By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 2005
Sean Taylor sat at the edge of a tree-lined strip of grass in a parking lot at Dulles Town Center, less than five miles from Redskins Park and about seven miles from his Ashburn home. Taylor, wearing loose gray sweatpants and untied sneakers with no socks, stretched one leg onto the pavement of the mall's restaurant row.
The Washington Redskins safety -- with face stubble and a mustache -- appeared relaxed Saturday despite legal issues that could halt his second pro season, imprison him for at least three years and cost him most of his rich NFL contract.
Although Taylor's black knit cap was pulled snugly over his braided hair, patrons at a nearby restaurant occasionally stared after recognizing the 6-foot-2, 231-pound safety sitting on the ground, giving his first interview since last year.
Today at Redskins Park, the Redskins will begin practice and Taylor -- who will be the most scrutinized player by the media and fans allowed to attend the afternoon session -- said he is excited about returning to the football field for the first time since the Redskins' regular season finale in January.
"That's kind of like a safe haven," said Taylor, who has changed his jersey number from 36 to 21. "When I'm on the field, that's almost a natural thing. That's what I do the best. I think that's where any player should be most comfortable."
Taylor, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft, arrived from Miami on Wednesday, and met with Coach Joe Gibbs on Saturday for a long discussion. "What he said to me made sense and made me feel good as far as the mistakes he's made," Gibbs said yesterday. "I'm not going to elaborate on what we talked about. But I thought it was a good conversation; it was a good coach-player conversation."
Taylor, 22, did not resemble an athlete who has avoided the Redskins' offseason workouts. Before meeting with Gibbs, Taylor passed a mandatory conditioning test. "He breezed that out there as far as running," Gibbs said. "He looks like he's in real good shape."
In a roughly 30-minute interview, Taylor occasionally cast himself as a victim, yet often expressed contrition.
"I think you're learning every day. People learn every day," said Taylor, wearing a plastic yellow "Livestrong" wristband from the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "From being 2- and 3-year-old babies to 50 and 60 years old. They're still learning until the day they die. If you're not learning, you're not living.
"It would be wrong for me to look at my situation, and say: 'I haven't learned. It's not going to change me.' Of course, it's going to change you."
Taylor faces one felony count of aggravated assault with a firearm and one misdemeanor count of simple battery stemming from a June 1 confrontation in a Miami neighborhood. Miami-Dade prosecutor Mike Grieco has charged Taylor with pointing a gun at three men while he demanded the return of his two all-terrain vehicles, which allegedly were stolen. Taylor, who declined to discuss specifics of the case, has pleaded not guilty and refused a plea bargain.
Under Florida's stringent gun laws, Taylor faces a mandatory minimum sentence of three years and a maximum of 16 years. His trial date is tentatively set for Sept. 12, one day after Washington's regular season opener against the Chicago Bears at FedEx Field. The trial appears likely to be delayed until after the season through continuances requested by Taylor's attorney, Edward Carhart. But following Taylor's arrest, the Redskins acquired three veteran safeties, apparently as a contingency for Taylor's absence.
If Taylor were to be convicted, which would be a violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy -- the Redskins could reclaim more than $9 million of roughly $11 million in bonuses from his rookie contract. Nonetheless, Taylor says that he won't allow his predicament to dominate his thoughts.
"It's already a process. What I say and think about is not going to change that," said Taylor. "The only thing I can do is just focus on the things I love to do: my football, my job. Sometimes, it's the best thing for you because you have a way of releasing yourself with some positive efforts.
"I'll have to live day by day. When my day comes to handle my legal situation, I'll go handle it. When it's time for me to play football, I'll play football."
Yesterday, Redskins players were required to report to the National Conference Center in Leesburg, where players are housed during training camp. Taylor's teammates -- a few of whom criticized the safety after his arrest -- enthusiastically welcomed him.
"I'm not going to speak for anyone else on the team, but I'm happy to have him back," tight end Chris Cooley said in a telephone interview. "He's a great player and teammate. He's a good guy to be around, and loves football. Everybody respects that."
Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin added: "He's my teammate. He's here. It's time to work. Let's be positive and go forward."
Taylor's perspective may come less from the pending trial than from the second phase of the June 1 incident. Taylor drove to the home of a friend's mother, where he had been parking his ATVs. A few minutes later, shots were fired into the home and at Taylor's car. (Police retrieved shell casings from at least two different weapons.)
"It made me say, 'whoa.' It was an eye-opener," said Taylor, whose lawyers have made the shooting a key part of his defense, contending that some of his alleged victims are possibly the shooters. "I never ever, ever want to put myself in that situation. If I die, at least let it be in my sleep or an accident or something.
"It's something that makes me kind of think 10 steps ahead now: Getting shot at ain't something nice. I'm not talking about one or two bullets. I'm talking about a whole lot of bullets. It was a shocker. Man, these people don't care if you don't wake up tomorrow.
"I don't even know how to explain it. You would almost have to be in my shoes. There's so much more to live for than to go out by a bullet. I can't even put it in the correct words."
Taylor is the only returning player who skipped every voluntary workout at Redskins Park without being excused by the club. Taylor's absence was conspicuous; Gibbs has placed the attendance figure for the club's weight-room and conditioning program at 96 percent.
Taylor feels that his seven-year, $18 million deal worth up to $40 million with incentives tied to the Pro Bowl doesn't have enough guaranteed money but said that wasn't why he remained in Miami during the entire offseason.
"They [workouts] are voluntary, which means you have an option to say yes or no," said Taylor. "I know there are teammates working and putting forth maximum effort. But don't think when the time comes for the season that I'm not going to give a full effort. I don't slack off. I never point fingers."
During his absence, Taylor drew Gibbs's ire by not returning the coach's telephone calls until after his arrest.
"He's the coach. There should be some communication," Taylor said. "It's my fault on that part. Obviously, I learned that it's something he really didn't like. So next time, I'll call him back right away. . . . They can get me [on the phone] when they want me."
Although Taylor said he has been working out in Miami, he declined to provide details about his regimen, except to say that he avoided the gym.
"It's like my recipe. You can't give out your secrets," Taylor said with a smile. "I know what I need to do to get ready. I'm not a big gym guy.
"I haven't put on pads. So I know when I put on pads, it's going to be a little different for me. But I love to stay physically fit, tight. I haven't been sitting on my butt and just not doing anything."
Teammates describe Taylor as one of the hardest workers at practice -- when he's there. "When he's on the field, he's going real hard," Griffin said. "He competes on every ball."
Taylor, whose hard hits drew several personal fouls that resulted in NFL fines, has been an enigma since being drafted. He fired two agents and was fined $25,000 for leaving the NFL's mandatory rookie symposium. On Oct. 28, he was arrested for driving under the influence, but was acquitted in January. He has boycotted the media since October because, he said Saturday, he felt demonized.
"They are the way to speak to the fans, but sometimes they misinterpret," Taylor said. "In some ways, I don't feel I really need to talk to 'em. Since the rookie symposium, you guys would bash me before you asked me, and my DUI situation, you bashed me and when it turned out there wasn't a case, you wanted to ask me what happened.
"Obviously if I don't speak for myself, you're going to keep saying, 'He's this. He's that.' So I feel I should defend myself. I have a mind. I have a heart. You can say what you want, but at least I can give my side."
Taylor plans to address the media today, and indicated Saturday that he wouldn't go long again without speaking publicly. Yesterday at Redskins Park, Taylor was uncharacteristically congenial toward reporters despite declining interviews and said he is prepared for the scrutiny. "I've been getting attention since the day I walked through the NFL doors," Taylor said.
The player who begins his second season says the June incident has brought him even closer to his family. He spent much of the offseason in Homestead, Fla., with his mother, Donna Junor, and great-grandmother, Aulga Clarke. Although his parents separated shortly after his birth, he is close to both. Over the past few days, Taylor's father, Pete -- the chief of police in Florida City, Fla. -- spent time with his son in Virginia. Taylor's parents -- who declined to comment -- attended some games last year, and plan to come to more this season.
"At 22, I could have been off this earth," said Taylor, the second-oldest of four children. "You can't say my family wasn't close, but you kind of appreciate your family a little bit more. That bond is stronger, and you feel like, 'Hey, let me try to do more.'
"There's always room for improvement."