By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Years from now, three images from Sean Taylor's funeral will still be with me.
First, for much of a three-hour ceremony Monday filled with tearful remembrances, touching anecdotes, gospel music and where-will-you-spend-eternity preaching, Taylor's 18-month-old daughter played innocently in the aisle a few yards in front of her father's casket. At an age when children barely grasp the idea of death, she amused herself with memorial programs with the picture of the Washington Redskins safety on the cover.
For the 3,000 mourners, including 20 rows of Redskins personnel, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder 17 to a row, she was the most piercing symbol of their pain at her father's shooting last week, as well as their vague emblem of hope and a future on the far side of tragedy. Nobody interrupted her roaming, except to scoop her up for a hug or to let her whisper in their ear.
The toddler's aunt wept while recalling her sister's high school romance with Taylor. One inspirational singer collapsed and was carried out of Pharmed Arena on a makeshift litter of arms, helped by a Redskins trainer. Almost unnoticed, O.J. Simpson sat in the crowd with an empty seat beside him. The Rev. Jesse Jackson ("Let me hear you scream"), not on the original program but right on time, preached against gun violence. And, through it all, little Jackie romped and smiled, sometimes squeezing her great-uncle, the actor Andy Garcia.
It was grief at death and celebration of life rolled into one, all of it served up in an utterly American blend of killing, celebrity, race, theatrics, religion, hundreds of huge athletes and a balcony full of media members scratching their heads at a come-one, come-all funeral with a dress code ranging from football jerseys to stiletto heels.
Almost as poignant in its way was another unexpected image -- a phalanx of Redskins, including many front-office personnel, that filled a full quarter of the lower bowl of the arena at Florida International University. When a pastor asked everyone associated with the Redskins to stand, the crowd gasped, then broke into rhythmic clapping in appreciation. "I am really moved by that, such a display of support for a brother," said the Rev. Alphonso Jackson III.
In the first seat in the first row sat Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who has spared no expense on Taylor's behalf, and Coach Joe Gibbs, whose religious sentiments were echoed on the day: "God tells us it will take a thousand years to begin to appreciate heaven." However, despite all their strength in numbers, the Redskins have seldom looked more fragile and vulnerable, a billion-dollar business with cracks in the foundation that may run to the core.
Just one day before, Gibbs, who has lost 10 of his last 18 games, endured what he called the worst moment of his coaching career, contributing to a 17-16 defeat because he did not know -- or could not recall under pressure -- a basic NFL rule. "That was the low point for me, right there," he conceded candidly Sunday. "I can't remember a decision that was so important to my team."
Four years ago, when Snyder begged and brought him back, the universal sigh of relief in Washington included the words, "If Joe Gibbs can't fix the Redskins, nobody can." Now, those words can be heard with a different intonation.
With age creeping up at many positions and without Taylor -- never seriously injured on the field, but shot in his own house -- where can salvation be found? Snyder will pay any price and Gibbs will delegate authority until it is unclear whether he has any significant game-day responsibility at all except calling timeouts and deciding what to do on fourth down. If that isn't enough, what is?
Even LaVar Arrington, whose relations with the Redskins so often were bitter, was a haunting image as he spoke at Taylor's funeral, crying, telling his former teammates he wished he'd told them how much he loved them.
Finally, in addition to the sight of a child beside a parent's coffin and the image of a classic football franchise fighting to keep itself from breaking apart, there was one last disturbing moment, all the more painful because it held too much truth.
The entire crowd only rose in unison in one spontaneous standing ovation. It did not come in response to any praise for Taylor's humility off the field or controlled violence on it, not even for any of the repeated references to how he had changed in the last two years. "Everybody knows the change in Sean," said Clinton Portis, referring to Taylor's altered lifestyle since becoming a father.
Instead, it was Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace who struck the chord. "One of the things I hope comes out of this tragedy is that the media gets a small lesson in grace and humility . . . for those who took the liberty of recklessly speculating that this young man's death was caused by the way he lived all I can say is they should be ashamed," Wallace said. "The next time . . . they have the inclination to tarnish a reputation again, I hope that they will take a look at Sean Taylor and do it a little differently."
In the aftermath of Taylor's shooting during a home invasion, his slaying became a nationwide NFL version of "CSI." Taylor's friends, in their pain, were entitled to say what they felt, even if they were wrong. One such person, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle, said of his childhood friend that the burglary at Taylor's house "was not the first incident," adding that former "friends" had it in for Taylor. "He lived his life pretty much scared every day when he was down in Miami because those people were targeting him," Rolle said.
Rolle made a mistake in a moment of emotion. Some in the media shouldn't have been in the same rush to connect the dots. At times, journalism bleeds into sociology-on-deadline. That tricky habit of mind can become most destructive in the aftermath of a controversial celebrity death. The desire to generalize, especially with good intentions, is powerful. The problem is that the person who is dead is one unique individual, not the illustration of a theory about society. Until the facts are absolutely certain, it's reasonable to mention all the possibilities in the case but err on the side of respecting the dead.
With Taylor laid to rest, perhaps many kinds of pain, including such misunderstandings, can be buried, too. All of this day's images are too raw and distressing to hold tightly. Instead, perhaps, try another tack.
In life, Sean Taylor was not always an angel. Now, maybe.