Death of Taylor Leaves Nothing but Disbelief

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, November 27, 2007; 3:49 PM

In other places, it is time to dissect the senselessness, to understand what terrible, awful events led up to the death of Sean Taylor -- to figure out why a kid who had everything to live for seemingly died for nothing.

Today in Ashburn, the most numbing and tragic day in franchise history, there are only looks of disbelief, tears and a deepening hurt that won't go away.

Red-eyed teammates, some inconsolable. Weeping coaches, trying to hold it together. Shaken team employees, comforting big, strong grown men who have spent their whole existence learning to hide pain instead of dealing with it.

Reed Doughty choked back tears. Someone asked if he was crying.

"Of course," he began, about to break down, "It's real."

Pete Kendall was asked if he had spoken to his children about Taylor's death. "I'm sure that will come," he said. "They asked and my wife and I just tried to explain to them there was a situation."

Compared to usual protocol around the Redskins, the scene is just so surreal. In the NFL, Tuesday is considered an off day, a time to rest bodies and recuperate for the next week's game. Who among them ever believed they would be mourning the passing of a teammate?

Taylor, the enigmatic Redskins safety, is dead at 24 years old. He died during the night after earlier reports that he had been responsive to attending physicians. Everyone who left Redskins Park in Ashburn last night around midnight had their cautious optimism stripped away sometime after 6 a.m., the moment we learned of his death.

He's gone? He's gone.

And for what, men seeking his material wealth? Revenge? His fearless nature? No one is sure today. No one here cares. They all weep and wonder how it is that a young, virile Pro Bowl safety -- the player Sports Illustrated tabbed the hardest hitter in the NFL -- did not wake up this morning to begin the long road to recovery.

They all swallow hard and wonder how such a strong, resilient kid, whose on-field collisions brought back memories of Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum and all the game's ferocious defenders, somehow was shot in his own home and became yet another Miami-Dade County homicide victim.

It should be mentioned that, disturbingly in this violent country, Sean Taylor became another young, black male whose dreams perished before his 25th birthday. He just happened to be richer and more famous than the rest.

The scene here is just so surreal, almost incomprehensible. No one here today could even remember the last time a professional team's star athlete was murdered in the middle of the season. Lyman Bostock Jr., maybe. Bostock was a rising star for the Minnesota Twins in 1978, who carried the namesake of his father, a former Negro Leagues star. While visiting an uncle the week before the season ended, he was mistakenly shot by a man aiming for his estranged wife. He died at 27. Like Taylor, Bostock had less than four complete seasons before his death.

In the Washington area, the only thing that comes close is former University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias's cocaine-induced death in June of 1986 after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. He was just 22 years old.

Like Bias, Taylor had so much in front of him -- an 18-month-old daughter to raise, a football career to further distinguish himself, maybe one day a bust in Canton, Ohio, beside all the other Hall of Famers. At the very least, a long life to lead. And now there is nothing.

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 brief career Taylor distrusted the media, feeling he had 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. Sad, isn't it, that the player who often barely said a word is having his life talked about incessantly today?

There are millions of questions about this young man to be debated. His past, some of which was criminal and could easily be construed as violent. His decision to return to South Florida and lose contact again with his coach, Joe Gibbs. And Taylor's connection to the controversial Miami football program, which just last season had a player murdered outside his apartment complex during the season.

In the wake of his death, it's fair to ask if any or all of this contributed to his life being taken. But not here, not in Ashburn.

Before quickly considering this is a criminal case or foolishly stereotyping this as "a U. thing," Taylor's death should be considered a people issue. In the parking lot of a Northern Virginia office building -- at a National Football League training facility, of all places -- this is simply about a young man who died too soon and left his teammates, friends and extended family groping for answers to a tragedy.

The truth is, whatever Taylor was, whatever his past, he made a sincere effort to alter what people thought of him before he died. "That man changed his life, that man changed his mentality, changed his attitude, he came to work with a defined happiness," Portis said on Monday, as Taylor was still clinging to life in Miami.

This team is somehow supposed to play a football game on Sunday, but right now it feels so distant. As the people with red, bleary eyes keep coming through the door, there is no blessing in disguise here, no payoff to this story that can make the pain and the tears disappear. There is just sadness and the unending feeling that nothing will be the same here anymore, where Sean Taylor plied his trade daily after he pulled into his painted, No. 21 parking space.

Today, along with the grief in Ashburn, it is all that is left.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company