By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
When Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder heard the news in his Miami hotel room yesterday morning that star safety Sean Taylor had died, the first person he called was Coach Joe Gibbs. The moment he got off the phone with Gibbs, Snyder reached out to the man who some suspected would take the devastating information hardest of all, Gregg Williams, the team's assistant head coach-defense.
"He was the next call," said Snyder, who had learned of Taylor's death at 5:30 a.m. from Taylor's agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Of all the men to speak about their feelings Monday, as Taylor clung to life at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami after being shot in his Florida home, Williams was most visibly shaken, nearly breaking down, holding back tears as he addressed reporters that night.
He left Redskins Park very late Monday night, team sources said, going home for a few hours to speak to his family about Taylor's situation. Williams finally dozed off by the phone early yesterday morning, awaiting another report from Miami, according to those who spoke with the coach. Snyder's call started an agonizing day.
Williams opted not to speak to reporters yesterday, and instead spent the day huddled with his staff and players as calls poured into Redskins Park from his associates around the league. Gibbs said he spent a considerable amount of time with Williams yesterday "sharing stories" about Taylor, and trying to help each other through the grieving process.
Williams has never hidden his regard for Taylor, falling in love with the way the hard-hitting safety played and lobbying Gibbs to make him the staff's first draft pick in Washington, taking him fifth overall -- high for that position -- in 2004. When Taylor encountered off-the-field troubles -- most notably during a 2005 arrest on felony gun charges (he later accepted a plea bargain) -- Williams was a staunch supporter, frequently stating his belief that his prized pupil would avoid jail. Throughout his four seasons with the Redskins, Williams's weekly media sessions have been punctuated with praise for Taylor, and he assured reporters time and again that the young man had a jovial and outgoing side behind closed doors that was rarely seen in public.
Taylor was the greatest athlete Williams had coached during a long and distinguished career. He possessed a rare combination of size, speed, aggression and fearlessness, and he melded perfectly with Williams's defensive philosophy. Taylor was also roughly the same age as Williams's sons and, clearly, one of his favorite players, to whom he doled out feverish admonishment as well as fatherly compassion.
"We all know that Sean has a special place in Gregg's heart," said former Redskins safety Ryan Clark, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who spoke to Williams yesterday afternoon. "Anytime you see a kid basically grow up right before your eyes it's hard not to feel like that. I know Sean is like a friend to him -- it's more than just a player -- and he really cared a lot for Sean. Gregg loved him as much as any of us did."
Williams broke off his remarks to reporters Monday night, struggling to express his desire for Taylor to somehow survive the massive blood loss he suffered after being shot in the leg early that morning. Williams was deeply troubled all day, team sources said, when learning that Taylor had to be revived twice. After learning Monday afternoon that Taylor was responsive to a command to squeeze a doctor's hand, he thought perhaps that his prayers for a miracle had been answered, players said, but it was to be the last good news he would receive.
"I think I've been documented many, many times on how I feel about him personally," Williams said Monday night, "my admiration for him, and the closeness that he and I have. . . . I've had a very inner smile go on with me as I've seen him grow here, and change dramatically for the good."
Williams was intent on selecting Taylor in April 2004, seeing in him a perfect player to execute his aggressive defensive machinations.
"There was no question who Gregg wanted in that draft," said DeWayne Walker, who coached cornerbacks during Williams's first two seasons here and is now the defensive coordinator at UCLA. "There was no doubt at all. There was no one else he wanted. That was his guy from Day One.
"Sean was everything Gregg wanted in a player. He was a tough guy who left everything on the field, and that was Gregg's whole motto. Gregg wanted guys to work hard and play hard and Sean was really a great example of how Gregg wanted everyone to work. He had a special relationship with that kid because I think he respected him as a person and as a football player."
Walker sent Williams a message of condolence yesterday, urging him to be as strong as possible, "because the players are going to need you to be strong for them." Even as Taylor struggled at times in his rookie season -- having difficulty adjusting to complex NFL defenses, getting arrested for DUI (he was later acquitted) and being suspended for a game -- Williams backed him firmly during personnel meetings, Walker said, and the staff was quickly won over by Taylor's football intellect and willingness to listen to instruction.
"Once Sean came to his first training camp and started to get acclimated to the pro game, you could tell this kid was going to be special," Walker said. "And I know as a coach in the NFL, they'll let you know if they feel like you can help them or not, and Sean was always courteous, he always gave me his respect to make me feel like, wow, a player of his level, he listened and he did what we told him."
Linebacker Lemar Marshall, here for all of Williams's tenure until he was released in training camp this summer, said Taylor and Williams would often chat for 30 minutes or more, talking as much about life and development and fatherhood as football. Williams unleashed a few of his loudest tirades on Taylor as well, players said, especially early in the safety's career.
"He was one of the players Gregg got on even more than the rest of us because he knew that Sean could take it," Marshall said. "Sean didn't necessarily care, because he had the characteristics to overcome Gregg's sarcasm. He knew where Gregg was coming from no matter what, even when he took those sarcastic stabs at him, because he knew Gregg only wanted the best for Sean. Nothing was really out of bounds for Gregg to say or speak on, but at the same time that was their relationship, and they knew where each other was coming from and nothing was taken personally.
"When Gregg talked about Sean you saw the genuine love there. He really looked at Sean as a son, going through what Sean went through, and with Sean really maturing the last few years, Gregg really loved that about him, and I did too."