Simple Dignity

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The only responses to death that seem appropriate, even if they don't feel adequate, are the simplest. Those who find a calm center of themselves from which to speak sincerely at such times are fairly rare. Sean Taylor deserved such words -- of praise and pity, appreciation and remembrance -- from the coach and owner of the team he played for.

And yesterday afternoon, Joe Gibbs and Daniel Snyder did Taylor justice, bringing dignity to the most sorrowful day ever at Redskins Park. "Our hearts, our prayers, our thoughts are with Sean Taylor's family. . . . We really are so saddened by what has taken place. We really will miss Sean," Snyder said quietly, his grief obvious after spending much of the previous 24 hours with Taylor's family at the Miami hospital where the Washington Redskins safety died just before dawn yesterday. "I think it is just an incredibly difficult time. . . . It is a shock and it is just a terrible, terrible tragedy. It is pretty rough."

Snyder's best and least-seen side is his softest. When he and his wife are helping Children's Hospital and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, when he worries about the illnesses of ex-employees, he almost is unrecognizable from the fellow who seems tempted to act like a tough-guy billionaire around his large and violent athletes.

Of course, sitting beside Gibbs seems to bring out the best in anybody. Perhaps no one knows what "authenticity" means, except that it is different for everyone -- being genuine, yourself, without a disguise, especially at the most difficult times. As Gibbs always affirms, his personality is rooted in his faith. But that faith is to some degree linked directly to his humility. Perhaps no famous coach in any sport has so little difficulty saying, "I don't know." And every time he says it, you respect him more and suspect there is plenty he does know. In the face of the killing of a 24-year-old, with plenty of mystery still surrounding the circumstances of his shooting, perhaps nothing is as healing as such a lack of ego.

"I've never dealt with this before. I don't know how we'll deal with it except we're all going to do it together," said Gibbs, shredding the coaches' cliche manual and trusting his feelings, including his doubts. "Each person here has to deal with it in his own way. . . . There are certain things in life you can't control. This is one of them. I just want to do the best I can at getting through this the right way."

While many athletes, forced to produce a comment, fall back on the bromide that "this puts things in perspective," Gibbs, whose 67th birthday was Sunday, seemed genuinely, deeply shaken. "From the time Dan called me, [it] probably makes you reflect on a lot of things for yourself personally," Gibbs said. "Where do you put your occupation? Where do you put your friends? Your family? Your kids? Your grandkids? And you realize life is so fragile. . . . It's hard to concentrate on football."

Perhaps nobody has seen the changes in Taylor in the last 18 months more clearly than Gibbs. Except for Taylor's friends and family, perhaps few people have as sharp a sense of loss as the coach who saw a gifted, immature problem child turning into a team leader, responsible adult and Pro Bowl safety. "Sean had a great sense of humor," Gibbs said. "He would joke with me a little bit about different things that he had gone through at different times."

And they'd gone through plenty since both arrived in '04 -- the coach who was a grandfather and the No. 5 draft pick whom the Giants' Jeremy Shockey described as "kind of a wild child" after their years at the anything-goes University of Miami.

When Taylor arrived, he wore his practice pants so baggy and low that when he reached up for a pass with one hand, he often had to reach down with the other hand to keep them from falling around his ankles. Sometimes, the young fashion victim missed his pants and stumbled down the field. In those first couple of years, Taylor bent or ignored Gibbs's preferences, and even his rules, more than any young player he'd ever had. For established stars, Gibbs often made accommodations. But only for Taylor, whose talent seemed limitless but whose defiant attitude was sometimes impenetrable, did Gibbs allow himself to look foolish. One offseason, Taylor ignored Gibbs's cellphone calls, joking with friends as the phone rang that it was his coach. He wasn't going to answer and had no plans to return the call; it was vacation time in Miami -- his life, his party and his risky fun. The most frightening of Taylor's escapades -- a year-long legal case -- looked as if it might even land him in jail. But Taylor accepted a plea bargain with reduced charges and probation, after being charged with brandishing a gun in an argument over what he claimed was the theft of two of his all-terrain vehicles.

Then, after the birth of his daughter in '06, everyone on the Redskins who knows Taylor said he changed radically. Gibbs grasped that evolution, too. Like Taylor, Gibbs had been the son of a policeman in the South. At some point, against that background, isn't rebellion almost a given? "There was a period in college . . . I ran amok," Gibbs said yesterday. "As far as [needing to] grow up, I think that certainly happened to me. . . . I think Sean was that way. . . . When you have a child, that's the first time I thought, 'I have to totally sacrifice myself.' A lot of us go through that."

So, by this season, Taylor was partly misunderstood by many -- and let's not sugarcoat this, partly perfectly understood, too -- and was ready to move to another stage of his life. Gone was the player who was ejected from a playoff game for spitting on an opponent. The missed assignments and blown tackles that marred Taylor's play in his lust for breathtaking, brutal highlight-film hits were replaced by film study, skull sessions with former Redskins stars and a fitness regimen that included becoming a vegetarian. "It scared me a little bit he was getting so thin," Gibbs said.

Then, recently, things started to happen that still aren't understood entirely by police.

Last week, Taylor, who was out with an injury the past two games, asked Gibbs for permission to go back to his Miami home, which had been burglarized. Taylor returned to Washington in midweek, took treatment on his knee at Redskins Park on Saturday but returned to Miami on Sunday. He didn't tell the Redskins. He didn't have to. But they probably wouldn't have liked it. Injured knees don't like extra plane flights. Was he getting a second medical opinion? That's still fuzzy.

Did the person who killed Taylor know he was back in town and in his house at 1:45 a.m. Monday? Was the killer a character "out of the past"? Or is that an unfair assumption, perhaps a form of stereotyping? After all, in the last two years other athletes have been the victims of harrowing home-invasion burglaries. Being a famous athlete can make one a target.

Perhaps time, and the police, will provide justice and, with it, clarity. For now, what we have is pain. Hundreds of fans paid their respects yesterday on a raw day, left flowers and took pictures of a large "21" the Redskins painted in the grass in a parking lot at their facility. A handful of players made brief comments, such as quarterback Jason Campbell, who said: "It's like we lost a family member. . . . If you just look at him from the way he has changed over the last year, it has been outstanding to have the opportunity to spend time with him because he is just such a special person."

Perhaps Gibbs summed up what Redskins fans will remember and treasure most -- the image of the football player who flew around the field with abandon.

"He was one of those guys that was made to play football," Gibbs said. "He had an athletic arrogance about that. He said: 'Hey, this is where I belong. I belong on the big stage.' "

Now that stage is empty.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company