Taylor Dever was driving through the typical congested traffic of the Bay Area, where he was putting his marketing degree to work for a tech company, when his mother and sister were suddenly startled by an angry outburst behind the wheel.
“It was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It was the worst time being in a car in my life,” said Lori Dever, who was celebrating her birthday during the visit to see her son. “He’d never driven like that. He was yelling at other drivers, speeding up and stopping, driving around cars, just driving like a crazy person. But we tried to sort of justify it, saying ‘Well, you kind of have to be aggressive driving down there, but that aggressive?
“He jumped out of the car and Megan and I were like ‘What just happened?’ It was just something we’d never seen before … We were shocked. We couldn’t make sense of it, because you can’t make sense of nonsense, even though you do try.”
That anger was out of character and they didn’t dwell on it, Megan said, but that trip was the first signal that something was wrong with her big brother and she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was.
“I just noticed he seemed a lot more aggressive,” she said. “He seemed very sort of ADD (attention deficit disorder). That seemed like his first sort of issue he felt. He said ‘I feel like I have ADD.’
“Another time, I noticed the people he was hanging around were not his typical people. He seemed to be partying a lot. He seemed like he wanted to pick fights. I mean, it just wasn’t him. It was bizarre. He just seemed way off, so I was pretty confused.”
In the years that followed his football career, they were heartbroken as his quality of life spiraled downward, as he struggled with anxiety, memory loss, paranoia and depression, along with heavy drinking and substance abuse.
Taylor Dever, a former Nevada Union and Notre Dame football player, died in December 2020, due to a coroner-confirmed accidental drug interaction. He was 31. Following his death, his brain was studied and diagnosed with Stage Two chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that experts say is caused by repetitive hits to the head sustained over a period of years.
The post-mortem diagnosis has helped his family, and best friend, better understand the odd, out-of-character behavior they witnessed as many who knew and loved him were left wondering, “What happened to Taylor?”
‘ALMOST A DIFFERENT PERSON’
“It was almost a sense of relief, that it wasn’t just Taylor kind of going mad,” said Zach Masch, Taylor’s best friend and former Nevada Union teammate. “There was more of a reason, a deeper and different reason why he was acting the way he was. He started getting very edgy. I want to say it was almost a different person. Then he’d say “I’m just joking,” but he seemed serious.
“I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure it out. It was hard because he had pushed a lot of us away.”
The shift in behavior and personality was startling to those who loved him, but an all-too familiar story for Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University professor who diagnosed Dever’s Stage Two CTE after his death.
“Taylor’s ordeal is a textbook case,” McKee said. “The anxiety, depression, aggression and cognitive issues in the midst of substance abuse … That short fuse and aggressive tendencies, it’s classic. It’s exactly what these guys do.
“It is heart-breaking. (A colleague) described it this way, she said they become ‘unlovable.’ And it’s so hard to remember this isn’t a person acting out or being a jerk, but that it’s this brain disease.”
In 2015, both Taylor and his best friend were living in the Bay Area and working in the tech industry, Zach in East Bay and Taylor in San Francisco, when Zach started to notice changes in Taylor. But when confronted about his behavior, like the time Taylor seemed to be picking on an acquaintance, he downplayed and dismissed the bullying as just goofing around.
“I think Taylor’s biggest downfall with this is that he was too damn smart,” Zach said. “I mean he was gregarious and was just great with people. But he could hide stuff better than anyone else.
“I wish I kind of took more time to look at him, but he started being stubborn at that time as well. I’d actually stopped talking with him for about two years.
“I thought with me shutting off Taylor, it would make him go in another direction with me.”
Tom Dever, Taylor’s dad, said it was heartbreaking to see the disease deteriorate not only his son’s mental health, but as well as his long-standing friendships due to his irrational and angry behavior.
“Their relationships were tarnished, because Taylor was just not himself,” Tom said. “They were like, ‘OK, dude, I don’t want to be around you.’ And I can appreciate the boundary.”
‘READY TO MOVE ON’
After going undrafted by NFL teams following his fifth year at Notre Dame, Taylor Dever signed a free agent contract in April 2012 with the Dallas Cowboys, hoping to land a spot on the roster of “America’s Team.”
When that didn’t pan out, as the Cowboys released him two months later, the San Diego Chargers came calling the next morning, offering him a shot at playing in his home state of California.
“He had only hours to decide, but he decided he was done. I think he was just ready to move on,” said Tom. “My thought was ‘Why not sit the bench for a few years, make some dough and then launch your life that way?’ He said, ‘No, I’m done.’
“I admired him for making that decision to quit banging up his body.”
Instead, he looked forward to launching his post-football career. And the job opportunities were promising, particularly those cultivated through a network of Notre Dame alumni, including his first job with Marketo, a marketing software company. It was shortly after he left that position and went to work for a sister company that the résumé he was building started to show signs of instability, as he would make a strong start and impress his bosses, but somewhere trip up along the quest of climbing the corporate ladder.
“He could get the job,” Tom said. “He had the smarts, the charisma, and obviously he had the degree. He got great jobs.
“The kid could go into an interview and nail it. And something would happen, something would trigger.”
Soon he wasn’t just changing jobs, but also moving to new apartments with new roommates. His dad said the changes often didn’t seem to make sense, but “he had it all figured out and made it happen.”
At the same time he confided in his sister that he was having trouble focusing, leading him to think he might have ADD. Meanwhile, his family noticed a significant increase in his drinking and an alarming aggressiveness.
Was it all a sign of him struggling to find his place in the post-football world, being overwhelmed by a newfound freedom from the structured schedule of a football player?
“Maybe it was just the jump from football to real life,” Megan said. “That’s what I thought was going on at first. It was like he was just thrown into the real world. He’s not, like, living the football life anymore, so maybe that was the issue.
“All of a sudden, boom. It’s a different life.”
But as they learned after his death, Taylor wasn’t only coping with significant lifestyle changes, but also CTE. And, as the foremost expert on the disease said, that often leads those suffering to self-medicate.
‘OK, SOMETHING’S GOING ON’
As his family celebrated Taylor’s 28th birthday with a dinner at the former Matteo’s Public in Nevada City, his dad noticed he consumed an alarming amount of alcohol that night.
As far as Tom knew to that point, Taylor enjoyed having beers with friends, but he hadn’t seen his son so intoxicated.
“You know, it seemed it was just beers on the weekend, then a couple during the week and then over the months it built up,” Tom said. “That one weekend in particular though, when he came up, he did drink excessively.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK, it’s your birthday.’ But, to me, that was a red flag.”
And being that he lived a few hours away from home, his family didn’t yet see how significant his substance abuse had become. Yet they soon saw his struggles firsthand, when Taylor decided to move home to Nevada City after four years of living in the San Francisco area in late summer 2017.
“The way he painted it was, ‘I’m done with the city. It’s too much,’” Tom said. “Whether that was an excuse or not, he was open to the idea. He wanted to come back to Nevada City. He never said that when he was making that transition, but months later we kind of figured out that was part of his decision.”
But being back in the friendly confines of western Nevada County didn’t end his up-and-down employment pattern, as it also did not stop the disease from progressing, even as his family sought to get him the help and support they believe he needed.
“When he came here, it was my life, it was my focus and it was tough,” Tom said. “There were moments of ‘What do we do?’ I just did whatever I could to get him back on track.”
Tom said that included everything from driving Taylor to work, to doctor appointments or counseling sessions, which he admitted having to trick Taylor into attending because he was so concerned for his son and the odd behavior he was exhibiting.
Yet still the cycle continued. He got an opportunity to work at Telestream, a Nevada City tech firm on the leading edge of the video production industry, but that didn’t work out.
He took a job with SGX (Sierra Group Exhibits), another successful local firm, which designs and manufactures exhibits such as trade-show booths. At one point, he considered obtaining a real estate license. At another, he accepted a sales job with Tesla, and was able to work from home for the solar-battery side of the company.
“What an opportunity, being able to start at home here and work, and like everything else he dove right into it,” Tom said. “But I don’t know if it was a time thing, or if it was a ‘suck it up, do my best and couldn’t suck it up anymore.’ I could pinpoint it. Almost every job was the same thing.”
And as things spiraled downward with each of his job opportunities, his family continued to tap into any resources they could find to help understand what was happening to Taylor.
“I did everything I could, everything I thought was right,” Tom said. “It was a challenge. It was a battle. Sometimes he went along for the ride, sometimes he would fight me and there were times where I had to trick him. ‘Hey get in the car, we’re going to lunch’ and I’d take him to a counselor.’
“But he was smart enough to know, that this was what was going on,” Tom said. “He was also smart enough to know the choices he was making were not the right choices.”
Brian Hamilton is a former editor of The Union. Contact him via BrianHamiltonRE@gmail.com