ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- Maria Taylor thought she was destined to be a team physician for a sports squad.
After being in college for a few years, the former Georgia two-sport athlete (volleyball and basketball) had realized that might not be her calling. But she wasn't sure what she wanted to focus on next.
"When you're 18, you have no clue where your strengths lie," Taylor said. "In high school, I had really liked biology, but when I got to college, I realized that I wasn't in love with it like I had been in high school. I really loved writing and one of my teachers told me that I should think about becoming an English major because I seemed to like it. I wasn't playing to my strengths. When I got to Georgia, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Obviously, I was way off the mark."
And then one day changed her life.
That day was Friday, September 21, 2007.
Fox Sports South was slated to televise Georgia's match with Kentucky and had set up its lights and cameras inside the Ramsey Center in Athens.
"I immediately thought, 'Man, I could do this,'" Taylor said. "It would be a way to stay involved in sports without being involved in administration. It would give me more of a chance to be out in the field and talking to athletes. I had been an exercise science major, then business management, and right then, I switched to journalism. I got into the program and I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do."
"I think I had the best professors that you could possibly get," Taylor said of her experience in Georgia's Grady College.
Taylor looks back fondly on her time studying journalism at Georgia, crediting instructor Steve Smith with inspiring her to pursue her dreams. Smith had served stints as the Southern Bureau Chief for ABC News and as the News Manager for Fox Sports South.
"I think I had the best professors that you could get in broadcast news," Taylor said. "These people had worked at the network level for years and were able to teach us, from those experiences, exactly what we needed to know. My final teacher was Steve Smith and he had worked in sports for half of his career. He was one of the only people who told me that I could have a career in sports. Most of the professors wanted us to get into news."
Her educational experience transcended the classroom, providing hands-on knowledge of the actual skills she would need once beginning her career in broadcast journalism. Taylor soaked up every minute of it.
"I already knew how to edit, use cameras and do all the technical things before I had even graduated," Taylor said. "I also learned how to write stories and get on-air experience. I don't know how anyone could do it without this major."
There's no question about it that Taylor was known around the Classic City's campus for her prowess on the volleyball court.
By the time her playing days were done in the fall of 2008, Taylor ranked fourth all-time in program history in career kills with 1,729 and was fourth all-time in total points with 2,020.0. She was a three-time All-SEC performer in volleyball. Taylor also played basketball for the Lady Bulldogs, seeing action in 22 games and helping the team to the NCAA Regional Semifinals.
And there were big moments along the way, most notably a thrilling five-set victory against then-eighth-ranked Florida her senior season in Athens. Taylor had a team-high 13 kills and seven blocks en route to the victory, including a critical put-down that brought the Bulldogs to match point.
"I can remember pretty much every play of that game," Taylor said. "It was the best win period for my team. We had taken only like one set off of them my entire career and then that day we beat them. We had reached the mountaintop. That was huge."
But she will be quick to point out that being an athlete wasn't her identity. Taylor was a three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selection and served as the student-athlete representative on the UGAA Athletic Board during the 2007-08 school year.
"I think the biggest thing to remember is that you're still a student and still a person," Taylor said. "You can never lose that. You have to stay the same and stay true to who you are. A lot of people, when the get good at something, they get conflicted inside. But you can't let anything change. You have to remember that your sport doesn't last forever. For a lot of people, it is hard for them to imagine life without their sport."
For Taylor, it started to sink in during her final college semester. But for her, she was ready for this moment. She could envision her life without sports and had found her professional calling.
"Taking that final broadcast news class, it felt so natural to be doing that," Taylor said. "I could envision myself doing that every day. I didn't have to have volleyball or basketball, I could just be Maria. I'm always going to be 6-2 and look like an athlete, but now I can say I work in sports broadcasting. It's nice to have that. I started thinking that way my senior year, knowing I wanted to do something else."
Taylor remembers that phone call that got everything started. It was a familiar voice on the other end of the line.
Craig White, Georgia's Associate Athletics Director for Sports Administration and Operations, and the sport administrator for volleyball was calling. Comcast Sports South had been looking for a new color commentator for its volleyball broadcasts and was seeking recommendations. He immediately thought of Taylor.
"Craig White had always been around when I was playing volleyball and he was a big part of my life when I was in school," Taylor said. "I had just graduated and he thought of me. The timing really worked out well."
That was only the start. Administrators told Taylor of a new production initiative that IMG College was going to start up in Athens and asked her if she wanted to be involved. She interviewed and got the job.
Heading into the 2012-13 school year, most of Taylor's work is with CSS. She is the sideline reporter for SEC Football on the network's package, she has been a host for several of its studio shows, and is a color analyst for SEC volleyball and SEC and Conference USA basketball games. Taylor continues to work part time for IMG College on its Georgia property, as a producer and talent. She also is a color commentator on Lady Bulldog women's basketball radio broadcasts.
Taylor is happy she is still able to cover the SEC, the league in which she played and earned her degree. She considers the conference to be an elite league.
"I think the SEC is the best conference in the nation," Taylor said. "I don't care what sport you're playing. Every school has a great affinity with its fans because of their experience there. You know you're going to get a great education and compete in one of the best conference. They're BCS schools, so football is big, but so are all the other sports. There is plenty of support from the top down. All the coaches want to win, but it is also a really loving and supportive environment."
"I never realized how many athletes wanted to get into this field," Taylor said. "There have been a lot of them who have come up to me."
Since entering the field of sports broadcasting, Taylor has been approached by numerous student-athletes who are looking for similar careers. Looking back on it, she says there are numerous similarities between athletics and broadcasting.
"As far as volleyball is concerned, you have to practice anything in order to be good at it," Taylor said. "Television is the same way. You need to know everything inside and out. Just like you study the game, you have to study your craft. I have to be able to sit with producers and still be able to be coached. I am still early in my career in broadcasting; I feel like I am a freshman in my career. One day, I hope to be a leader in my field, just like I was in volleyball towards the end of my career at Georgia."
As Taylor knows first-hand, the ability to build relationships is the key to success in life.
"I always tell people how important internships are," Taylor said. "I interned at Fox Sports South in Atlanta my senior year. If you know one person and make a good impression, then they will give your name to someone else. It's all about internships and building relationships. And practice, practice, practice."
After continuing to live in Athens for nearly a year after her playing days, Taylor has returned to her hometown of Alpharetta. Living closer to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has proven critical to her job and the opportunity to be closer to family and friends has been an added bonus.
"It really all starts in September, and after that, I won't be home much," Taylor said. "Football, volleyball and basketball kick up and it's really non-stop. Sometimes it feels like I don't have a home during that stretch, but it's really nice to be back in the suburbs of Atlanta."
Taylor says she enjoys the work she does now, but says it's her long-term goal to work for a network and eventually be a host on Good Morning America.
"I always tell people my ultimate goal is to work on Good Morning America," Taylor said. "I like the idea of taking everything I have experienced and learned in sports and translating it into an all inclusive show. I want to be able to see the world - to travel and to get uncomfortable with what I do.
"My focus is just to keep working and continuing to set goals," Taylor continued. "I just have to continue to build relationships and never let anyone down."