By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Reed Doughty has no idea how to replace a teammate who died in the middle of the season. How to feel. What to think. Or even how to go about his game-day duties today amid the mourning and sorrow for Sean Taylor at FedEx Field.
"There's not really any choices," the starting free safety of the Washington Redskins said. "This is my job."
Doughty walked off the team's practice field in Ashburn last week still reeling from the news that Taylor, shot during a targeted attempt to burglarize his Florida home early Monday morning, had died early Tuesday. Now the Redskins must face the Buffalo Bills a day before Taylor's funeral in Miami, which the whole team will attend.
He and his teammates are mourning, but only Doughty must deal with an awkward opportunity -- to start in place of a player who was killed less than a week ago.
"An injury is one thing," Doughty said. "And I look at that as an opportunity, you know, to step up. Somebody losing their life is, obviously, a different experience. It's one of those things where I'm playing for him right now."
In two short years with the Redskins, Doughty has gone from being very fortunate to have a job in the NFL -- he was a sixth-round draft pick from Northern Colorado a year ago -- to the last line of defense for an NFC team in a virtual scavenger hunt for a playoff berth.
His 16-month-old son, Micah, is battling chronic kidney failure. A large portion of Doughty's $80,000 signing bonus has gone toward medical bills, and Micah still needs as many as seven medications a day.
"He's still not growing well," Doughty said. "Developmentally, he's doing fine. But we've got to look for a kidney transplant in the offseason. The thing you have to remember about renal kidney failure is, getting a transplant isn't something that will fix him. He may need two or three transplants over his lifetime. He'll be on medicine every day of his life."
Doughty's wife, Katie, has health insurance but his securing a job this season with the Redskins "has definitely been helpful, just feeling comfortable knowing we can handle those bills if they come," Doughty said.
Today, though, he has more on his mind than just his son's health and he admits there is no game plan for dealing with on-field grief.
"I'll never be able to replace Sean as a person or as a player," Doughty said. "I'm only going out there and do my best with the abilities I've been given. I'm going to try to honor Sean through that play and really honor God through that play because I know that's what Sean wants. He would tell me to do my best and lay it all out on the field. And that's all I can do."
Making matters more difficult, Doughty must replace a star. Taylor was a Pro Bowl player who many observers felt was a taller, faster version of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.
"It would be very difficult to step in for a player like that because he is replacing a person who essentially becomes larger than life in death," said Stephen R. Stein, a Washington psychologist. "He's not only dealing with the loss of Taylor but the myth of Taylor. As people dealt with the grief of losing him all week, you could already see his legend growing."
Stein played down the notion that Doughty or any other person replacing someone in the wake of their death would feel an intense survivor's guilt. But he added that a player such as Doughty might deal with other feelings associated with guilt.
"He didn't survive an assault, but he got the position because someone died," Stein said. "Getting an opportunity like this would make most of us happy. But how do you balance your feelings of happiness knowing you would not have been afforded the opportunity if someone didn't die? It's complex for anyone."
Other athletes have dealt with the same complexities that face Doughty.
Jerry Narron was a 23-year-old rookie catcher for the New York Yankees on Aug. 3, 1979, the day after Thurman Munson, the team's beloved captain, died as a result of a plane crash while piloting his own Cessna.
Narron described playing the day after Munson's death as both tragic and surreal, and had little to offer Doughty in the way of advice except to remember, above all, a family's loss. "Sean Taylor's family first, the Redskins second and yourself third, that's what I would say," Narron said in a telephone interview last week from his home in North Carolina. "I just remember seeing Thurman's family and feeling so bad for them."
In 1979, Narron took Munson's spot at catcher the afternoon after his death, but not before the Yankees paid tribute in a pregame ceremony. The starters stood at their defensive positions, but the catcher's box was left empty. After the organ stopped, a crescendo of 51,000-plus fans applauding for 10 minutes was the only noise heard at Yankee Stadium.
"I remember standing there with Yogi Berra and Elston Howard and everybody saying this would probably be a three-, four-minute thing," Narron said. "It kept going and going. You couldn't help but get emotional. I just remember I was going to do my job and honor him and try to play the game the same way Thurman played."
Narron added: "To play that day, it was hard for me but it would have been hard for anybody. Thurman was the leader. Everybody looked up to him. It was such a loss. After hearing everything, so was Sean Taylor."
Washington Nationals right-hander Jason Simontacchi was with St. Louis when Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died of a heart attack June 22, 2002, in his hotel room in Chicago.
The team's game that Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field was canceled. Simontacchi was supposed to pitch on Saturday and Kile on Sunday night, a national ESPN game. With the cancellation, Simontacchi, a rookie who was 5-0 at the time, was moved into Kile's spot. He lasted only four innings and gave up four runs in a Cardinals loss.
"I don't remember much, if anything, about the game," Simontacchi said. "I do remember walking out to the bullpen down the right field line. I remember saying to [pitching coach Dave] Duncan, 'This is unreal.' I don't know how to explain it. You just lost a member of your family, and you just got to step up and play. There was nothing going on in the stands. There wasn't the normal chatter. It was like, 'What is this? What's going on?' You're just in disbelief."
Doughty doesn't quite know what to expect this afternoon. He said he last spoke with Taylor on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
"It wasn't so much X's and O's, but just a lot of support," he said. "When I wasn't starting and I wasn't getting in there, he's like, 'Somebody gets hurt or something else, you just got to [play hard], you know, have fun.' The message was, When I get in there, don't be fearful or anxious or anything like that."
"Right before we left for Tampa, he gave me a handshake and said . . . 'Have fun. Make a name for yourself.' "
He paused, swallowed hard and tried his best not to break down in tears like he had often that week. "It's hard, but I guess that's just how life is sometimes," he said.
There will be moments when Doughty will be alone in the defensive backfield, the weight of his assignment on a certain play in front of him and the death of his talented teammate behind him. And in those moments, there is no getting around the reality of the day: Grief trumps the game.
"It's one of these things, that, I don't feel like I'm replacing him on the football field," Doughty said. "I feel like I'm playing free safety. I feel like he was more than that on the field."
"I don't feel like I'm ever going to replace him," he added. "Sometimes Sean would do his job and somebody else's. That's probably not going to be my role. I'm going to try and give this community and these fans a chance to win every ballgame. But I'm not Sean Taylor."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.