By Mike Wise
Saturday, October 27, 2007
You walk up to Sean Taylor's cubicle in the Redskins' Ashburn locker room and tell him you want to talk. He sees a notebook and a tape recorder and winces. He's not giving you anything.
When you persist, he says, "Have a nice day." But it doesn't come out like that. It's spoken in a cryptic, "Get-out-of-my-face" manner. To him, you're just another hater posing as a concerned journalist who wants to tell the real story of the most feared hitter in the NFL, the safety LaVar Arrington once christened, "The Grim Reaper."
You're not going to write that a 17-month-old baby girl named Jackie melts his heart, how fatherhood makes him feel like more of a mature, young man and less of the moody knucklehead who came into the league four years ago.
You're not going to write that his teammates love and respect him and not one -- not a single one among 35 you interviewed -- has a bad thing to say about him.
You try to tell him your intention is to learn why one of the game's most spectacular playmakers shut down one day and wouldn't let anyone in.
But he can't go there. He's not ready. When you call his agent and his father, they ask if you spoke with Sean first. When you tell them he won't agree to any interview of substance, his father says he'll call you back and doesn't, and Drew Rosenhaus says he has to honor his client's request and not talk either.
So, in the middle of his breakout season -- when he's picking off Brett Favre twice and setting his sights on Tom Brady tomorrow and everything is coming together for the 24-year-old safety -- teammates and coaches speak for him.
"You don't want to see the good in a person like Sean," Clinton Portis tells you. Portis, who sits next to Taylor and the other member of "The U" connection, wide receiver Santana Moss, knows Taylor as well as anyone in Washington. Well, as well as you can know Taylor.
"You don't want to understand the success or the pain he's went through to be where he is. In Sean's situation, there's been so much pain that when you step out here playing football is easy.
"What pain?" you ask.
"We don't know Sean's story," Portis said. "We don't know who crossed him in the past. You don't know if it came from him being here."
You know this about Sean Taylor. Whether anyone close to him wants to acknowledge it or not, he was on the road to being another Adam "Pacman" Jones. There were spitting incidents, one involving Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman in 2006, for which he was fined $17,000. The son of the Florida City, Fla., police chief also has trouble with the law.
A 2004 Virginia conviction for failing to take a breathalyzer test was later dismissed on appeal and a 2005 incident in his home town of Miami involving ATVs stolen from Taylor ended up with him avoiding jail time and a felony after his attorneys plea-bargained down to community service and a fine.
He also pushed the legal limit at Redskins Park. Taylor broke Joe Gibbs's law, which some misguided people in these parts equate to genuine criminal behavior. By failing to return Gibbs's calls during the 2005 season, Taylor was unmercifully ripped by fans and the media too happy to paint him as a malcontent not interested in being part of a unit. To a Redskins zealot that transgression, it seemed, was worse than anything the police were trying to pin on Taylor.
But Taylor won't say that. He won't say anything of real substance. His last interview of significance with an individual reporter for The Post came before the start of the 2005 season, and he's given a smattering of sound bites since, including at last February's Pro Bowl, after he laid out a punter named Brian Moorman who thought he had come to Hawaii for sun, surf and a fun exhibition game.
Taylor is engaging and friendly with many of the female reporters who cover the team -- who come across more as mother or sister figures than any potential flirtations. But once the subject of sitting down and revealing himself is broached -- or he cocks his head sideways and his eyes squint in suspicion, sensing a camera or microphone is turned on -- the polite demeanor disappears. The wall goes back up.
Portis had one thing wrong. People want to like Taylor. But when you won't let anybody in, when you think everyone who greets you has an agenda, perception is all you can go on.
"I fought back in New York by not talking when someone wrote something bad about me," Moss said. "But I thought about it; I wasn't getting my story out. So everybody went on what one guy wrote. One day I just figured the best thing I can do is let people know who I really am. For Sean, well, he might have really been burned the beginning of his career here."
Gregg Williams, the Redskins' defensive boss, says there is one key to knowing Taylor.
"More than anything, it's trust," he said. "He has to trust you. He can look you in the eye and know whether you're being a con."
Williams says the maturity and development of Taylor was the result "a lot of tough love behind the scenes you didn't see."
"I love him," he said. "I think he's one of the most passionate football players I've ever coached. But he's very guarded. He's so at peace with who he is, he really doesn't care that [you] don't know him. It doesn't bother him."
Portis feels the same way. "I love him as a person and a teammate, I think what he stands for is perfect. He added that Taylor's infant daughter has changed him.
"You gotta grow up all of a sudden," Portis said. "It's not you, you, you, you. Now you got to sacrifice you all the time for her, her, her. When you have something so precious and so innocent in your life like that, it gives you a special meaning for what matters."
Lessons learned. Perspective. Unbridled joy. All the things Sean Taylor has apparently experienced but failed to reveal. Until he decides to speak for himself, that will have to be good enough.