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

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."

Leadership

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.

"The biggest motivation -- and I'd be willing to bet this is what the Redskins are doing and what their thriving off of -- is the guy that we lost," said Larry McReynolds, a veteran crew chief in stock-car racing who led the team of Davey Allison when the driver was killed in a helicopter crash in 1993.

"We knew his attitude," McReynolds said. "We knew what he wanted."

It is, though, a delicate balance. When University of Miami defensive tackle Bryan Pata was shot in the head and killed on a Tuesday evening in November 2006, then-head coach Larry Coker listened to his players say they wanted to compete that Saturday at Maryland.

"They all felt that Bryan would have wanted them to play." Coker said. He and Miami officials honored that request, but Coker was careful about what he said to his team, both at practices and in the moments before the game.

"I wanted to be myself, to let them know that I cared about them," he said by phone last week. "But the main thing I wanted to do was be respectful to the family and not try to use a young man's death to get a team to score more points than another team. You hear they're going to be more motivated. That might be true, but I didn't want to use a tragedy to get to that point."

Just as the Redskins made counselors available to their players, Coker and Miami officials thought it essential that Pata's teammates be provided professional help. There is, though, a less formal form of therapy teams have used in such instances. When St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock died in a car crash earlier this year, players and coaches gathered in the clubhouse for a tear-filled story-swapping session. When Lindbergh died, Flyers Coach Mike Keenan, then 36 and leading the youngest team in professional sports, came up with a simple philosophy -- keep the team together as much as possible, and put it through physically demanding workouts.

"That way they could work out their anger and their frustrations," Keenan said last week. "It was an emotional release that maybe allowed them to rest and sleep a little bit better."

Keenan invited all his players and their wives to his home several times in the aftermath of Lindbergh's death. That way, he could read the needs of each player.

"Dealing with personal loss is different for each individual," Keenan said. "I was parenting some of them. For some of them, I was being an older brother. But having them together as a group in my house with their wives, socially, we could build a support system."

Feeling the Void

For a team, the routines and rhythms of daily life -- minutia, most of it -- define a season. Dressing for practice, undergoing physical therapy, watching film -- the staples of an NFL season -- seem even less relevant for the Redskins now, with Taylor gone. But it is those moments when players and coaches say the loss can hit most powerfully.

"The lines for drills at practice," Coker said, "are one shorter."

In early April, the flow of the St. Louis Cardinals' existence included regular card games in the players' cafeteria adjacent to the clubhouse. Hancock, a relief pitcher, was a constant, laughing loudly at times, complaining about drawing bad cards at others.

But early on the morning of April 29, Hancock drove his Ford Explorer into a parked tow truck on the side of a St. Louis highway. He died instantly in what was later found to be a drunk-driving accident.

The Cardinals' routines and rhythms were destroyed.

"That's when it hits you," said Gary Bennett, a St. Louis catcher the past two seasons. "You'd be so used to hearing him. But afterward, the card games stopped for a while. You felt guilty. In the clubhouse a day or two or three after it happened, I didn't want to smile. I didn't want to laugh. I'd feel guilty."

The Cardinals kept Hancock's jersey hanging in his locker. The Yankees did the same for Munson, whose stall at Yankee Stadium hasn't been used since Aug. 2, 1979, the day he died in a plane crash.

"That was the biggest thing, the empty locker," said Lou Piniella, one of the Yankees who was closest to Munson. "It was constantly a reminder on a daily basis that he was gone."

In the days following a teammate's death, there is no need for reminders, players and coaches said. Athletes not only must grapple with the loss, but they must somehow face their own mortality. "Everybody feels that, 'This kind of stuff doesn't happen to me,' " said Zaichkowsky, the sports psychologist. "But athletes are so big and strong, they have a sense that, 'I'm invincible. What can bring me down?' "

Faced with unexpected vulnerability, the Redskins today will somehow have to concentrate enough to call the correct plays, to maintain their assignments, to counter the Bills' strategy, as frivolous as that may have seemed during the week.

"That first night," said Murcer, the former Yankee, "it was difficult to concentrate."

Still, coaches, players and experts said the arena and the game -- after all the turmoil -- can serve as sanctuary. Yankees Manager Billy Martin offered to sit Murcer the night after the funeral. Murcer, though, insisted he play.

"I don't know if it sounds cold or not, but the actual playing, once the game started, was very therapeutic," Bennett said. "All the down time, 99 percent of it you think about Josh. But the game, that was a relief."

So, too, might be the hours afterward. The week Allison, the NASCAR driver, died, his team decided not to race. But the following week, it returned to the track in Talladega, Ala., the very spot where Allison's helicopter crashed. The team hired Robby Gordon to drive Allison's famous black No. 28 Ford. Fifty-five laps into the race, Gordon's car spun out and hit the wall. He was not injured, but finished last.

"Honestly, it was a relief," said McReynolds, the crew chief. "We didn't have to deal with it for a while. . . . For Joe [Gibbs] and that group, even if they're going there with heavy hearts and tears in their eyes, when that fourth quarter gun sounds -- win, lose or draw -- they're going to be relieved."

That would be, it seems, just one of countless emotions. Today, the Redskins will play for the first time since Taylor's death. Tomorrow, they will attend the funeral. On Thursday, they will host another game, this one against Chicago. Each day, they will trudge further away from tragedy and back, perhaps toward what was once seen as normal.

"It gets easier, sure," Murcer said. "But I'm not sure that you ever get over it. It's always going to be a part of your life, a part of your era and your team at that time. It's easy to curl up in a ball and not be successful, but that's not the way athletes are."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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