Fans Gather to Mourn, Share, Commiserate

A makeshift memorial beneath a pine tree grew beside a candlelight vigil by fans at the Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn.
A makeshift memorial beneath a pine tree grew beside a candlelight vigil by fans at the Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Tenorio and Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

About 200 fans gathered at Redskins Park in Ashburn last night to hold a vigil for Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who died early yesterday morning after being shot Monday in his Florida home.

Many fans stood holding candles in a circle around a 21, Taylor's jersey number, which had been painted on the grass field just outside of the security gate at the team's complex. Others milled around a makeshift memorial, reading handwritten messages left on posters and cards throughout the day.

At the beginning of the vigil, the fans stood silent, many wiping tears from their eyes, as Zema Williams, better known as Chief Zee, led a prayer from the middle of the circle.

"Sean knows this is going on," Williams said after the prayer. "And not only here, it's over in Landover, it's over at FedEx Field, it's in Miami, it's around the nation that this is going on. . . . They've been here all day; they've been coming and going all day. They just miss him, and they're here to represent the missing him because we lost a great person."

Next to the prayer circle, fans added flowers and other mementos to the memorial, under a pine tree in the field.

Many fans took pictures of a framed poem that was written to Taylor's daughter, Jackie. The poem said Taylor had been perceived as a hero for what he had done on the field, but it ended in a reflection on never knowing the hero Taylor was off of it. The poem ended: "Your father, Our hero, Always."

Derek Blazer, 32, of Fairfax, held a picture of himself with Taylor after the Redskins' season-opening win over Miami. Blazer broke down as he recounted meeting Taylor, struggling to speak as he looked around at the hundreds of fans who had gathered.

"He was the guts of the team, he was, and I don't know how we're going to rebuild that," Blazer said. A crowd of supporters also gathered outside FedEx Field in Landover, where an identical yellow-and-white "21" had been painted on a patch of grass. Streams of fans exited the team store carrying armfuls of Taylor jerseys while new arrivals dropped off tributes: flowers, teddy bears, candles and balloons. Someone planted a sign shaped like a gravestone: "Superman," the marker read. "Big-time players make big-time plays."

They spoke of Taylor as a family member and said they had gone to the stadium not knowing what else to do. Shirley Richmond, 58, of Laurel, was scheduled to work last night, but she joined her fellow fans instead.

"We loved Sean so much," she said through tears. "This is like family. I'm grieving. I'm grieving. I'm grieving."

The fans gathered in small groups, exchanging stories about when they had heard the news and why Taylor had been their favorite player. Dave Edwards of Northwest Washington had gone to last weekend's game at Tampa Bay, and he recalled his feelings of anger and disappointment after the Redskins' last-minute loss.

"All that is so insignificant right now," said Edwards, who was wearing one of the three Taylor jerseys he owns. "It means nothing. Nothing. I'd take 10 0-16 seasons just for him to be back here. None of this means anything. My hatred for the Cowboys means nothing. The Buffalo game this week means nothing. The only reason I'll be there is to show my support for him, my love of Sean Taylor."

The crowd included some casual fans: parents and babies and young children. Ayanna Woods of Landover, who said she hardly followed football, had bought Taylor jerseys for herself and her 8-year-old son, Kyriq, who immediately put his on over his hooded sweatshirt. Kyriq, like the older fans around him, said he was drawn to Taylor's ferocious style of play.

"He was like one of the greatest safeties; a very, extremely good safety," he said. "I just wanted to come out here because he cracked people."

Thousands of others mourned together online; one thread about Taylor's death on the team's official message board had more than 30,000 views and about 1,000 replies by yesterday evening, with supporters of many other NFL teams stopping by to offer condolences. Fans almost immediately created memorial T-shirts and dozens of Facebook groups, including "R.I.P. Sean Taylor," which quickly attracted several thousand members.

Sales of Taylor jerseys on skyrocketed; the site ran out of Taylor replica jerseys by yesterday afternoon, according to a league spokeswoman. Over the past two days, the site sold more than twice as many Taylor jerseys as it had over the previous 3 1/2 weeks. When fan voting for the Pro Bowl is released today, Taylor will be the leading vote-getter among NFC free safeties, and fans organized online voting drives to make sure he retains that position.

Earlier in the day, fans around the metro area remembered Taylor in different ways.

Some flocked to Modell's Sporting Goods in Reston to pick up Redskins memorabilia and jerseys bearing Taylor's name.

"I can't believe number 21 is gone," said a damp-eyed Kristy Caputo, 32, of Reston, who stopped by the store on her lunch break. She said she paid $50 for a kid-size version of Taylor's jersey after a store employee told her that an early-morning rush cleared out all the adult ones. "He's amazing. Nobody hit like him. . . . As Redskins fans, we're absolutely devastated. . . . He was a Redskin. He was a brother."

At the Florida Avenue Grill in Northwest Washington during the lunch hour, Jermaine Hunter, 34, an insurance consultant who grew up in the District, said he identified with Taylor because the safety seemed like "a regular kind of guy."

"He carried himself as an everyday player who had outstanding ability," he said. "The way he talked, the way he played, with a hard-nosed, throwback mentality. There was nothing cute about it."

No matter where or how he was remembered, Redskins fans everywhere were mourning. And as the crowd grew outside Redskins Park last night, Rasheda Robinson, 30, of Ashburn, stood with her two children, Legacy, 11, and Jaleel, 9, and reflected.

"It's overwhelming, it definitely is," Robinson said, as she scanned the crowd. "I'm touched, very touched."

Staff writers Jonathan Mummolo, Paul Schwartzman and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company