The life and passions of Terez Paylor

Henry Bushnell
·13-min read

There were nights when the parking lot would empty. When office lights, one by one, would flicker out. Silence would descend on One Arrowhead Drive. Kansas City Chiefs football would sleep. And in the media room, at around 10 p.m., Terez Paylor would sit, still but wide awake.

A laptop illuminated his face. A serious, focused, bespectacled face. At any moment, it could burst into a grin. But on these nights, alone, it was enchanted. Football’s intricacies glued his eyes to the screen. All-22 film quenched his thirst for knowledge, and captivated him as competitors dozed off.

Terez adored football, and the people who played it. So he poured his soul into sportswriting, a profession where his passions converged. He grinded through the ranks at The Kansas City Star, ascending to the Chiefs beat in 2013. On his first day, he told Ted Crews, the team’s VP of communications: “I wanna be a national NFL writer.” Then he dedicated countless hours to chasing that dream.

On sweltering August days, while peers sought shade, he reveled in the training camp slog. He’d pack a sweat rag, and hold a roster sheet to his forehead, all to survive a scorching sun. He’d scrutinized players, particularly the linemen, gleaning information that earned him respect.

Then he’d approach them in the locker room, and treat them as humans, with the kindness and vivacity he felt every human deserved.

“He was genuine, enthusiastic,” Chiefs offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz wrote.

“Such a great guy,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said.

Terez died on Tuesday, unexpectedly, at the tragically young age of 37. His passing shocked and saddened the football world, because his life had touched so many others within it.

But also, more so, because he was happy. Gloriously, refreshingly happy.

Terez moved to Yahoo Sports in 2018, and realized his national writer dream. But he also realized, around that time, that the dream was only part of his existence. He’d fallen deeply in love with his fiancée, Ebony Reed. He’d prioritized their wonderful relationship.

“He found balance,” says Crews, who became a close friend. “He found spiritual balance, and he found love, and he found peace, with Ebony.

“And he found that he could be great at his job and his life.”

<p>Terez Paylor</p>

Terez Paylor

Made in Detroit

Terez was born and made in Detroit, and as he pieced together life’s puzzles, at Howard University and then in Kansas City, he remained immensely proud of his roots. He’d rock a “Detroit vs. Everybody” sweatshirt. And when he said Detroit, he meant Detroit. Years later, over pizza and beer, Star colleague Sam Mellinger mentioned to Terez: “Hey man, I'm going to your city this weekend.”

“You're going to Detroit?” Terez asked.

“Yeah man,” Mellinger said. “My wife’s in a wedding there.”

“You ain’t goin to no Detroit,” Terez shot back in his customary deep, sharp tone.

Mellinger was a tad confused. “What are ya talkin’ about, man, I’m going to Detroit,” he responded.

“Ye ain't goin to f---ing Detroit,” Terez cracked. Wit crept into his voice. “You might be going to Birmingham, or you going to Bloomfield Hills, [the suburbs]. Ye ain’t goin to Detroit.”

Mellinger whipped out his phone to seek proof. “Where’s the wedding?” he texted his wife.

“Bloomfield Hills.”

Terez played football back in the Motor City, and over time developed an intense appreciation for the sport. For its physicality, but also its strategy. For its personalities, and for its bonds. Later in life, he’d tell colleagues that if he weren’t covering the game, he’d be back at a high school coaching it.

“And you could see why that would've worked,” Mellinger says. “He knew football inside and out. He had passion, he had pride. He was just great with people. He would've been a great high school football coach too.”

But he set out to pursue journalism. The Star hired him out of college in 2006. When he came aboard, his writing was choppy. But he had the courage to acknowledge imperfections, and the curiosity and drive to grow. He asked questions of everybody, and took advice from anybody.

“He wanted to be great,” several friends say.

And if the first step was documenting high school swim meets, so be it.

Working his way up the ladder

Preps were indeed the first step. “And after a while,” says Candace Buckner, a young Star co-worker at the time, “covering preps can suck. Just straight-up suck.” Terez, like anybody, had his rough days. Years later, Buckner said, he confessed to her that he thought about quitting the industry.

But for half a decade, he did whatever editors asked. And more often than not, he did it with zeal. “This dude treated Smithville High as though he was covering the New England Patriots,” Buckner wrote. “He made Missouri girls swimming state championships feel like the Super Bowl.”

His obsessiveness earned him the Mizzou beat, and then a spot with the Chiefs. His thoughtfulness endeared him to players. His preparedness impressed coaches. He’d chase down assistants to make sure his analysis was accurate. He’d go back and forth with Andy Reid about offensive line play. “Coach Reid always loved him,” Crews says.

Heck, Terez spent more time at the facility than some staffers. “He'd come back, he'd sit in my office, and we'd chop it up,” Crews says. “We'd talk about hoops. … We had some great talks about Detroit, and his parents.”

Terez never cut corners, his colleagues say. He occasionally grew frustrated when sourcing came slowly. But he soon established himself as the top reporter on the beat.

By January 2018, Yahoo Sports NFL editor Al Toby had taken notice. During Super Bowl week in Minneapolis, he’d planned to track down Terez. Then Terez beat the league’s top insiders to the biggest Chiefs news in years: Kansas City was trading quarterback Alex Smith to Washington.

Toby’s recruitment gears accelerated, and he realized: “I gotta talk to this dude.”

He found Terez at the Mall of America food court. He floated the national gig that Terez desired. Terez made the jump that offseason, and began broadening the scope of his knowledge.

But the football nerd in him never dissipated. To share a press box with him was to sit next to an offensive coordinator. He’d mumble defensive schemes and personnel packages under his breath. He’d chart plays, and occasionally break into a deep, hearty chuckle.

“Oh ho, 13 personnel, these motherf---ers.”

The fan in Terez never left either. “I don't know anybody that loves anything the way Terez loved football,” says Brandon Kiley, his co-host on a Kansas City radio show last year. When Kiley was a junior in college, broadcasting out of the Mizzou student center on Wednesdays at 7 a.m., Terez would call into the show to talk ball. He’d give 45 minutes of his time to break down a draft class for a few hundred listeners. Just last month, he tolerated an independent podcaster’s technical difficulties to do two random hours on the 1992 NFL playoffs.

“He’s the most chill MF on the face of the earth!” the podcast host, Andrew Hammond, tweeted.

Terez would still grind, too. Just last week, he produced 18 stories or podcasts. And he’d still geek out as well. One of the 18 featured an interview with Jerry Rice. Mellinger, the KC Star colleague, listened in his car, and could sense Terez “just fanboying out.” Then, he heard Terez casually mention his Hall of Fame voter status. Sitting at a red light, Mellinger burst out laughing.

“My man really told Jerry Rice, 'Yeah, I'm a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, I'm the youngest one,’ ” Mellinger texted Terez.

The response came almost immediately.

“F--- yeah I did.”

Terez Paylor, middle, along with colleague Charles Robinson interviewing Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. (Yahoo Sports)
Terez Paylor, middle, along with colleague Charles Robinson interviewing Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. (Yahoo Sports)

Finding balance

There were nights when his Star colleagues told him to stop. Or at least, they hoped, slow down. They’d see him on yet another All-22 binge, or worry that he was obsessing over the job too much. And they’d say: “Terez, what are you doing?”

“I'm a psychopath, man,” he’d explain. “I can't help it.”

Says Crews, the Chiefs VP: “He was so passionate, and so driven, that he wasn't living his life.”

So Crews told him: “You're great at what you do, man, but this can't be everything. You have to find balance.”

“And he found Ebony.”

Others also noticed the change. Terez grew in recent years. “Ebony had a ton to do with that,” says Yahoo Sports NFL writer Charles Robinson. “He loved her so much. He valued their relationship so much.” And he needed to dedicate time to it.

The league, Robinson explains, can be 24/7. “You can work nonstop, forever. I think he realized, with it being so engrossing, that you really had to prioritize time. And that was good for you mentally, it was good for your relationship. It was important for him to show Ebs: 'You are my priority. And although I am doing this, and I love football, at the end of the day, the function of everything I'm doing is ultimately for you and for us.' ”

Robinson and Terez talked often. In 2019 and 2020, their conversations increasingly strayed from football. They’d talk about their partners, or about race. Or about pesky things like home decor. Terez and Ebony were in the process of buying a house, and mapping out a long life together. “Terez talked about her all the time,” Mellinger says. “I know what she meant to him.”

Balance brought happiness to Terez’s life. This past April, he texted Crews. They no longer saw each other every day, but had become something like little and big cousins.

“Hey Ted,” Terez wrote. “Just wanted to say ... I truly appreciate how you tried to put me on game early in my career, even if I foolishly didn't realize it, and helped teach me the importance of life balance.”

“Ebs and I stay in the good book and pray together to keep that balance. Because it's important.”

A quick story

Friends describe Terez as “private.” Sometimes “guarded,” and definitely an “old soul.” He wasn’t often the life of a party. He’d much rather rest up and work. Well, except for that one night in Miami.

Until now, only a few people know the story. It’s Super Bowl week, right around Terez’s birthday, last year. He and Charles dip out of a company mixer. Charles suggests some Texas Hold ‘Em at Magic City Casino. Let’s do it, Terez says, and they venture out into the night.

They arrive, and duck into a divey poker room. Immediately, they feel dozens of eyes dart to them. They sit down at a table with seven locals, all of them of Cuban descent. Initially, they bond over cigars. Then Terez wins a second hand, and a third. The Cubans start to exchange some agitated glances.

Charles is out a few hundred dollars. But Terez rakes again, and again. And then the Spanish speaking starts, and doesn’t stop. Neither Charles nor Terez can understand it. Charles assumes that’s the whole point, and starts to pop off.

“The language barrier at the table suddenly became reaaalllly interesting,” he jabs.

Terez looks at him, and smiles, and gives him the eyes: Chill out.

And Terez keeps winning, and winning, and winning. His stacks of chips are now a freakin’ Taj Mahal. “He just keeps whacking the s--- out of these guys,” Charles says. Two hours become three, then four. A few of the Cubans flush their entire bankroll. The peppery Spanish continues to fly.

Charles turns to Terez and says: “Hey man, maybe I should pull the car up. I don't know what's gonna happen here.”

Terez, as earnest as ever: “Yeah, I think that would be a good idea.”

The casino closes up shop around 4 a.m. Terez packs his chip castle up in trays. He waits in line to cash out. He gets to the counter, and scoops up bricks of cash, and turns, and walks straight for the door. He jumps in the car, his palms clutching thousands of dollars, and for five seconds, they sit in silence.

Terez breaks it: You think those guys were talking about me in Spanish?

Roaring laughter bounces off the car windows and dash.

“The whole drive back, I'm telling him: I think I lost 700, 800 bucks. But it was worth it,” Charles recalls. Nights to unwind were all too rare. “It was really worth it.”

Terez Paylor covering the 2019 NFL draft in Nashville. (Yahoo Sports)
Terez Paylor covering the 2019 NFL draft in Nashville. (Yahoo Sports)

‘If you didn’t like Terez, something’s wrong with you’

“Grit,” Terez once wrote in a DM, “equals perseverance; the ability to stay connected to a goal, even when there are obstacles or the goal is far away.”

And grit was a part of Terez’s story. The grind was a part of his story. “What made him really good at his job was his work ethic,” Crews says. And damn was he good. “He was the perfect sportswriter,” Mellinger says.

“Terez, in less than 10 years, went from covering high school football and basketball to being one of the best NFL writers in the country,” says Carrington Harrison, a KC radio host and friend. “That ain’t everybody's story. Terez wasn't 40 yet. I firmly believe that Terez was gonna be Peter King. … A legend, and a giant in this profession.”

His legacy will transcend journalism. It’s the people he helped, the days he brightened, the warmth that radiated everywhere he went.

“Every time I saw him, I was happier than I was before I saw him,” Mellinger says.

“If you didn't like Terez, something's wrong with you,” Harrison says.

That’s why Yahoo Sports and the Chiefs plan to permanently honor him. That’s why his influence was so vast.

“He left an impact here on the Kansas City Chiefs that'll be felt for a long time,” Crews says. “This is a kid from Detroit, who went to Howard University, who left a lasting impact on the National Football League. The Paylor family should be unbelievably proud.”

“I've worked with some incredibly talented and terrific humans and journalists,” Mellinger says. “And I've never known someone else like Terez.”