- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

Joe Gibbs described Sean Taylor’s death and its aftermath last year as his “most difficult time” in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 16 seasons in two terms as coach of the Washington Redskins.

Dealing with Taylor’s murder was trying “mainly because it wasn’t only football, X’s and O’s and winning,” Gibbs said from Charlotte, N.C., where he presides over his NASCAR racing team. “It was life and death.”

Citing the battle his young grandson Taylor fought with leukemia along with general family-related reasons, Gibbs retired a few days after the Redskins’ playoff loss to Seattle in January. But he acknowledged that the events beginning with Sean Taylor’s shooting in a break-in at his home and his death a day later on Nov. 27, 2007, also played a role in his decision.

“I think all of it worked together,” Gibbs said, referring to his grandson’s illness, which is now in remission. “Certainly Sean’s situation emphasized how fragile life is. That was the biggest thing for me. We make plans. We have to go here and there. We’ve got a calendar. You’re not guaranteed of any of that.”

A devout Christian, Gibbs said he also gave deep thought to what happens when life ends.

“Where do you spend eternity?” he said. “How do you live life on Earth?”

But with everything swirling around him, Gibbs still had a team to coach. Taylor died in the early morning hours of a Tuesday. On Sunday, the Redskins, fighting to remain in playoff contention, had a home game against the Buffalo Bills. Somehow, amid the grief counseling and spiritual healing, preparation and practice had to continue.

“These were uncharted waters,” Gibbs said. “Nobody had a game plan to go by for this. There were a lot of emotional meetings. A lot of decisions had to be made on what was best for the team. Do we practice in pads and hit each other? Do we have walkthroughs? Personally, for me, it was prayer and just trying to help everybody.”

Before the game, Taylor’s name was unveiled above the north end zone, and the Redskins’ marching band played “Hail to the Redskins” to a mournfully slow tempo. Fans, who also paid their respects at a memorial outside FedEx Field, clutched towels emblazoned with Taylor’s No. 21.

“To be honest, we weren’t [emotionally prepared to play],” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “I wasn’t. I can speak for all of us. We weren’t. It showed in our play.”

Said Gibbs: “It was harder to be focused. In football, you try to focus for 60 minutes like it’s life and death. In reality, it’s not. … We were emotionally washed out. We were shot.”

The Redskins lost to the Bills 17-16 and fell to 5-7. The team flew to South Florida the next day for the funeral. The Redskins returned home that evening to prepare for their next game in Chicago on Thursday. Then something remarkable happened. Despite losing starting quarterback Jason Campbell, they defeated the Bears and won their final three games behind quarterback Todd Collins to clinch a playoff berth.

“In all my time in coaching, that period was one of most dramatic examples of teamwork and overcoming some real tough odds,” Gibbs said. “I’m standing there in that Chicago game, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. We lose Jason Campbell. Fred Smoot is throwing up in the locker room, and I’m thinking, ‘Good gosh, what else could happen?’ Somehow we win. To this day I thank the Lord I had a chance to go through that. It was one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen.”

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