Mourning the Death of a Teammate Is A Difficult Process for Players and Coaches

The death of pitcher Josh Hancock last April affected the Cardinals' pregame routine.
The death of pitcher Josh Hancock last April affected the Cardinals' pregame routine. "I didn't want to laugh. I'd feel guilty," says catcher Gary Bennett. (By Jonathan Daniel -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

In the 20 minutes before the Washington Redskins kick off against the Buffalo Bills today at FedEx Field -- a normally antiseptic arena that will be part church, part funeral parlor, part therapist's couch to about 90,000 people -- a tribute to Sean Taylor, the 24-year-old star safety who was slain in his Miami home early last week, will play on the videoboard.

What happens over those four minutes might stick with the Redskins' fans, players, coaches and staff forever. "You can't forget the moment, because it's so emotional," said Bobby Murcer, who 28 years ago took to left field at Yankee Stadium in the hours after he and his teammates returned from the funeral of Thurman Munson, the Yankees catcher and captain.

When each Redskin emerges from the locker room, he will bear a sticker of Taylor's No. 21 on his helmet, a patch with the No. 21 on his jersey, the same number that will be affixed to towels handed to fans as they enter the stadium. There will be a moment of silence at FedEx and league-wide. The idea of football-as-catharsis will take over.

"It's a very moving experience," Murcer said last week. "That next game, we got to remember him as an individual and as a team. But it's not only us that's hurting. It's the fans. It's as much for them as it is for you as an individual. It reminds you that the fans who follow the team, it's as big a part of their lives as it is for you."

The situation in which the Redskins and their fans find themselves today is hardly unprecedented. Yet those who have been through it -- losing a teammate in midseason, be it to accident or violence or their own health problems -- said last week that there is little way to predict what happens next. Teams have recovered from tragedy to reach the playoffs, to win championships. Others have foundered. Either way, beginning today, the backdrop of Taylor's death will be there for the Redskins. They have five regular season games to play, none with Taylor.

"You're either going one of two ways," said Darren Jensen, a young Philadelphia Flyers goaltender who found himself starting the first game after star Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a drunk-driving accident in 1985. "You're either pulling together or you're pulling apart."


The process that will determine which of those paths the Redskins take begins with one man: Joe Gibbs. The God-fearing coach who selected Taylor with the fifth pick in the 2004 draft now must figure out what to tell his charges in a locker room in which Taylor's stall will be unoccupied. During a somber week of practice, Gibbs said he had no blueprint for such a situation. There was, it seemed, no way he could predict what he might say leading up to the game. "We're going one hour at a time," Gibbs said on Tuesday, the day Taylor died.

Those who have endured similar tragedies, as well as experts in sports psychology, say how Gibbs handles the situation will have the most significant impact on how the team is able to trudge forward.

"The huge thing is the leadership and how it's handled," said Len Zaichkowsky, the director of the sports psychology training program at Boston University. "Everybody deals with grief and loss in a different way. There's a pretty amazing diversity. Some can block it out. Others, it gnaws at them. The good coaches, the great leaders, they know what to say when the time comes to individuals and to the group."

In January 2000, Bobby Phills, a defensive standout for basketball's Charlotte Hornets, died in a car accident while drag racing with teammate David Wesley near the team's arena. The Hornets' game that night was postponed, and the players voted to postpone another game scheduled for two days later, the day of the funeral. During that time, and in the ensuing weeks, it fell to Paul Silas, the Hornets' coach, to hold his team together while grieving himself.

"You have to make them understand that whoever it is that has passed, that he would not want them to quit," Silas said last week by telephone. "They want to quit. There's no doubt about it. They want to give up. Everything has been taken out of them. You must understand that as a leader, you have to get them to continue on, because that's what [Phills] would have wanted."

That phrase -- "what he would have wanted" -- comes up repeatedly in discussions with players and coaches who have suffered through deaths in midseason. "It's typical to use that as a rallying point," said Zaichkowsky. When Taylor's father, Pedro, addressed the Redskins on Wednesday, players said he told the players to win their remaining five games, to reach the playoffs, all with Sean in mind.

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