Grief for a Man Who Was More Than a Number

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

Sean Taylor is gone now, and what do we do?

Flowers and teddy bears, memorials by trees. His number, 21, painted on the grass at FedEx Field and patched on players' helmets. A moment of silence is scheduled before all NFL games this weekend.

Sean Taylor was 24 and a new father, and what do we do?

Between death and funeral, there is grief and loss and people talking in bars and on talk radio, disconnected voices and a sadness somewhere at the back of the brain. A feeling that is not, for most of us, for someone we actually knew, but for an athlete we saw perform, someone to whom we attributed larger-than-life virtues or shortcomings. Young, famous, rich, physically powerful, black, something of a prodigal son who had made the turn for home, Taylor in death is becoming a cultural Rorschach test -- something different for everyone.

Public mourning for public figures can be extraordinarily emotional, particularly when the deceased is youthful and popular and the death is sudden -- the deaths and funerals of Princess Diana, John Lennon, Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy all became cultural touchstones -- and Sunday's game already feels more like an act of mourning than an athletic contest.

Athletes obtain a weird working-class sort of fame that is less than that of movie idols and music stars but more exotic than elected officials, who actually do things that affect our lives. Athletes work and sweat and toil in front of us, on behalf of a town or a team we love, and they come to personify something about what we think ourselves or our communities to be. Their victories are our victories. Their losses are ours, too.

Movie stars make films and that's grand. Musicians play songs and that's cool, too.

But, see, they do not pick off a pass and sprint 60 yards for the go-ahead touchdown for your home town with 90,000 people bellowing their name and jumping up and down and the stadium swaying in the evening dark. In our emotional lives, it matters. It's an event. People wear jerseys of these athletes, both as fashion and identity statements. We are them and they are us.

"We have our idols among athletes, people we identify with very closely, and when something happens to them, it feels like it happens to us," says Dana Cable, professor of psychiatry at Hood College in Frederick and director of that school's thanatology graduate program, one of only two in the nation. "We saw more of Sean Taylor than many of us do of our family members, so we do know some personal things about him, and so to lose Sean Taylor is to lose someone we know."

Thanatology is the study of death, dying and bereavement. It puts grief under an emotional microscope.

In this subset of the brain, the death of a child holds sway. There is nothing, psychologists agree, that is worse, and it never goes away.

But after that, Cable and others say, the ordering of grief gets difficult to categorize, and the death of Sean Taylor is troubling to us on a more primal level than grief: That of fear.

Taylor was a strong, fast, fearless young man who had a reputation for on-field ferocity even among other large, fast, violent men. And yet, even in his home, even in his bedroom, with his daughter and her mother a few feet away, he was rendered helpless. He was murdered in front of people who loved him -- perhaps the worst nightmare in anyone's psyche.

"He was so big, strong and athletic, and yet he was killed in an instant. It's just not supposed to happen," says Heidi Horsley, an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, who has researched the arc of grief in families of firefighters killed on 9/11, as well as hosting an Internet radio program, "Healing the Grieving Heart." "You want to believe life has order to it, and this reminds us that it doesn't. You want to believe that strong people make us safe. If someone can break in and kill Sean Taylor, then someone can break in and kill any of us. It makes all of us feel vulnerable."

It's also troubling because Taylor was a kid from modest beginnings who had risen, by dint of hard work and physical sacrifice, to social success. The son of a police chief, he attended an elite high school in Miami, Gulliver Prep, where he was a football phenomenon (he twice rushed for more than 400 yards in single games), and led his team to the state championship. In college, he cultivated a hard-hitting image at a University of Miami program sometimes mocked as "Thug U." Nonetheless it won the national title when he was a freshman.

After just three years, he went pro as a first-round draft pick for the Redskins. But he got a reputation for bad behavior -- a firearms charge, spitting on an opponent. Then he got another reputation -- a kid from the hip-hop generation who was growing up into a settled adult, financially and professionally successful, a devoted dad of an infant daughter. He once was lost, but now was found. Kids from similar backgrounds looked up to him, admired him, drew courage and hope from his example.

And then they saw it blown apart on the evening news.

"It doesn't play out as the 'death of the common man,' but more the 'death of a hero,' and that's the greater blow," says Horsley. "It bothers us on a very basic level."

Sean Taylor is gone now, and what do we do?

Number 21, starting safety for your Washington Redskins, was not a distant movie star, always filmed in the best light, always at a flattering angle. He worked with sweat and fury in a violent game. He made mistakes on and off the field, and sometimes those were bad mistakes. He was apparently learning, through his daughter, that it's only love that gets us through.

These qualities did not make him right, or a hero, or a villain.

They made him a son, a friend, a dad, a guy from the block, someone you knew.

Someone you miss.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company