Taylor Gabriel’s unlikely rise with Falcons seems heaven sent

Every game, every time he is on the field and before every snap, Taylor Gabriel will point to the sky. It’s not a habit but a self-imposed mandate, as necessary as putting on a jersey or tying his shoes.

“I have a little ritual I do before every snap,” he said. “It’s me, just knowing that she’s with me on that snap. Watch me. Every play you’ll see me kind of messing with my hands, doing stuff, and then I’ll point to the sky. She’s watching me.”

Taylor Gabriel is in the Super Bowl. He tied for the Falcons’ lead in touchdown catches this season. There may be no more unlikely story in this week’s Super Bowl.

He’s 5-foot-8, a relative Lilliputian in a sport of of woolly mammoths. He played football at a small college, Abilene Christian. He went undrafted, but was signed by the Cleveland Browns, who are almost in the NFL.

That lasted two seasons, then he was released Sept. 3. The Falcons rowed by the next day and threw him a rope. It was a week before the season, but Gabriel went on to become the team’s third receiver behind Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Despite playing in only 13 games, he scored as many touchdowns as Jones (six), finished fourth in receptions (35), third in yards (579) and second in pass plays of 20-plus yards (eight).

Did I mention he was cut by the Browns?

“I didn’t think I’d be going from being cut to playing in the Super Bowl,” Gabriel said. “How many people can make that up? It’s like a fairy tale or something.”

This whole story seems a little heaven sent. Maybe his mother played a role.

Kimberly Gabriel died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2006 when Taylor was 15, sending him into an emotional tailspin that nearly led him to quit football. But the same tragedy that caused him to emotionally and mentally withdraw actually pulled him back.

Gabriel started thinking about his mother. She was the one who watched from the bleachers, pushed him to get better and keep going. The drive, determination, the fearlessness — it comes from her. She would not want him to walk away.

“Having that feeling that my mom was there, having that sensation that there’s someone who’s been watching you all of your life as a kid, I just felt that sensation that she was still watching me, sitting up in the stands,” Gabriel said. “That brought me back to football. Once I got back, I never wanted to not feel that sensation again. That’s why I worked so hard at the extra things, before and after practice.”

When does he think of her?

“Every day. Every other second. My mom was a big piece of my heart. She supported me, and to lose her at a young age, as a teenager at a time when you really need your mom, I just feel blessed now to be here and have this opportunity.”

Gabriel, who also writes “Mom” or another message on his shoes every game, was a perfect fit for the Falcons’ scheme. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan knew him from Cleveland days two years earlier. He and coach Dan Quinn liked his speed and his competitiveness. Those traits made him an ideal third receiver, where he likely would draw one-on-one coverage.

“I was surprised (Cleveland) released him, just because I knew how good a player he was,” Shanahan said. “But I was mostly surprised that when they did let him go, only two teams claimed him.”

Gabriel’s rise is one of the reasons the Falcons are so difficult to defend. New England coach Bill Belichick likely will try to takeaway Jones and the running game. But quarterback Matt Ryan has been successful spreading the wealth this season, involving backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the passing game and throwing touchdown passes to an NFL-record 13 receivers.

“When I came here it was just crazy to see, the quadruple and triple teams that were on Julio,” he said. “It was something that I had never seen before. I knew I could take advantage of those one-on-one matchups because that was one thing I was good at. I’ve been successful all year because the safety is cheating over to Julio and there’s really no room for error.”

He’s a long way from that day when Cleveland cut him. Gabriel said he was home, pacing nervously around the house, wondering about the next chapter in his career.

“Being cut is something you don’t take lightly,” he said. “You want to know why you’re cut, why you’re not on that team. It was heartbreaking to not have a job and not know what you’re going to do.”

Things seem to have worked out. And come Sunday, when Taylor Gabriel is on the field and pointing to the sky before every snap, we’ll know why.

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