School Ties

By Mike Wise
Friday, November 30, 2007

They trudged off the field, heads hung low, their cleats clicking on the pavement, until Sean Taylor's best friends on the team stopped to talk.

"I really stay out of the locker room," Clinton Portis said. "My locker [is] right next to his."

One cubicle away from Taylor's, which, out of respect, now features a photo of the deceased player, is that of Santana Moss. "It's just hard, real hard," Moss said, shaking his head.

Two former University of Miami players, going on about another member of the most tightknit and tragically tinged fraternity in all of college football.

This is a U. thing, after all. But not in the way you think.

Taylor wasn't just their college teammate, another player from the most successful division I-A football program in the past quarter-century; he was part of the brotherhood of Miami players who understand, cope and feel more than the rest. By awful circumstance or their own inescapable past, they just do.

Four U. players have been murdered in the past 15 years, including two while they were still in college. That's not perception. That's fact.

On Nov. 7 last year, Miami senior defensive end Bryan Pata was fatally shot in the back of the head outside his apartment in Kendall, Fla. The crime remains unsolved.

Four months earlier, 'Canes defensive back Willie Cooper was shot in his buttocks. Teammate Brandon Meriweather plucked a handgun from his trousers and shot at the gunman.

Make of it what you will, yet from the day, nearly two decades ago, that 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell started paying players for touchdowns and sensational, bone-jarring hits like the ones Taylor delivered -- from the moment the 'Canes arrived in full camouflage for the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Joe Pa's homespun kids from Happy Valley -- the stereotypes fed the U.'s image.

Recently, Hurricane players swapped punches with LSU underneath the stadium at the 2005 Peach Bowl. A year ago, helmets were used as weapons in a free-for-all with Florida International, where Taylor's funeral will take place Monday.

It doesn't matter who instigates the brawls anymore; the first person accused is the troublemaker in the back of the class who's been on detention twice already. He must have started it.

That's the historical burden of the U., that's what being from Miami is about.

"When you got something good -- that people can't infiltrate or can't figure out why and people want to be a part of it -- they're going to take shots and they goin' throw out every possible scenario they can, why this, why that," Portis said, when asked about the connection between criminal behavior and Miami.

"I'm sure there's a lot of schools that done have players pass away. There's a lot of programs that had violence," he said. "But Miami players, being so high-profile, the speculation will always be there. Because they'll never know."

Know what?

"You will never expect another man to call you and cry, to call you and make sure you all right," Portis said. "As a man, it's about pride and heart. As a man, it's hard for us to express ourselves to a woman, let alone for another man to call another man and check on him and say, 'Man, how's everything?' or 'What's goin' on?'

"You answer the phone and another man on the other end cryin' -- which I've been through with Sean -- you can't help but respect him."

I called around about this 'Canes brotherhood and I asked if it exclusively represented black players, men who as disenfranchised children escaped certain South Florida neighborhoods. That's the majority of players, but from Jeremy Shockey and beyond it doesn't fully explain the bonds at the U.

"I've worked at six schools and I've never seen anything like it," said Doug Walker, who was Miami's sports information director when Taylor was there and now works at Alabama. "There was a unity and a specialness I've never seen."

Walker's office was located adjacent to the locker room, which doesn't happen at most big schools. "I saw the closeness and the bonds grow first-hand," he said. "I don't know how to describe it any better than to say they breathed for each other."

Said Moss: "We all so close, from the University of Miami to here." He added that he had exchanged text messages with all his Hurricane teammates the last few days.

Between 1983 and 2002, Miami won, played for or should have played for the national title nine times. They won 58 games in a row at the Orange Bowl and sent more players to the NFL during that time than any school. Taylor was part of a 2004 class that set a record; he was one of six Miami players taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

But no one mentioned that the day he died of a gunshot wound; he was another U. player whose life ended violently.

"It kind of bothers me, a lot," Moss said. "For them to bring up some of his past and bring up things that everybody go through in life. Everybody have a past. Each of you has a past that you're probably not happy with. But beyond his past, if you think about him, you couldn't tell he went through those things, because he was always happy."

The problem is, the two most prominent U. players of all time are Michael Irvin and Ray Lewis. Whether he's battling his personal demons or not, Irvin has been arrested three times on drug-related charges. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2000, getting himself out of a murder charge by turning state's witness on former friends in the murder of two men who paid with their lives at the Super Bowl.

Again, that's not perception. That's fact. As John Thompson pointed out on his weekday show on WTEM-980 on Tuesday afternoon in regard to Taylor: "When they talk about how a player has reformed, it means there was a problem in the first place. You can't escape that."

Part of the connection that developed among players such as Portis, Moss and the late Taylor was the bunker mentality they developed in Coral Gables, Fla. -- the notion that someone was prepared to judge them based on a program's past, not their own.

Over time, as they began to embrace the hellion-program label, those bonds finally cemented, until genuine, familial relationships were formed. Whatever you think of Miami and its football program, you could see the sorrow in the eyes of Portis and Moss as they walked toward the locker room, where Sean Taylor used to sit next to his former college teammates.

"You will never know and no one can explain it to you," Portis began, "because you didn't come through U-M at that time and get the opportunity to have that bond with somebody."

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