49ers rookie Keith Reaser strives to honor memory of his cousin, Sean Taylor


Keith Reaser (left), shown here while playing for Florida Atlantic, was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in May’s NFL draft. (John Raoux/AP Photo)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Keith Reaser remembers the football games he watched his older cousin play. He remembers the workouts when Reaser was old enough and began to show some promise of his own at the sport. But mostly, he says, he remembers the advice his cousin would give to him whenever they trained together.

“His overall message to me was, ‘It’s no secret to it. It’s just hard work. People are always looking for the shortcut or [asking]: How do I do this? But it’s just hard work,’ ” recalled Reaser, a rookie cornerback with the San Francisco 49ers. “And he just really worked at it, really worked at it.”

Perhaps the message wasn’t all that unique. But for Reaser, it was memorable because of how uniquely gifted the messenger was. Reaser’s elder cousin, his football hero, was Sean Taylor.

Taylor, the former Pro Bowl safety for the Washington Redskins, possessed talent so immense some observers believed he would have left a mark as one of the all-time greats at his position. Instead, it’s been seven years since he was shot and killed during a botched burglary at his home. Reaser, who was 16 at the time of Taylor’s death, has managed to follow his cousin into the NFL. In May he was selected by the 49ers in the fifth round of the draft out of Florida Atlantic University, despite a knee injury that is expected to keep him sidelined for all of his rookie season.

Reaser’s goal now, as always, is to do things that would have made his cousin proud, he says.

“Every time I come out on the field, every time I go to work out, I try to play that over in my mind: If he was here, how would I work? What would I do today? Would he be proud of what I’m doing today?” Reaser said. “I try to keep it in my mind. I try to write it on me somewhere before a game. But it plays on my mind every day, any time I do anything football related.”

Family ties

Drew Rosenhaus, the NFL super-agent, remembers a picture taken at Taylor’s 2004 draft celebration with his family. Standing close to Taylor on one of the happiest days of Taylor’s life was a 12-year-old kid. It was Keith Reaser.

“It’s really special that we were able to help Sean’s family after the horrible tragedy they’ve gone through and had to deal with over the years,” Rosenhaus said. “And it’s really special to be able to contribute to bringing the family some good news with Keith making it into the NFL. Keith has dealt with a great deal of adversity of his own. It’s very meaningful because I care very much about Sean’s family and just being able to do something for his first cousin is very important.”

Rosenhaus represented Taylor, and now he represents Reaser.

“It’s just great,” Rosenhaus said. “It’s amazing how time flies. It seems like just yesterday we were representing Sean. I’m very proud of Keith. He’s a hard worker. He’s a real winner…. They have a lot of the same qualities. They both play the game very hard, very passionate. I think a lot of the great qualities he has, he learned from Sean. Sean was one of the most competitive guys I ever met. I think the fact that the 49ers drafted Keith in the fifth round knowing he probably wouldn’t play this year shows you that he’s an early-round talent. He has a really bright future.”

Taylor was eight years older than Reaser, and Reaser followed Taylor’s football career at every level.

Sean Taylor's work ethic rubbed off on his younger cousin. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Sean Taylor’s work ethic rubbed off on his younger cousin. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

“My favorite player, favorite player by far,” Reaser said, referring to his cousin. “The cool thing is to have your favorite player be someone in your family. It really gave you that added motivation and that belief that if he can do it, I can do it, too, because he’s in your family. I watched him from little league to high school to college, went to every game. In high school, we went to all of the home games and UM [the University of Miami].”

It was obvious all along, Reaser said, that his cousin was headed to football stardom.

“It wasn’t even fair,” Reaser said. “He could play anything on the field. Anything. They even put him at quarterback and let him throw passes sometimes…. He was blessed with natural size and ability. He was playing with older kids. He was playing varsity football in ninth, 10th grade and was bigger than a lot of the other guys. You could see it at a young age.”

Their age difference meant that the two didn’t spend too much time together, Reaser says, until Reaser was playing football and running track at Miami’s Killian High School.

“If he was still alive now, we would have” spent more time together, Reaser said. “The last couple years before he died, I started training with him more, working out with him more.”

Reaser vividly remembers the day in November 2007 when he learned that Taylor had been shot.

“I was in school and my mom had called me… at like 5 in the morning,” he said. “I really didn’t think anything of it. But it was odd that my mom called me at that time of the morning. I remember some kid in school — because people in school knew that I was his cousin — saying, ‘I heard Sean Taylor got shot.’ But he kind of said it… like he didn’t know if it was true. I was like, ‘What? Nah.’ I started thinking and I was like, ‘I wonder if that’s why my mom called me.’ So I called my mom. She was at the hospital with my uncle. I guess she didn’t keep calling me because she didn’t want to bring me that news while I was in school.”

‘Beyond frustrating’ knee problems

Reaser spoke about Taylor as he stood this past Monday near the practice fields at the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility. The 49ers had just finished their third day of joint practices with the Ravens before heading back to the West Coast. But Reaser isn’t practicing as he works his way back from a series of knee surgeries.

“He’s got a great approach, a great attitude,” said Ed Donatell, the secondary coach for the 49ers. “And that’s not easy to do when you know you’re a guy that’s down for the year. That’s the right thing to do. When he comes out next year, I think he’s going to be really good. I’m excited for that already.”

Reaser had his final collegiate season cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and underwent surgery. When he attended the NFL scouting combine in February in Indianapolis, he learned that the graft used to repair his knee had failed and another surgery would be required.

“He’s at the combine,” Rosenhaus said. “He was getting ready to run the 40[-yard dash]. I think he would have run in the 4.3s. And he’s being told by teams that the graft didn’t hold, that his knee isn’t right and he needs another surgery. He’s doing great. It seems unlikely he’ll play this year. He’ll probably have an NFL redshirt year, if you will. But look out for Keith next year.”

Donatell offered a disclaimer — “ I don’t really do that,” he said — but with prodding, guessed that Reaser might have been a second- or third-round pick in the draft if he hadn’t needed another knee surgery.

“We saw a guy with good size and good speed, good ball skills,” Donatell said. “He’s no stranger to the weight room. You can see he’s a workout guy…. We had him rated high because of his speed. The position is so valuable. I’ve got college films of his one-on-ones and you see every reason to feel good about him as a player.”

Reaser did not rule out the possibility of playing this season but acknowledged there’s a good chance his doctors and the 49ers won’t allow it.

“Beyond frustrating,” Reaser said. “At this point, I’m trying to stay patient with it. My whole life I’ve been playing football. There’s never been a time where I went months and months without playing football. So that’s probably the toughest part, just to want to come out here and compete and prove what you can do. But there’s just not much you can do about it and that’s the most frustrating part.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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Mark Maske · August 13