Some Hope On a Difficult Day

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It was a few minutes past 7 p.m., and no one at Redskins Park knew whether Sean Taylor would live. That's when the team executive got on the line, when a glimmer of good news was relayed from a speaker phone via a Miami hospital.

"Well, the doctor . . . he was responsive to the doctor's request to squeeze his hand and show a facial expression," said Vinny Cerrato. The words tumbled quickly from the mouth of the Redskins' vice president of football operations, a nervous excitement behind them as he added, "So the doctors were very happy about that."

The kid squeezed a physician's hand? He made a face? He's not going to die?

After seven hours of surgery -- seven of the longest hours anyone in the Redskins organization could remember -- Taylor still lay in critical condition after a gunshot wound nearly killed him. But last night, just past 7, the team, through contact with Taylor's agent, there was, at least, hope.

The enigmatic Redskins safety who had so much in front of him, who has an 18-month-old daughter to raise and a long life to lead, had avoided becoming an instant statistic in Miami-Dade County, where 258 homicides were reported in 2006 and 125 people were killed between January and July of this year.

It speaks to the sad, somber mood of the day when hopes arrive because another young, black male -- who just happened to be more famous and rich than many others -- would not be given a number beyond the No. 21 he wore so brilliantly on the field this season.

But for today, that's where we are.

And amid the updates on the touch-and-go condition of Taylor and the speculation of his ability to survive, that is the very best anyone could have asked for.

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."

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.

And yet there was Clinton Portis before he boarded a plane for Miami, his voice about to break, distilling what we all felt when he said, "This ain't nothing you live and die for."

"What you live and die for is your kids, you live and die for your family and that's what Sean was doing," Portis said.

For much of his career Taylor has distrusted the media, feeling he has been unfairly portrayed as a University of Miami thug while also at the same time refusing to publicly acknowledge his role in that perception. A sincere attempt to get Taylor to open up in an interview last month went nowhere; the trust just wasn't there.

Whatever Taylor is, whatever his past, he has made a sincere effort to change. "That man changed his life, that man changed his mentality, changed his attitude, he came to work with a defined happiness," Portis said.

Said Pierson Prioleau, Taylor's friend whose locker is next to Taylor's at FedEx Field on game days: "Your kids grows and you're like, 'Aw, man I didn't know he could do that?' Or 'Man, he does this?' and you're so excited about it. It's similar with Sean here. When I came here in '05 he had just had his things going on. But from '05 to now I've been able to see him leap bounds and growth that is unimaginable for any player that I've been with."

They are all issues to be debated another day.

Instead think of Joe Gibbs yesterday -- glassy-eyed, his voice unsteady as he spoke of Taylor putting his baby over his shoulder. He delivered the most emotional news conference of his 67 years on an afternoon when he had the team chaplain lead the Redskins in prayer.

Believing in a higher power, divine spirit, even an unknown force of the universe, was encouraged but not necessary in Ashburn yesterday. Yet on the day Sean Taylor was shot, there was nothing wrong with believing in a kid's will to live. A few minutes past 7 p.m., that's all that mattered.

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