A Life Passes, And the Game Goes On

By Mike Wise
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Marcus Washington has some of the same duality Sean Taylor had. He's constantly negotiating two worlds. On Sundays in Landover, he's the menacing tackler who cares not that his torso is perpendicular to the ground before a monster hit. The rest of the week, he comes across as a soft-spoken homebody.

If it is hard to reconcile that Washington with the guy who lifts his muscular arms to the heavens -- the player who incites the FedEx Field crowd between timeouts -- it's harder still to reconcile Washington's latest, if unwanted, identity:

That of the grieving teammate, one of 61 yesterday afternoon at Redskins Park.

"Nobody knows really what to say, how to act, what to do," Washington said. He shuffled his feet. He bit his lip. He swallowed hard.

"You just kind of sit with your teammates or with your coaches. You may not say anything, but knowing someone else is there kind of feeling what you're going through, it was tough. Sometimes you kind of zone out. You think of Sean."

Washington spoke somberly the day after Taylor's death, moments after coming off the practice field -- four days before a game no one is thinking about and five days before a funeral in Miami he and his teammates never imagined attending.

It was Day 2 in the life of a team trying to cope, and the emotional hurt associated with the loss and the tragedy hardly felt any better yesterday afternoon.

"Anytime you would usually daydream about anything, the only thing you can possibly have in your mind now is Sean," said Pierson Prioleau, the veteran defensive back who sat next to Taylor on game days. "That moment when you think away from football about your family and kids, anytime your mind gets an open moment to think, it is all about Sean. And that is the way it is going to be for a while."

Maybe these kind of stories make the hard-boiled among us say, "You're a football player with a game on Sunday. Get over it."

Or maybe the attention paid to the death of a prominent sports figure -- compared with the second story on the local news about a 2-year-old girl who was beaten to death -- is enough to turn the stomach.

It's also fair to wonder if the grown men breaking down in tears beside a memorial of Taylor at the Redskins' training facility grieve as much for their own family members as for a player they never met or knew.

They are all points worth arguing and debating. But the truth is, everyone deals with death and loss in his or her own space and time. And no matter how one feels about such personal and delicate matters, it would be unfair to dismiss the authenticity of the recovery process in Ashburn. This is literally, as Joe Gibbs said, "an hour-to-hour thing."

When the mother of Taylor's 18-month-old daughter began to tell the players how they needed to cherish their loved ones because they had no idea how long they would be with them, when Taylor's father shared stories about his son, when Clinton Portis shed tears while trying to explain what his friend and teammate meant to him, well, it's impossible to just move on.

"It was real tough for his girlfriend," Washington said of Jackie Garcia, who along with Pedro Taylor traveled from Miami to Ashburn early yesterday morning. "That was the toughest part, seeing the pain she feels.

"Her message was, 'Don't take your loved ones or your family for granted -- the people who mean the most to you in life -- because you never know your last time with them.' She said, 'Give 'em a hug, tell them you love them.' "

Washington swallowed again.

"Sometimes it's easy to forget that you are human and you hurt and you miss a guy that you spent a lot of time with," he said. "It's okay to hurt and miss him and think about him."

It was written in this space almost exactly a year ago -- after the murder of a University of Miami football player named Bryan Pata -- that former Miami coach Larry Coker and school officials needed to at least consider canceling that weekend's game against Maryland, if for no other reason that emotionally worn-down kids, all of whom were between 18 and 22 years old, were not ready to make that decision themselves.

This is different. Nearly one-third of the players on this roster are 30 years are older. They aren't kids trying to mean-mug their way toward adulthood. They understand the business obligations of the NFL, what Taylor's death means in the scheme of things; some probably know the history of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle refusing to cancel or put off games after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Rozelle was harshly criticized) and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue understanding he needed to postpone games after 9/11.

Either way, most of them sincerely view Sunday's game against Buffalo as a necessary, if awkward, event.

"I guess it is part of the coping mechanism in a sense," London Fletcher said. "But today guys were still thinking about what happened.

"The thing about our job is we have the human side and the professional side," he added. "As humans, you are grieving and mourning and hurting; the professional part is we have to go out and play a game because of the business we are in. For some of us and most of us, we know Sean loved to play football. For a couple of hours we get to do what he loved to do."

If nothing else, they will spend Sunday together, the day before they mourn the passing of their teammate in Miami.

"It's definitely easier when you're here with your teammates and coaches feeling the same way you're feeling," Washington said. "You've got a support group here at work.

"Some guys cried, some guys drove around. I just stayed locked in my room yesterday and didn't do much. We all got together today and shared our experiences."

Coaches are always saying their football teams are families, that they win and lose together. And so often it comes across as tiresome, cliched jock-speak. But a day after Taylor's death, hours after Jackie Garcia's words made them weep, there is no denying the bonds shared between these men and the long road of healing ahead of them.

"The only thing that makes you feel better is time," Washington said. "Something like this happens, you lose someone that meant a lot to you, only thing that will actually heal it is time."

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