the legend of sean taylor
Waking up on the morning of November 27th, 2007 will be a day that will uncomfortably live in personal infamy until either my body gives out or my brain ceases to relay long-term memories. The night before, Redskins Nation went to sleep after an exhausting day in which many's favorite player was critically shot in a home invasion. Although the day was hard to face, we were given signs of hope; he was responsive and seemed to be getting stronger. Perhaps selfishly, that was the cruelest part; holding on to a shred of hope until the early AM hours. Upon turning on the television, the first image that registered into my brain was seeing an enlarged image of the Washington Redskins free safety filling the majority of the screen, with a demonstrative script displaying his full name, year of birth and the attached hyphen showed the current year- the year of his expiration. Following the numbness of registering the blow, all of the meager hope we all felt coldly crashed into a muted surrealism that our beloved and mildly reformed young star was taken away, depriving history and football humanity from continued elite feats on the gridiron.
In 2004, the Redskins held the fifth overall selection in the NFL Draft and many were debating whether Washington would be better off selecting tight end Kellen Winslow, also from the University Of Miami or the imposing free safety named Sean Taylor, a defensive back who would crumble receivers, often convoluting their frames with bone-shaking ferocity. Not to mention the guy was an athletic freak of the highest order. As his coach Joe Gibbs would later put it, " God made certain people to play football. Sean was one of them," with an astute smirk, knowing fully his former player's football acumen. Most of the fan base and Redskins players, myself included, preferred the flash and crash of Taylor, one of the most elite safety prospects to ever come out of NCAA college football. We were elated when the Skins selected Taylor that day and with it, a tangible and palpable excitement accompanied the newest piece in Washington's last line of defense.
Sean quickly made his presence felt at Redskins Park and subsequently on the national stage, recording two interceptions in the opening preseason game, in Canton, OH, the location of the Pro Football Hall Of Fame no less. This first omen came on his very first NFL series and the second was caught over the Denver tight end for a quick pick 6 when the Broncos offense was backed up deep. I remember a quick direct conversation with the man himself after a night game in which the Redskins lost a close battle to the archrival Dallas Cowboys. Taylor made an excellent jump on a play to the intended Cowboy at the linebacker level and nearly made a highlight interception but couldn't hold corral the ball at the end of a tight game. Here he was, a hulking 6' 3" physique just strolling around by himself in a white brimmed beanie by the player's entrance in the vicinity of the people. I went up to him and slapped him on the back.
" Hey man, nice dive for the ball in the fourth, you'll get it next time."
"Appreciate ya, no doubt."
"Just do me a favor and make some plays next week versus Baltimore."
"Haha, for sure -I'll do my best. I got you."
Upon leaving this guy to himself I dapped up ST (brotherhood handshakes) and immediately noticed the sheer size and chiseled nature of this dude's rugged ass hands....the manos of a bona fide football player. It was a great memory and experience to chat real quick with a guy I so wanted to root for and played for my birthright NFL allegiance. Even if only a few sentences, the brief acceptance he showed me while I was trying to scan the dude, see his gear, his tattoos, etc. I am fortunate to have that memory.
Nevertheless, Sean came to the DMV somewhat of an enigma. He began his pro career with some mild controversy and eventually a criminal weapons charge when he brandished a firearm over some stolen ATVs that were being flaunted. Nobody knew what to make of the young safety who inspired enthusiasm and a highly refined sense of focus and energy. For that, we were willing to forgive the young player who, on the field, was destined for greatness. He made his presence felt early and often, intimidating some of the games great receivers to the point of ineffectiveness, guys like Jeremy Shockey, Antonio Gates, Chad Johnson, Randy Moss and most notoriously, Terrell Owens.
Despite a down year by his talent's in 2006 due to overcompensating for defensive lapses of other units, Taylor was still exciting the burgundy and gold fan base, announcers and NFL as a whole. Heading into the 2007 season, a friend and I went to what is now M&T Bank Stadium to see a preseason scrimmage between the Redskins and the hosting Ravens. My friend was also a fan of Taylor and sitting behind Washington's bench we immediately noticed that the guy wearing #21 was not the massively hulking Sean Taylor....yet it was. Conquered were his brief controversies and apparent issues, 'Meast' as he would be known, came into the season off an intense offseason of serious dietary and training and became a leaner player to aid in his new responsibilities of single high deep safety, "The Guardian Angel" as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told him. And what a role it ended up being.
I was fortunate enough to attend every Redskins home game that fateful season, including a road trip parlay into Lambeau Field to see my Skins take on the Packers away at the sport's most revered field. It was a wet day and we were sitting corner-angled to the field yet my friends and father still noticed ST stand out so much more than any other player on the field that day. The ground he could cover in his new frame was truly extraordinary and freakish. That day Brett Favre broke the all time NFL interception when he tried to go deep to a seemingly open receiver streaming down the sideline in front of us. Taylor began the play in the direct center of the field but when Favre launched an under-thrown wet duck of a pass to the open Green Bay wideout, Sean had already read the play and got over to the far sideline, tracking the ball and hauling in a soggy pigskin before securing it with taped fingers (no football gloves) and tapping both feet in bounds to give the Redskins possession. He ended up with two interceptions on the day and if not for poor conditions, was in position and gotten his hands on another two. After a hampered Redskins team hobbled to the locker room after a tight loss, a couple of the Packer faithful told me, " [The Redskins] would be unstoppable if they had ten more # 21s."
That was generally how the 2007 season played out for Sean until cruel fates clashed and collided with seismic damage. The guy was doing EVERYTHING- intercepting passes ( five before the mid point of the season), blanketing targets all game, blowing up blockers on special teams and hammering receivers and tight ends to separate them from the ball. A personal light clicked on for a player already immensely talented with a good body of work for such a young player. Most people, himself included, attributed it to fatherhood and the new responsibilities that come with taking care of innocent life.
His season had him as frontrunner for Defensive Player of The Year until Donovan McNabb dumped a pass over the middle to L.J. Smith and Taylor came up to make the tackle, tweaking and spraining his knee in the process. I was sitting seven rows back from the endzone in which it happened, noticed my dude Sean T get up gingerly and eventually slowly make his way to the Redskins locker room. This was the guy my eyes were always following all through training camps, preseason games and in warmups; in fact, many Skins fans will tell you the same thing.....he was special, once in a generation, all time caliber talent. After a short lifetime of dominating the football field: at Miami's Gulliver Prep High School, the University of Miami and a young star with Washington, that was the final time he would leave the football field.
The first home game after his murder was the epitome of how surreal and raw attending a sporting event can be. It was fittingly a very gloomy and melancholy-filled day in regards to weather and emotion, I remember listening to Jay-Z's latest release, American Gangster on the way to the stadium and somehow, many of the themes were quite fitting. I hesitate to refer to the Buffalo game as The Funeral Game but that's what it was, a fan group congregating to mourn a promising player and man that had, for now, conquered whatever demons he had to shoo away. It was an emotional day that started out with a video tribute set to a Hans Zimmer composition from Gladiator.
Needless to say, it was a day where the waterworks were appropriate. Most of us were wearing black sunglasses but ALL 90,000 + were waving a white towel printed with a burgundy and gold '21.' The number 21 is fairly common for standout football players from Deion Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Charles Woodson, Tiki Barber to every budding defensive back who want to play like Deion and Sean. However, for the Redskins faithful, number 21 is now representative of more than that. It now serves as reminder that we do, in fact, live in a cruel and unjust world. A world in which a man who went to extreme lengths to work hard and improve his life would have it senselessly taken, a world in which a young mother and her baby daughter had their sole provider, caretaker and eventually, their protector shot in an area of critical fatality.
People are taken from this world every day in mean-spirited, even evil fashions. It's not a unique relevation yet there are events that transpire that just seem to hit home in ways that are unexplainable, even to yourself. I asked pointless questions like, "Why does my favorite athlete, on the team that I follow most ferociously, have to be the one taken from us?" Then perspective hits you and realize it's more than just personal satisfaction and enjoyment, a man that inspired without really ever saying much at all publicly. An infant baby girl lost her dad because there are dangerous snakes that roam the same terrain as the lions.
I still think about Sean Taylor every single football season; NFL football just never seems to have the same gravity as it once did. The rhetorical questions that can never be answered- How many interceptions and fumbles he would have caused? Could he really be the impact on defense to return the Skins back to glory? Would he have been the best safety of all-time? Then we must remember that's all they were...questions. It was a life fulfilled but not one completed. Personally, I carry Sean's tenacity and aggressiveness with as much class and couth as I can muster in my own endeavors. It was an honor to pay such close attention to such a one-of-a-kind athlete. The quirks. The natural ability. The excitement.
Although it is a deep wound that will likely never be fully restored, the Washington fan base holds onto the incredible memories we witnessed in a brief three and a half year career- return touchdowns to get into the playoffs, athletic high-flying interceptions and his trademark, countless number of bone-rattling hits. Moving on from tragedy is part of human existence so I'll just smile and think of the notion of Sean Taylor, in the defensive backfield with Pat Tillman calling out signals before watching if Steve McNair will handoff to Walter Payton in the spirit realms.