Rodney Taylor was a vital part of the Davenport Central athletic programs in two eras.

In the 1980s, he made major contributions as an undersized running back on the Blue Devils’ powerhouse football teams. In more recent years, he served as the president of the school’s athletic booster club.

So, it came as a stunning blow to the Central community Sunday when Taylor died of a heart attack at age 46.

“He’s the kind of guy that every program needs,” Central football coach Mark Roering said, “in the trenches volunteering and raising money — not only for football but for the rest of the sports — to help our programs make steps forward.”

Taylor played for the Blue Devils under coach Jim Fox in an era when they were the dominant team in the area.

He was a junior in 1983 when they won their last state title. He wasn’t even a starter for most of that season, but was ready when star Gary Couch got hurt in the postseason.

“He came in during the playoffs ... and rushed for 190 yards and three TDs in the semifinal and 100-plus yards and a TD in the state championship game to win it for the Blue Devils,” Roering said. “As coaches, we all like those kind of guys that when they get their opportunity, they step up.”

Taylor became the starter and an all-stater the following year, then chose to continue his playing career at Northern Illinois despite many college scouts telling him he was too small to play at that level.

“At that time, something in my mind kept telling me I had to try Division-I football,” Taylor said in a 1988 interview. “If I had gone to St. Ambrose or even a Division I-AA school like Northern Iowa, I would have always wondered if I was good enough to play at that level.

“I have never understood how somebody could measure your ability by your size rather than your heart.”

Taylor, who was listed at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds as a senior at NIU, became a versatile and highly productive player for the Huskies.

He lettered four times (1985-88) and led the team in all-purpose yardage each of his last three seasons. His 89-yard punt return against Bowling Green in 1985 is the second longest in NIU history and he had 100-yard rushing efforts against Eastern Michigan in 1986 and Toledo in 1988.

“Rodney never let his size — or lack thereof — stop him when an extra yard was needed in a clutch situation,” said John Ivanic, a former Alleman athlete who played with Taylor at NIU. “To me, he went beyond his physical limitations.”

Taylor’s name still is prominent on NIU’s all-time lists. He is third in career punt return yardage, fifth in kickoff returns, 19th in rushing and eighth in all-purpose yardage. When NIU named its all-century team in 1998, Taylor was chosen as the return specialist.

After college, he came back to Davenport and went to work at Alcoa, where he was employed for 20 years. He served as the booster club president the past three years with his wife, Debbie, serving as treasurer.

Funeral services will be Friday at Third Missionary Baptist Church.

“It is a sad day for the Blue Devil nation,” Roering said, “and a hard guy to replace.”

— Matt Coss contributed to this report