didn’t have to go since he was in college, but he decided to anyway.

He shipped out in 2010. It was an awakening.

“The first week there I was assigned to be a pallbearer and had to carry the casket of a fellow U.S. soldier,” he recalls. “It was extremely emotional.”

The rocket-propelled grenade attacks on the base jarred his senses. “One time we had three in one night, and no matter what, you still had to get up the next morning and go to work. Sometimes I would wake up and think I was dreaming.”

In just four months, he went from being a cook to lead scout gunner. Between all the harrowing missions – including one where his convoy was stranded in the desert for seven straight days over the Fourth of July – Taylor found time to run. Mostly it was just 5Ks on the base here and there. But he would stay connected with his coaches back in the United States through email, discussing ways to stay in running shape. It was a good way to take his mind off life in the desert.

“When you see so many kids in a different country foraging for food, you gain a different perspective on life,” he said. “Many kids with no shoes would be begging for water. I appreciate life a lot more now since returning.”

After a year in Afghanistan, Taylor, who has ambitions to become an Illinois state trooper someday, arrived home. He was eager to get back to school and start running again. There were some eligibility issues with the NCAA when he re-enrolled at Concordia, but with the help of head track coach Matt Beisel, Dean of Students Jeff Hynes, and eligibility officer Alison Haehnel, Taylor got the go-ahead.

“Jamal has a tremendous work ethic,” Beisel said. “He’s someone who has great potential to be a role model for the younger athletes on our team. Jamal fits what we’re trying to accomplish; he’s really into the cohesiveness of the team, something we value here at Concordia.”

Taylor was a bit rusty in his first official collegiate track race for Concordia earlier this spring, finishing the 400-meter in 51.9 seconds and missing qualifying for nationals. But he remains intently focused to the task at hand, something he learned while in the combat zone.

“You can never be complacent,” he says, “whether you’re working out, studying for classes, running a race or on a mission.”

Brad Spencer is sports editor for Wednesday Journal newspaper of Oak Park.