My wife was the one who told me that Sean Taylor had died.
Like so many Redskins fans, I had gone to sleep thinking the news was getting better – that reported hand-squeeze, the Post's Insider with that all-caps headline on the “A REALLY REALLY POSITIVE SIGN” post – and woke up to find that it was as bad as it could be. I watched coverage of the funeral, the team's insane travel schedule, the improbable winning streak on CSN and ESPN and those other outlets. I watched the lopsided win over the Cowboys on a Slingbox connection projected on the big screen of a bar in Jerusalem, and the anticlimactic loss to the Seahawks in a Redskins bar in Baltimore.
Six months later I'd be working for the team, but, obviously, far too late to get to know Taylor.
Still, his presence – or, more accurately, his absence – loomed over the team from the day I arrived. The first reader request I ever fulfilled on the Redskins Blog was for pictures of Taylor's locker, a decision that almost caused me a nervous breakdown. I was still new in the building at that point, still learning what to do and what to avoid. The higher-ups who offered advice kept telling me to do whatever I wanted, to write what I would want to see.
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Taylor's locker fit the bill, and fulfilled a reader request besides. I was getting eviscerated in the comments then, and giving the readers something they had specifically requested seemed like a good, if cowardly, idea. Taylor's locker was kept as a memorial in the locker room, glassed over, affixed with a 21-and-a-halo sticker, topped with a picture of Taylor and his daughter next to his upturned shoulder pads. I assume much of it was as he had left it, but I don't know, because I only ever saw it as a memorial.
During a downtime in training camp, I headed into the locker, shot a few pictures of it, and posted them on the blog with a minimum of textual interruption. It was always awkward to write about Taylor, whose legend was enormous while he lived and grew exponentially when he died; the nerves were still exceedingly raw.
Response to the post was relatively favorable, especially by the standards of those early days, and I got to be somewhat happy for about five seconds. Then a longtime Redskins PR staffer pulled me aside and let me know that, allegedly, some of the players and their wives were surprised to see that on the blog, that the locker in the locker room was viewed as something of a private tribute for the players, and that in general posting that had been a bad decision that had likely cost me the trust of some of the players.
Even though nothing ever came of this (to the best of my knowledge), I was badly rattled. I worried that I had ruined my relationship with the players before I even started, that I had violated the sanctity of some locker room rule, and that I had generally doomed my job just a few days in.
Still, I left the post up and everything seemed okay. I maintained a perfectly cordial relationship with Clinton Portis and Santana Moss – the two guys I assumed were most likely to be aggravated by the post – and I moved on to figuring out how best to handle the blog. But that was my first object lesson on the swirl of demands and emotions that would make it very hard to write about Sean Taylor.
It never got any easier, either. In December of that year, long after much of the initial awkwardness of “OMG I'm working for the Redskins” had worn off, I attended an auction selling memorabilia, including Taylor's old cars, to raise money for his daughter Jackie. Two specific memories stick with me from the event: first, safeties coach Steve Jackson leaving the room with tears in his eyes, unable to watch the Taylor highlight video showing on the big screens. And second, huddling with the Post’s Paul Tenorio, trying to figure out how to cover a charity auction that doubled as a wake. Tenorio did a hell of a job with his piece; I had mixed feelings about my own. I still found it hard to write about Taylor, as I would when the depressing anniversary rolled around the next year, and the year after that.
At some point, the team moved on from Taylor. The locker was packed up and moved to FedEx Field. The player of the week parking space was taken down. Portis was released. That's life after death: you pick up the pieces that were left behind and move on with them.
It's stayed fresh for the fans, though, even as the organization has healed or forgotten. A few weeks back, I wrote a glib post on Mr. Irrelevant about a then-current favorite Redskins poll. Explaining the fact that Sean Taylor was leading the voting, I wrote "He’s the one Redskins player of the last decade who never had the chance to really disappoint the fans. An exciting, amazing player who died while his career was still on the climb, so fan imagination extrapolates that slope into infinity."
Today marks the four-year anniversary of Taylor's death. In that span, I've had an entire career with the Redskins. So has Jim Zorn. My wife and I have had two kids. The Redskins have started five quarterbacks and lost 38 regular season games. But the wound is still raw. This is why it's tough writing about Sean Taylor.
Like I said, I watched most of the coverage of Taylor's death on TV, but I did attend one thing in person: the game against Buffalo. Five days after Taylor's death and the day before his memorial service, on a cold, gray day at FedExField where, I, like so many others, was wearing a homemade Sean Taylor memorial shirt. Everyone remembers the missing-man formation the team opened with, and the devastating double timeout that led to a sad, stupid loss. But I remember one other thing: a bottle of whiskey.
Some macabre entrepreneur had printed up Sean Taylor memorial labels, slapped them on half-pints of whiskey, and was selling them for five or 10 bucks in the parking lot. I bought one, and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since, unopened, the seal unbroken.
But it feels like this is the year to change that. It's hard to write about Sean Taylor, and getting harder every year, and I kind of think that sealed bottle of whiskey is a big part of why. Maybe it's time to let the past be the past and not try to – pardon the brutally obvious pun – keep it all bottled up. Maybe dumping some cheap booze over the still-raw wound would clean things out and help it heal.
Or maybe the bottle isn't full of whiskey at all. Maybe it's just colored water or flat beer or god knows what else. Without opening it, there's no way to know.
It’s really tough to write about Sean Taylor. For a whole lot of reasons.
Matt Terl blogged for the Redskins from 2008-2011. He can be found on Twitter @matt_terl.