The last time most Melissa residents saw Taylor McGehee, he was an all-district quarterback for the Cardinals, leading the team to a district co-championship and two playoff appearances. These days, the 2015 MHS grad is still active in sports, but he endeavors now in a whole new game. McGehee plays rugby at Baylor University, that football-without-a-helmet-or-pads game from across “The Pond” — and he’s quite good at it.

“I’d say it’s more like soccer, but you can hit people,” McGehee said recently by phone from Waco. “It’s been wild, unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”

Baylor is a member of the Red River Rugby Conference, a league whose roster sounds a bit like The Big 12 — Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, TCU, LSU, Arkansas — and this august group competes in Rugby USA-sanctioned Division 1A, the highest level of collegiate play. Though the Bears just celebrated their 25th-anniversary season, they’ve only recently become successful, winning the conference championship in 2017 — McGehee’s first year with the club — and finishing runner-up in the title game last month. Prior to those campaigns, Baylor had logged one winning season.

“We literally came from nothing,” McGehee said. “Some of the seniors on the team talk about how when they were freshmen, they didn’t win a single game and were losing by up to a hundred points. Coach Mason [Hering] came in and really turned everything around. I was lucky enough and blessed enough to join during the fun times of the winning.”

Just one practice

McGehee’s path from the gridiron to the rugby field was not without a few turns. “Basically, I chased football for two years,” he said, listing Southern Arkansas, Tyler Junior College and Austin College as schools he attended before arriving at Baylor as a sophomore. He’d heard then that the time was ripe for a walk-on to make the Bears’ football team, and he gave it a shot. The team, though, wound up not taking any walk-ons at all that year. A friend who’d tried out with McGehee — and also played rugby — told him he might be pretty good at the venerable precursor to American football. “He invited me out,” McGehee said, “and I guess the rest is history. I love it.”

McGehee had never even watched a rugby game when he showed up for his first practice. The next day, he played in his first match. “I’d say I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” he said. “I just knew I needed to hit people. It was definitely intense, especially being a quarterback, forcing myself to kind of be a little meaner and hit people.

“Luckily enough, I didn’t have anything to do with the scrums. I was playing wing my first year and that’s not as much hitting but it’s pretty crucial because if they get past me they’re going to score. I’m like a cornerback, really, in football terms.” This past season, the 6-foot, 200-pound McGehee moved to outside center, a position nearer midfield that called for significantly more tackling.

“It definitely hardens up your mind,” he said. “You see people running full-speed at you and you have no choice but to sit there and take it or they’re going to steal the ball from your team. … I was in shape and stronger than a lot of guys. And I guess I had a good idea of how to tackle.”

McGehee has been rated the No. 18 wing in the country by and he made Second-Team All-Conference last season, both tremendous achievements for a second-year player. He even scored his first career “try” in the club’s championship win over LSU.

Now a junior at Baylor, McGehee is studying Exercise Physiology with a minor in Entrepreneurship. And if the opportunity presented itself, he said he’d like to play professional rugby.

Preparation the key

Coach Hering took the reins of Baylor rugby in 2015. “We needed to up our preparation, make it more accountable across the board,” he said, also by phone from Waco. “Among the things I looked to do was implement some strength and conditioning standards. Rugby is such a constant, non-stop sport that you really have to be at your peak fitness. … More than anything, I just provided a little bit of a spark and more organization that allowed guys to kind of buy-in to the vision.

“Taylor has come in and really bought-in to the preparation angle. I think his biggest attribute … is his dedication to learning the game. Oftentimes he would stay late or he would ask what else he could do to get a better understanding. And I think his attributes as a quarterback — quick decision-making, being able to read and scan the defense — that has all been a huge plus for him.

“He has been exactly what you want out of a player: committed — and he demands the best out of himself and out of others. He’s just a solid kid all the way around. And he does it all while having kind of a jovial attitude.”

McGehee transferred to Melissa High School from Plano East in 2013, before his junior year. That season, the Cards were co-district champs with Princeton and got to the second round of the playoffs, finishing with a 9-3 record and averaging over 40 points a game. The next year, Melissa moved up and east, joining Gilmer and Bullard in a tough 4A district and still made the playoffs.

Playing for Seth Stinton, still the Cards’ head coach, McGehee was a second-team all-district pick as a junior and earned first-team honors his senior year. “It surprised me that he was playing rugby,” Stinton said recently, “but it didn’t surprise me that he was doing so well at it. Taylor is a smart kid, very intelligent. He’s able to pick things up very quickly. … I think one of the things that made Taylor so good was that he was competitive and he hated to lose. When you get a kid that’s got that about them it makes everybody around them better.”

“I really enjoyed my time at Melissa,” McGehee said. “It was a change, coming from Plano East. I met some of my best friends on that team that I still talk to. And they always kept the workouts hard. I remember hating the practices.”

As far as McGehee knows, the only former Cards teammate of his who now plays rugby is Jace Whittington at Oklahoma State. “We’ve been talking and trying to get a little friendly match between Baylor and Oklahoma State,” McGehee said. “We’re a little bit bigger program than they are but they talk a lot of game. They want to play us.” He added that he’s been trying to get former Melissa receiver/linebacker Gunnar Murphy to play some rugby. “He’d be a great rugby player.” Murphy now plays football for Cisco College.

McGehee also ran track and played baseball at Melissa. His parents, Jim and Kim McGehee, now live in Plano.

Safer tackles

McGehee noted that rugby tackling is safer than football tackling but still effective. “You’re not allowed to leave your feet when you tackle,” he said. “And you put your head on the opposite side of the direction the guy is going. That takes away from getting lot of concussions because you’re not leading with your head. … It’s more than just diving in there and attacking somebody.”

(Note: Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has successfully incorporated rugby-style tackling since 2014, when he released a video on the subject that has influenced other NFL teams, as well as some college and high school programs.)

McGehee said with Baylor rugby’s recent successes its fan base has increased dramatically. Another factor in this surge has been the club’s roster expansion, he said, which has nearly doubled over the last two years. “And they all invite their friends.”

And with that we close this update on Taylor McGehee, Cardinal fans. He’s clearly still achieving on the athletic field and elsewhere — and that should come as no surprise.