By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 27, 2007 12:28 PM
A few years ago, I was allowed to spend what became a thoroughly illuminating afternoon at the NFL's rookie symposium, then, a four-day session held at Lansdowne Resort near Leesburg. Every drafted rookie was and still is required to attend an annual event designed to prepare the players for a wide variety of issues they would soon be facing as highly visible professional athletes.
One of the more compelling elements that day was a series of skits put on by a professional acting troupe based in New York. A wide variety of scenarios was played out on the stage; from a scene in a club showing an athlete losing his temper when his girlfriend was groped by a drunken bar fly to a young player confronted by his larcenous cousin wanting him to buy a recently stolen sound system at a very reduced rate.
At the dramatic high point of each presentation, at about the time the player would have to make a very critical and potentially life-altering decision, a voice offstage would scream out "FREEZE!!!!!" and the actors literally stopped and became living, breathing statues. At that point, a discussion leader stepped out and opened the floor to comments and questions on how the fictional player would have, and should have handled that situation.
Consequences was the theme of the day. Everything you do has consequences, and even more so when you are young, rich and a highly visible professional athlete.
I've been thinking about that symposium ever since the news broke Monday morning that Sean Taylor, the Redskins Pro Bowl safety had been shot in an apparent burglary attempt at his home in a suburban Miami neighborhood. Tragically, Taylor died early Tuesday morning from a bullet that severed the femoral artery in his groin area. The massive loss of blood was too much for even this seemingly superbly conditioned athlete to overcome.
He was only 24, the father of an 18-month-old baby girl who was also in the house along with her mother, Taylor's girlfriend. And this was for real. No symposium. No actors. No questions and answers from the audience, and certainly no one around to yell "FREEZE!!!! before the madness in Miami escalated into murder. The consequence of who knows what?
At the moment, it is far too soon to draw any conclusions as to how or why this tragedy occurred, why another young black man is now dead from a gunshot wound in his own home, why another athlete, Michael Vick, Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, and now Sean Taylor becomes headline news for all the wrong reasons.
Certainly it would be terribly easy to rush toward some sort of instant judgment based on what we think we all knew about Taylor and the sort of life he once, and for all we know, still led. But really, we know nothing at the moment, and until we do, "may he rest in peace" ought to be the operative phrase for this day.
Still, could anyone honestly say they never saw this coming? You'd have to be blind not to consider Taylor's checkered past. It was only a few months after he was drafted, when we got something of an inkling of what sort of young man the Redskins were selecting out of the University of Miami with the fifth overall selection in 2004.
For one, Taylor brazenly skipped the rookie symposium he was required to attend his first year, and was fined accordingly by the NFL. You also can look at the timeline of his professional life printed on this web site or in the newspaper and draw your own preliminary conclusions.
Over the first few years Taylor was in the league, he bounced from one scrape to another, blowing off the symposium, disrespecting Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs by not showing up for mandatory offseason workouts and never calling to explain why, running afoul of the law in a widely reported shooting incident in South Florida and very nearly going to jail.
On the field, Taylor often was a thoroughly undisciplined player who loved to make bold statements with vicious and often dangerous hits that occasionally got him tossed from games. Clearly, he seemed to embrace the thug image on and off the field, and the fact that he rarely spoke to members of the media only enhanced his reputation as a moody, enigmatic athlete we hardly ever got to know.
My colleague, Post columnist and ESPN broadcaster Michael Wilbon was asked about Taylor during his weekly internet web site discussion Monday and said, "I've known guys like Taylor all my life, grew up with some. They still have shades of gray and shouldn't be painted in black and white.
"I know how I feel about Taylor, and this latest news isn't surprising in the least, not to me. Whether this incident is or isn't random, Taylor grew up in a violent world, embraced it, claimed it, loved to run in it and refused to divorce himself from it. He ain't the first and won't be the last. We have no idea what happened, or if what we know now will be revised later. It's sad, yes, but hardly surprising."
In the wake of his shooting, we are now hearing about a so-called new Sean Taylor, a guy who seemed to be getting his life back in order, perhaps because of the birth of his child. Maybe a light bulb finally went off in his head. He was even enjoying arguably the best season of his career until he was derailed by a knee injury two weeks ago.
After a loss to Dallas two weeks ago, everyone around here, and in the Redskins locker room, was saying there was no way Terrell Owens would have caught four touchdown passes if Taylor had been patrolling the middle of the field, prepared to pounce and pound the yappy receiver any chance he got.
And on Monday, a stream of Redskins players and coaches were paraded in front of the cameras and microphones at Redskins Park to testify that Taylor had truly turned his life around for the better.
"The man changed his life," said running back Clinton Portis, his best friend and a former Miami teammate. "That man changed his mentality, changed his attitude. He came to work with a defined happiness."
But now, Sean Taylor will never come to work again. Never mind the impact of his loss on the football team, the last thing anyone ought to be thinking about at the moment. Instead, we need to focus on why this unspeakable tragedy happened and how we can keep it from happening to so many other young men soon to be attending rookie symposiums of their own.
If everything we're hearing about his life turnaround is true, surely Taylor would have been a marvelous speaker to show up at the 2008 session this spring. Maybe this time, when the man off stage shouts "FREEZE!!!!" everyone in the room will be thinking about truth, and consequences and surely paying a lot more attention.