Bulldogs Beat

‘Superwoman’: Joni Taylor’s display of strength in hours leading up to birth of daughter

Head Coach Joni Taylor directs the team during a game between the University of Georgia and Texas A&M University in Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Lauren Tolbert)
Head Coach Joni Taylor directs the team during a game between the University of Georgia and Texas A&M University in Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Lauren Tolbert) Special to the Telegraph

Maya Caldwell had never seen a baby on its day of birth. She didn’t know what to expect when walking into Joni Taylor’s hospital room, but might’ve anticipated a bit of sluggishness from her head coach.

Caldwell and four of her Georgia teammates saw the complete opposite. They visited with Taylor for the first time in about 16 hours and saw a perkiness. She was laughing, smiling and asking about the day’s basketball practice while lying in the hospital bed with a newborn daughter by her side.

“I realized that she can really do it all,” Caldwell said. “She has done that at 110 percent everyday.”

Joni and her husband, Darius Taylor, welcomed their second child into the family Tuesday morning. Drew Simone Taylor was born at 7:29 a.m. and is 20 inches long while weighing in at six pounds, eight ounces. She came only 12 hours after her mother coached the Lady Bulldogs to a 78-56 win over Mississippi.

“I can’t express how much joy Drew has already brought to our family,” Taylor said in a statement. “We want to thank everyone in the Georgia community for your prayers and encouragement during this happy season of our lives.”

There was some indication that Taylor’s moment would come sooner than expected. Her due date was Feb. 28, but an early birth during her last pregnancy led her to believe the same may occur this time around. She prefaced each of her recent press conferences with “I’m here, but might not be tomorrow,” drove separately on the team’s last road trip to South Carolina as a precaution and had two hospital bags packed-and-ready far in advance.

Taylor’s coaching colleagues, husband and players could notice a change in her demeanor in the days leading up to Monday’s home game. She wasn’t standing up as much, seemed more fatigued by the end of the day and stopped her beloved early-morning workouts at OrangeTheory Fitness as of Feb. 11. Yet, the Lady Bulldogs’ head coach’s dedication to leading her team to success didn’t waver.

According to many, that’s just Joni.

“It shows her fight, because she never lets us see that she’s down,” Georgia point guard Taja Cole said. “I know sometimes days aren’t the easiest, but you’ll never know something is wrong. I try to take that from her and learn that.”

Georgia took the floor against the Rebels and Taylor felt like it was the time to remain still. There were no fist pumps, foot stomps or even much standing up. She delegated those duties to her assistant coaches and led her team from a unique position. In postgame interviews, Taylor wore a proud smile, was in a positive mood with the media and greeted some reporters individually.

“It’s a great example for her players to see that women are limitless,” Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said. “Knowing Joni personally, I’m not surprised that she went the mile. It’s who she is.”

Taylor’s work doesn’t stop after the clock hits triple zeroes, and that didn’t change despite the signs of potentially entering labor. She went back into the team offices with Karen Lange, who will assume head coaching duties during Taylor’s brief absence, and began to scout for Thursday’s game against Arkansas.

They walked out of Stegeman Coliseum at 11:30 p.m. on Monday, and then Taylor noticed some back pain. She called her husband for a routine telephone call about their upcoming schedules. That’s when the news broke.

“She gave me an indication that she could go into labor,” Darius said, who wasn’t surprised to see her coach Monday night. “We were prepared and planned for it, so it wasn’t really too hectic.”

Once the contractions started, the Taylors took a trip to the local hospital at 3:30 a.m. It was only four hours prior to giving birth, and Darius said they were “extra cautious” compared to the last pregnancy. Taylor has done this before (sort of) as she coached practice on the same day of Jacie’s birth in 2016. She sat down with her husband for dinner and felt contractions, but thought they were cramps due to an early timetable.

Taylor readied for this time since before the pregnancy was made public in June, gave birth to Drew and endured two pregnancies with little-to-no complication. Her balancing act with coaching, parenting and outreach was complete. Those life-based qualities she preaches to her athletes were modeled by the 39-year-old head coach.

“She’s superwoman to me,” Caldwell said. “She’s such a great coach, mom, wife and friend. That’s a lot to do, and especially in this program where there are standards and an expectation. Those are really high for her and she holds those up.”

With Taylor’s delivery of her second child, Georgia has had two female coaches give birth in the span of two-and-a-half months. GymDogs’ head coach Courtney Kupets Carter welcomed Savannah Grace Carter into her family of five on Dec. 13, 2018 only five days after coaching her team in a open intrasquad meet. She asked Taylor for advice on pregnancy and coaching after her experiences with Jacie.

Kupets Carter was exuberant upon hearing word of Taylor’s delivery and sent her a message of congratulations. But then the gymnastics coach got word that Taylor coached hours prior to entering childbirth, and stood motionless as she tried to fathom it.

“She’s on another level, let me tell you. I look up to her,” Kupets Carter said.

Taylor’s task of taking on coaching while pregnant isn’t unique but it’s a quality among female coaches in the profession that few can relate to. There are never-ending demands to develop players, recruit prospects and win basketball games. She did so until the last-possible moment, but kept her health and that of her family in mind.

Through it all, the care for the community didn’t dim, either. She continued her “Beyond Basketball” initiative to serve as an outlet of inspiration for Athens-area women. She would share experiences about her pregnancy, but continued to lend support through other speakers and encounters. Nancy Waldrep, president of the Fast Break Club, lauded Taylor as the “epitome of a strong role model.”

“She is my hero because when I come back in my next life I want to be her,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, a close family friend as Darius was a former Gamecock assistant. Staley frequently exchanges Halloween pictures of Jacie for pictures of her dog Champ with Taylor. “I don’t know very many people who are that active to want to (coach 12 hours prior). But, Joni is dedicated to her team, her family and has great help”

There is no timetable for her return, but the original plan was to miss one game (on her original Feb. 28 due date) against Florida prior to reclaiming her role on March 3 vs. Kentucky. After a slight alteration, Caldwell said she may miss up to two games but wouldn’t be surprised to see Taylor “pop up” on the bench as a spectator for Thursday night’s game. She missed six games after Jacie’s birth, but that was at the beginning of the season.

Taylor demonstrates a craze to lead the Lady Bulldogs toward the NCAA tournament bubble and believes her team is “peaking” toward the season’s end. At the same time, she places trust in Lange and her staff to lead in her absence. There’s no semblance of micromanaging or frequent discussions with coaches about basketball, because there was a reasoning behind hiring this group of assistants.

“None of this is about me, but it’s about making sure we are moving forward,” Lange said. “We are headed in the right direction. I don’t feel pressure, but there’s an anxiousness to do well. I don’t want her to worry.”

There was another moment of joy for the Taylors when Jacie had the chance to visit the newly-born Drew. The two-year-old frequently referred to the new addition as “Baby Taylor,” but finally learned her name on the same day her mother gave birth. Darius showed videos and photos to Jacie before she met her younger sister for the first time. Jacie wanted to touch her, but that opportunity must wait as Drew was asleep when she arrived at the hospital.

That’ll occur and Drew will be welcomed into the Lady Bulldog family soon thereafter. The next time Caldwell and her teammates see perkiness on Taylor’s face, that’ll be because a roster of 12 will have a second sister.

“They can see motherhood and loving these kids,” Lange said. “It adds another cute little smile and little feet running around in the gym.”