It started out like any other Monday. I rolled into work, checked my emails, munched on a bagel, planned out my work for the day. Sometime around 10 AM I nonchalantly clicked over to the Yahoo! Sports page, and saw the headline “Redskin’s Taylor shot at home”. My first reaction was the typical one, right or wrong, for when athletes and violence mix: I assumed the somewhat trouble-ridden NFL star and local favorite was involved in a yet another scuffle, and wondered what else could go wrong this season for the Skins. Although I heard he had been shot in the groin area and was in the hospital in critical condition, I also assumed the young uber-athlete would pull though from what seemed like a non-lethal wound. Afterall, he was nicknamed ‘the Meast’, half man and half beast. I sent the link to a few close friends, who had similar ‘Oh Shit” reactions, but like myself more in disbelief in the circumstances themselves than facing the prospect of life without #21 ever setting foot on the field again.
Sadly, that would be the case. My radio alarm clock went off at 5 am on Tuesday morning, and as I usually do, I lay in bed drifting out of sleep. At 5:24, the announcement came.
“Sean Taylor, safety of the Washington Redskins, dead at the age of 24.”
I could hear the disbelief in the voice I heard as well, and in my groggy state I almost thought I was dreaming. I had put in a few silent prayers for Taylor to pull through, and the last news I has heard before falling asleep was that a mini miracle had occurred, and Sean had responded to those around him. Hopes were high, and seemed to confirm that everything would be ok. Yet when less than five minutes later the somber announcement was made once again, the finality of one man’s life, one man who was my same age, struck a shiver through me and I woke up for good. I couldn’t get up, I had to let the information sink in…but that did not make me feel any better.
I dressed for work and headed to the Metro, wondering if others had heard the news. It was clear they had. I was handed an Express newspaper before heading down the escalator, only to look at the face of a player who would no longer set foot on a football field, at the hopeful headline which now belied reality.
Why was I so shell-shocked over this death? After all, I had never heard Taylor speak, and knew little about his off field personality. On Sundays, though, he was larger than life. Hit after hit, he never held anything back. He brought an intimidating attitude to a defense that was improving week by week, and quickly becoming the face of the franchise. His recent injury had led to his stay with family in Miami where he was shot; in those weeks his absence on the field had led to five 30 yard plays (with him on the field, the Skins D had zero). His jersey was the bestseller; my friend had his jersey hanging up in his living room. We all live life vicariously through athletes, and no one was more colorful than Sean Taylor on Sundays.
But it wasn’t just his sudden loss of talent that had me reacting the way I did. This was a man who had just had a daughter, who was adopting a new attitude to life. Although he had had run ins with the law, his maturity was showing on and off the field. The early reports indicated that this was a burglary attempt; he had been shot in his own bedroom as his wife huddles underneath the covers. His daughter will now grow up without knowing her father. In life and on the football field, he resembled promise; promise that was then never even given a chance because of two shots fired one early Monday morning.
He was also my same age, entering the prime of his life. This prompted me to wonder what I had accomplished so far in life, and how certain things in life just cannot continue to be taken for granted like they have.
The news coverage was relentless. The angles were endless. Sean Taylor the Redskin. Sean Taylor the troublemaker. Sean Taylor the reformed man. Sean Taylor the family man. Sean Taylor, member of the biggest football fraternity, the Miami Hurricanes. Sean Taylor the NFL player. Sean Taylor the black on black crime victim.
Much of the coverage shed light on a man few had personally known. He did not conduct many interviews, instead wanting that attention to go to his teammates. In those few instances he spoke to reporters, he was reflectful, remarking that he had to lead life without regrets and an acute awareness of his mortality . He would make surprise visits to his grade school, singing autographs and spending times with the kids. His teammates spoke highly of him, clearly stricken by the loss.
However, the media also took it upon themselves to provide commentary on what his death really signaled. Some revealed conspiracy, such as that cutting his phone lines, leaving a knife on his bed two weeks before, and shooting him in the groin were a message Sean Taylor paid for with his life. They claimed, “you can take the boy out of the hood, but you can’t take the hood out of the boy”. They brought up his criminal past, which revealed more immaturity than a predilection towards violence, causing other media to claim the degradation of a man who had not even been buried.
Gradually, the truth came out on what happened that night and the man Sean was becoming, and put these speculations to shame. His murder was accidental, a botched burglary attempt gone awry. But the more details came out, the more tragic the news became. His sister knew at least one of the shooters; Sean himself had let them have a party at his house out of kindness. One man mowed his lawn. The sister may have bragged about the luxuries Sean had shared with his family; he would pay for their theft attempt with his life.
I happened to have tickets to my first ever NFL game that Thursday, and although I was hoping to bask in the typical NFL experience, it was anything but. The players were clearly drained emotionally, but the fans were eager to show their respect for #21. Fittingly, the team began their first defensive set with only 10 players – leaving Taylor’s spot vacated on the field to honor him.
It seemed every NFL team had a teammate of his from the Miami Hurricanes national championship team, and even those who had never been on his team considered him one of their own as an NFL player. The Ravens defense is led by three ex-Hurricanes – Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Samari Rolle – who in the pregame huddle dedicated their efforts that Sunday to Sean: ” This is not about winning or losing. This is about how we play the game. We bury one of our own tomorrow. Let’s send him out right..let’s make him proud.” They would board a plane as soon as the game ended to fly down to Miami.
Sean Taylor was buried a week after his death. Thousands showed up to mourn him, from players to agents to coaches to childhood friends. Numerous scholarships have been created in his remembrance, to create opportunity for others. They will not show up on SportCenter’s Top 10 plays like his jaw dropping hits, but ultimately their impact will be greater than anything that can be accomplished on the football field.
Shortly after the funeral disbanded, the four suspects involved were brought to Miami to face charges for Sean’s murder. They had confessed and were nervous, and hoped for a speedy resolution. All had criminal records, but none could have foreseen the death of Sean or prepared for the reaction they may certainly receive. They will serve their just punishment, but it is my hope that they will see the that life can be turned around, and must be valued at all cost. Sean’s legacy is living proof of that.