By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Sean Taylor, the hard-hitting, 24-year-old safety of the Washington Redskins who died of a gunshot wound yesterday in Miami, was a mercurial introvert. Accepted and respected by teammates, adored by fans for his aggressive play, Taylor was well known to few outside his family.
The day after he was shot by an intruder at his home in Palmetto Bay, Fla., details of his slaying emerged from Miami investigators and from Taylor's family and associates. But understanding the Pro Bowl player and former University of Miami star has continued to prove elusive.
In the past two days, teammates and coaches stressed how much Taylor had matured since the birth of his daughter 18 months ago. Taylor had been dating Jackie Garcia, the niece of actor Andy Garcia, since they had both attended Gulliver Preparatory Academy in Pinecrest, Fla. Jackie gave birth to a daughter the couple also named Jackie in May 2006. Although Taylor and Garcia were not engaged, they had discussed getting married at the end of this season and Taylor's teammates had noticed a softer, gentler side to him.
But while he had opened himself up to many of his teammates, he was truly close to only two of them, running back Clinton Portis and wide receiver Santana Moss, who, like Taylor, attended Miami. Nonetheless, Taylor had been treated like the troubled little brother who was welcomed into the family irrespective of his past. His teammates seemed to understand whatever problems he had experienced, Taylor's loyalties were first to family and second to the Redskins.
He helped forge the bond between team owner Daniel Snyder and Coach Joe Gibbs; plucked No. 5 in the 2004 draft, Taylor was the first player the Snyder-Gibbs team chose after Gibbs returned to coaching in January 2004. If Gibbs's three Super Bowls with Washington before his 12-year coaching retirement represented renewed hope for the franchise on the sideline, Taylor represented that hope on the field.
He was young, fast and tackled opponents with malice and fury. Within the first few months of his rookie year, teammate LaVar Arrington, then the face of the franchise, christened Taylor "the Grim Reaper." He was also called "Meast," which was crudely taken from the notion that Taylor was half-man, half-beast.
Taylor's violent hits and collisions became part of his lore. During last February's Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Taylor crushed Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman during a fake punt, keeping him from the first-down marker. Replayed endlessly on YouTube, like many of Taylor's forceful hits, his play during a meaningless exhibition game exemplified his career: even when it didn't count, Taylor lowered his shoulder and delivered pain.
"For me personally, I think I can honestly say this: Sean felt like God made him to play football," an emotional Gibbs said. Gibbs remembered "freezing, cold and muddy" practice days in which few players wanted to be out there more than Taylor.
"I can remember Sean out there flying around, throwing his body around, leaving his feet, going after things," he said. "He was one of those guys that he felt like this was where he belonged."
Outside the team's training facilities, more than 200 fans paid their respects in front of his No. 21, painted in large, white letters, outlined in gold, on a grassy field a few hundred yards from where he practiced.
Though he rarely opened himself up publicly and was easily one of the NFL's least-known players with such star status, Taylor's reclusiveness played right into the cult worship that began to grow with each violent tackle. It almost contributed to the mystique, that of the young, misunderstood man who put all his angst into his profession.
Before the advent of the Internet, black-market videos featuring hockey's most hideous fights used to be exchanged by avid collectors. Taylor's most vicious and punishing hits became a staple of the Internet era. A quick search of his name on YouTube yesterday evening brought up 227 matches, with one video alone, entitled "Sean Taylor Hits," receiving 260,675 views.
Like Len Bias, the Maryland star whose cocaine-induced death at age 22 shook the area in 1986, Taylor's legend in death might soon supersede the safety who stalked the defensive backfield of the Redskins.
"He had a cult following in this town and nationally," said a team official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think part of it was because Sean was underexposed. Who, nowadays, with talent like that, is underexposed? In the world of pro football, it becomes a Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin thing, where a young phenom dies young and we talk about them 40 years later."
"He was the guts of the team, he was," said Derek Blazer, a 32-year-old fan from Fairfax, who sobbed as he spoke outside Redskins Park.
All his teammates envied his talent, but some viewed him as a live wire, capable of mood swings. In a conversation with teammates last month about how unpredictable the Golden State Warriors were as an NBA team, Redskins defensive lineman Demetric Evans compared Stephen Jackson, the Warriors' controversial guard, to Taylor.
"That's their Sean Taylor right there, man -- you never know what that cat is going to do," Evans said to teammates Anthony Montgomery and Ryan Boschetti. "He's one unpredictable dude."
He arrived in Washington in 2004 as an insular individual, who had no time for either celebrity or brainless chitchat with strangers. It was a pattern of behavior he had learned long before being drafted by the Redskins.
Just before he was scheduled to fly to Arizona and be part of a photo shoot for Playboy's 2003 all-American team, Taylor reneged, telling University of Miami media officials he had no interest in going on the trip.
Team and school officials gave up trying to promote Taylor his junior season, his final year at the school, when he was named the Big East defensive player of the year and was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which honors the nation's top defensive back.
"He just had no time for it," said Doug Walker, the school's former sports information director who is now at Alabama. "It wasn't important to Sean. After a while, we just figured, 'Okay, we'll respect his wishes.' "
"You could see the mistrust even then and you could see he was a little guarded," said Mark Stoops, the former defensive backs coach at Miami and now the defensive coordinator at Arizona. "It took a little time to get through to him. Sean was just quiet and to himself. But he was a person everybody loved."
Stoops remembers getting into Taylor's face many times during a heated discussion "and I would lower his helmet toward me to see if he was looking at me," he said.
"Sean was just smiling," he said. "We would both end up laughing."
A former Miami school official, on condition of anonymity, portrayed Taylor's relationship with his father, Pedro Taylor, the police chief in nearby Florida City as "strained" during his Hurricanes playing days. Taylor's mother and father divorced prior to Sean Taylor enrolling in Miami and the fallout represented a conundrum for the team. During a team banquet in 2003, the two sides of Taylor's family, which weren't speaking at the time, had to be seated apart. Pedro Taylor showed up to Hurricanes practices often and seemed to want to be involved in his son's life as much as possible, but Sean was leery of the new-found attention his father heaped on him, the official said.
His distrust of the media and anyone unaffiliated with his team grew in Washington after several brushes with the law, including facing a felony assault charge in 2005.
Taylor could be sullen and acerbic with outsiders, especially after the 2005 incident in which Taylor was charged with waving a gun at people whom he believed had stolen his all-terrain vehicles. He later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault and battery, accepting probation and a fine.
He would wall up when asked to be interviewed and seldom allowed anyone outside the team into his world. Though he eventually dropped the stone-cold demeanor and could be congenial and polite at times, he still was clear that he didn't want any of his personal boundaries crossed.
When a Post reporter told Taylor last month he was writing a story about him, Taylor refused to be interviewed but was curious about what teammates and coaches had said about him.
"What'd they say?" he said.
When told they spoke highly of Taylor and that they believed his daughter had changed him for the better, he snickered and smiled. "All right, all right. But don't write I said that. Don't write anything on your pad."
In a 2005 interview with Comcast SportsNet's Kelli Johnson, while facing the felony charge and having chosen to not participate in offseason workouts with the team, Taylor was asked if regretted his behavior and what he had learned from his mistakes.
"Nothing really," he said. "I'm living life to the fullest. I'm taking advantage of my situation. Up here with the Washington Redskins, practicing and working hard. I had some situations that happened down in Miami but with time everything will be worked out and we will move on."
Of the incident in Florida, he added: "It's just a life-changing thing that one shot of a bullet or whatever the case is, it changes lives. It's just, basically staying out of those kinds of things and staying out of harm's way."
People who knew Taylor didn't say he lived as much as he ticked. He could be moody and mercurial, once snapping at a team official after someone had taken his assigned seat on a team charter plane. He would also go out of his way to sign an autograph for a child or go on and on about his child.
"You can't be scared of death," Taylor said in a rare on-air interview with WTEM-AM reporter Holly Fantaskey last month. "When that time comes, it comes."
In the long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness answer, Taylor went on to mention children and "long life" and living "life to the fullest," and concluded, "I've been blessed and God has looked out for me, so I'm happy."
He is survived by his parents and his daughter. Funeral services are scheduled for next week in Miami, where a young man few of his fans knew will be buried at age 24.
"I don't pretend to know him as well as anyone, but I remember Sean was to himself," Stoops, his college coach, said. "He didn't care too much what others thought of him.
"I don't see the thuggish side of him at all, but I saw someone that didn't take [expletive] from anyone. And who knows where that leads young men to."