Earlier this morning, a young, widely-misunderstood African-American man died from a bullet wound in a Miami, Florida hospital. Outside of the Washington, DC area and the close fraternity that is the National Football League and the city of Miami -- where he was a star football player for the University of Miami Hurricanes -- few people, outside of his family and close circle of friends, knew him well. Certainly not many in the media. But his coaches and teammates loved him.
His name was Sean Taylor and for the past 3 1/2 years, he played safety for my team, the Washington Redskins.
He was only twenty four years old.
Taylor was a high first round draft pick of the Redskins in 2004. At the time, many football analysts around the league compared him to Hall of Fame player Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers, one of the best safeties ever to play the brutal sport we call professional football.
For those of us who saw him play, Taylor was one of the very best players ever to suit up in a football uniform for the Redskins -- this for a team that for over 75 years has produced legendary players like Sammy Baugh, Bobby Mitchell, Charlie Taylor, Sonny Jurgensen, Larry Brown, John Riggins, Joe Theismann, Art Monk, and Darrell Green. He had unlimited potential and was simply brilliant at what he did. In 2004, many saw in him a future star who would dominate opposing teams like few did before him.
Early this morning, I read a moving column (written while Taylor was still clinging precariously to life) by sports columnist Mike Wise in the Washington Post in which he summed up the feelings of Redskins Assistant Head Coach-Defense, Gregg Williams
Maybe an hour before the news of his progress arrived, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams tried to talk about the player in the present tense. He spoke of how the mercurial kid, whom the tough-love defensive taskmaster grew close with, had grown, matured, become a doting father in May 2006. But the words stopped coming and Williams had to leave the podium before he broke down.
"Whether he plays again, I don't know," Williams said. "If he does, great, if he doesn't, great. I just want him to recover, I just want him to be... I just want him to be all right."
It was not to be. Death is never timely. And for teammates who feared the worst, such was the case
The morning had been so surreal, the moments immediately after his teammates and coaches heard Taylor had been shot.
A shaken Fred Smoot trudged through the parking lot, fighting back tears, and was determined not to cry for everyone to see. Rock Cartwright wept openly, the tears coming hard.
Big, strong men cried and prayed and cried and prayed. And prayed some more.
NFL players are often freakish, and not just in physical stature. If they are among the largest and strongest men in the world, they also pride themselves on their ability to manage pain, especially emotional pain. Acknowledging that kind of hurt is still, sadly, considered a weakness.
In some ways they are more unprepared to deal with Taylor's experience than most people. When elite athletes gear the mind to be impervious toward shortcomings -- when they begin to believe the myth of their own invincibility -- it is that much more difficult to get in touch with their own mortality.
Today, Sean Taylor is tragically gone. A young life snuffed out, gone in the short period of a few hours after being shot in the middle of the night at his Miami home by an intruder. A father to an eighteen month-old girl, a son lost to his parents, and someone described by his Miami neighbors as a quiet, polite young man. A whole lot of promise unfulfilled. And for that and what could have been much, much more, we mourn his passing.
In our society, we love the underdog and cheer for him or her to succeed even as the odds are stacked against them. But we marvel at the abilities of those who stand head and shoulders above the rest of us. We want nothing more than to see them excel at what they do for, above all, we value achievement and excellence. We want them to soar high above us mere mortals for only they can go places the rest of us can simply dream of.
In a brief, yet brilliant, football career, Taylor did just that. Even as many are in a state of utter shock upon hearing the news today, we cherish the memories he left behind.
That is what we celebrate today.
RIP, Sean Taylor.