It has been one year to the day since Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died, but to those who knew him, he has been a constant presence.
”You see people come and go, but Sean’s never gonna leave here,” Redskins running back Rock Cartwright said. “He’s always gonna be a Redskin.”
Added safeties coach Steve Jackson: “Sean’s always with us.”
Before Sunday’s game against the New York Giants at FedEx Field, Taylor’s name will be added to the team’s Ring of Fame even though his professional career spanned fewer than four seasons. It will be a large, emotional, public celebration of a life cut short at age 24, another reminder of loss and what might have been. On Thursday, Redskins fans are invited to pay their respects at a memorial outside the stadium.
As hard as coping has been for many since Taylor died the day after he was shot during a break-in at his home in South Florida, this is a difficult week for his family, friends and teammates, past and present. It’s especially jarring for running back Clinton Portis, who played with Taylor at the University of Miami and became his closest friend on the Redskins.
“I don’t think time heals wounds,” he said. “It makes you miss people more. The realization that you’re not gonna see that person, that they’re not coming back, it gets tougher. Early on, you’ve got memories. All of a sudden, once you start repeating memories, you can’t create any more.”
In trying to glean something positive and make some sense of something that seemed so senseless, a number of Redskins have discovered a new perspective.
“It made me think and know that I’m bigger than the guy you see here every day that’s suiting up in the No. 89 jersey,” said receiver Santana Moss, another close friend and teammate of Taylor’s with the Hurricanes and Redskins. “I have two little kids I have to look after, and I have other people I care about, and I wouldn’t want to leave them behind like he did.”
Reminders of Taylor are everywhere. He shows up on game films coaches use to prepare for the next opponent, his No. 21 flying around and causing general mayhem. His locker remains at Redskin Park - burgundy practice jersey and shoes; helmet; towels; a football; pictures of his fiancee, Jackie Garcia, and their daughter, Jackie, all untouched behind glass. No one parks in the space Taylor earned for being named the team’s defensive player of the week against Philadelphia in September 2007.
Portis wears a T-shirt with Taylor’s picture and number under his game jersey and occasionally at practice. Injured defensive end Phillip Daniels never removes a black rubber wristband inscribed with Taylor’s name and number.
“He made you realize ‘What’s my effect going to be on people when I’m gone?’” Portis said. “Anywhere close to the effect that he had on people would be great.”
There are about 4,440 videos related in some way to Taylor on YouTube, far more than for Tom Brady, Brett Favre or Terrell Owens. Not long after a shipment of newly designed Sean Taylor black jerseys arrived recently, a salesman at Modell’s said, “They’re off the rack now.”
According to the NFL, Taylor’s jersey ranks No. 40 in sales among all players, and fans can buy other kinds of apparel and merchandise even though he played his last game for the Redskins 381 days ago. That was before he left the Nov. 11 game against Philadelphia with a knee injury and went back to South Florida to rest up with his fiancee and little Jackie, then 18 months old; before he was shot after midnight Nov. 26 by an intruder who, with four others, tried to rob his house; before the bullet pierced the femoral artery in his left leg and he lost a significant amount of blood, dying at 3:30 the following morning in a Miami hospital.
Although physical reminders of Taylor are everywhere, his deeper and lasting impact tends toward the spiritual and motivational. Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache said sometimes while he’s plotting how to stop an opponent, “I’ll just kind of talk to Sean and say, ‘Hey, you got some help for me?’”
Daniels said before he tore up his knee during the first day of training camp, a season-ending injury, he dedicated his offseason regimen to Taylor.
“I feel like he’s always in rehab with me, telling me to keep pushing,” Daniels said.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who joined the Redskins a few weeks ago, played against Taylor in college while attending Virginia Tech and visited Redskin Park with Taylor and former Miami tight end Kellen Winslow before the 2004 draft. As a member of the Atlanta Falcons, Hall played with Taylor in the 2006 Pro Bowl and recalls his infamously jarring hit on punter Brian Moorman in the game.
”That was vintage Sean Taylor,” Hall said. “A hundred percent every play. Even running around in practice. It was my second Pro Bowl, and I was kind of used to the tempo and the pace. Guys kind of cakewalked through. And Sean Taylor’s going full-tilt every play.”
Gregg Williams, the Redskins’ defensive coordinator from 2004 (the same year the Redskins drafted Taylor in the first round) through last season, said Taylor was one of the few players he had to “worry about” in practice.
“He might light Santana up. He might light Clinton up,” said Williams, who now runs the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense.
“Every day in practice was a proving ground. When he’d pick off the ball in practice, he’d run it back all the way, 70 yards, 80 yards, 90 yards, to prove ‘You can’t tackle me.’”
Of Taylor’s dogged determination, running back Rock Cartwright said, “The one thing that sticks out was something he said to me …” For 30 seconds, Cartwright was too overcome with emotion to speak. Finally, he steadied himself. “He said, ‘They may be bigger than you, they may be faster than you but never let them outwork you.’”
Even though he no longer works for the Redskins, Williams said he thinks about Taylor every day. He always carries a coin with Taylor’s likeness on it and writes “21” on his weekly game plan. When Williams enters his office, his eyes fall upon an illuminated glass statue that Taylor gave to him. Williams’ son Chase, a senior at Loudoun County High School who is being recruited by several colleges, wears No. 21 “because his dad says he’s the best player he ever coached,” Williams said.
Taylor grew close to Williams’ sons, Chase and Blake, a first-year assistant with the Jaguars. Williams playfully called them “the Three Stooges.” Williams dispensed what he calls “fatherly, tough-love things” when it came to dealing with Taylor, who brought to the Redskins in 2004 a reputation as a cocky, sullen player with a disagreeable temperament off the field as well as on.
Which was perfect for Williams, who honored Taylor the Sunday after his death by sending his defense out on the field with 10 men for the first play against Buffalo.
”My specialty is dealing with difficult people,” Williams said. “I started out hard and kind of got that glare right off the bat. He saw me not flinch, and I saw him not flinch, and it kind of progressed from there.”
Still maturing as player, occasionally prone to mistakes while going for the big hit, the 6-3, 220-pound Taylor was a rare combination of unusual athletic ability and instincts, Williams said.
“He had physical gifts and intangible gifts,” Williams said. “He was a lot smarter than people gave him credit for.”
Guard Pete Kendall, who is known for being candidly analytical and forthright, said, “It’s hard to overstate how good of a football player he was.”
After the Redskins drafted LaRon Landry in the first round last year, the Redskins envisioned all sorts of possibilities for what they believed would become the most explosive, dynamic pair of safeties in the league. There was time enough for only a glimpse.
“LaRon was a better blitzer, and Sean was a better cover guy, and he was smarter, but they could each do what the other did,” Jackson said. “Teams never knew who was doing what, at what point in time, and it kept them off-balance. They couldn’t run past them. They couldn’t run around them. But we never had a chance to fully see.”
Rookie Chris Horton, who now starts at safety next to Landry, said, “As long as I’m on this Earth, I can never say that I played like him.” And veteran tackle Chris Samuels last year said Taylor would have been as great as former San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Yet for all of his talent, what resonates most among those who knew Taylor was how he grew up before their eyes, a process that coincided with the birth of his daughter. Those who knew him as a star athlete at Gulliver Prep High School near Miami found him to be polite and humble.
“The press wrote him off as arrogant, but he was embarrassed about talking about himself,” said his friend and lawyer, Richard Sharpstein. Sharpstein and his wife, also an attorney, had known Taylor since high school.
Few, however, doubt that Taylor was affected by a nasty custody dispute between his parents, who never married. His father, Pedro Taylor, the police chief of Florida City, Fla., ended up with custody of his son. Estranged from his mother, Sean Taylor bore a demeanor often seen as suspicious and intimidating. Taylor’s attitude irked former coach Joe Gibbs, who conceded that Taylor “was awfully hard to control at first.” And there were a few scrapes with the law, notably a well-publicized arrest on felony assault charges in 2005. The charges ultimately were dropped.
“He didn’t trust a lot of people,” said Sharpstein, whose two daughters were friends with Taylor during high school. “He was one of those kids who overcame whatever negatives pervaded his past. But he had a tremendous family influence from this father. He was not an Allen Iverson, posse-generating, ghetto-mentality kid. He had worked his way completely out.”
New Orleans Saints tight end Buck Ortega, a close friend of Taylor’s and a teammate of his in high school and college, spent a few months with Taylor during Redskins training camp in 2006. He said Taylor talked about his image and about the business aspects of the NFL.
”He had changed completely,” said Ortega, who delivered a moving eulogy at Taylor’s funeral. “He almost turned from a kid into a man.”