By Mike Wise
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
MIAMI There was Chad Johnson, backpack in tow, growing animated as he spoke about Sean Taylor, how the young man he came to pay homage to Monday always "had my head on a swivel."
"You know me, I like to talk, I talk so much it's ridiculous," said the loquacious Cincinnati wide receiver, who wore the same clothes to the funeral that he wore Sunday after the Bengals lost in Pittsburgh. "But Sean would be back there woofing. He talked and talked. After a while, you just didn't know what he was going to do.
"What he meant to me as a player, I had to be here."
There was Sinorice Moss, Taylor's teammate at the University of Miami and younger brother of Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, sharing his memory of Taylor causing the Hurricanes' locker room to break into laughter.
"Don't get me wrong, people feared him," said Sinorice, now a wide receiver with the New York Giants. "But that side never came out when the game was over. Sean was always getting us to joke and smile. I know you didn't see that, but I did."
The memorial service had been over about 30 minutes, a service in which we learned that what was once a tentative 6-year-old boy, told simply by his uncle to get the guy on the other team with the ball, began bowling over other 6-year-old boys. And then 12-year-olds. And 15-year-olds. Until one day, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb were running for cover.
We were told Sean was so smitten the moment he met Jackie Garcia in high school that he came home that night to his grandmother and said, in exasperation, "I need to learn Spanish."
How his pastor asked him one day at an IHOP in the District, "Why did you hit that Pro Bowl punter?" And how Sean replied, "Pastor, I just get paid to put 'em on the ground."
As these rich, honest pieces of Sean Taylor's life kept being revealed, peeled back, layer after layer, the only emotions that rose up were regret and sadness.
Regret because only now do we finally get the most revealing, personal portrait of the enigmatic young man who played free safety so brilliantly for the Washington Redskins. And sadness because the stories told of Taylor in a campus gymnasium turned funeral parlor were stories that should have been told at his Hall of Fame induction or, for goodness sake, the man's wedding.
The hard truth: We know more about Sean Taylor in death than life.
And there is something so wrong about that, that all the voids and vacancy needed to color in who Taylor was, what he was truly about, are presented in full as we mourn his loss.
Taylor wanted it that way, of course. He didn't play nice with the press, eschewing interviews like a child passing on Brussels sprouts. Wherever he is today, he must feel a perverse sense of pride that a mayor and a pastor took shots at the media during the service for trying to link some of his past with his death.
It would be unfair to paint him as a saint eight days after he suffered a fatal gunshot wound. It would also be unfair to not further memorialize the man who sponsored a local youth football team, making it financially possible to play in a championship game and then buying them all championship rings.
Or talk about the day he attended his father's swearing-in as police chief of Florida City, and how he told Otis Wallace, "Thanks, Mayor, for giving my dad this opportunity."
Redskins running back Clinton Portis made the approximately 3,000 mourners bust up laughing when he spoke of the eccentric conversations he had with his teammate and friend, conversations that "come from nowhere and you wonder, you're like, 'Sean, crazy, man, what he talkin' about?'
"You'd be tired, ready to get in the shower and he'd come up and say, 'Man, you see "The Flintstones" the other night?' "
Onetime Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, who gave one of the most touching and real eulogies imaginable as he choked back tears, said it best for everyone.
"I'm guilty for moving on," he said. "I really don't look back. This situation has forced me to face those issues. You always want to imagine that all your boys and all your loved ones are okay and everything is going to be what it's going to be.
"Sean, I love you as my brother, I love you as my friend." He then looked toward the hundreds-deep contingency of Redskins past and present to the left of the stage. "The rest of my teammates that I never took advantage of the opportunity to let you guys know how much I love and care about you guys, this is the time to do it. This is a great start for me. I'm going to miss him with all my heart. I love him."
Jackie Garcia dabbed her eyes as he left the stage. The woman Taylor hoped to marry one day -- and the beautiful little girl scampering about in the burgundy-and-white lace dress Monday -- listened to more tributes and tales.
The crowd Taylor's memorial service attracted was diverse as it was odd -- everyone from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, to the actor Andy Garcia, Jackie's uncle, to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Florida transplant O.J. Simpson, whose daughter Sydney attended the same prep academy as Jackie and Sean.
How many of the 3,000 or so knew him, really knew him, is up for much debate. The feeling is that less than a dozen sitting in front of his casket ever were granted access to Taylor's soul and his deepest thoughts.
But standing outside on the campus of Florida International University and watching the gleaming black sport-utility vehicles chauffer away family and friends -- spending a few minutes talking to former teammates and an opponent who feared him so much he threw his backpack over his shoulder and got on the first plane from Pittsburgh -- nothing could take away the gnawing feeling that we should have known him better before this day.
As Sinorice Moss, LaVar Arrington and Chad Johnson spoke outside the funeral of Sean Taylor, it seems so unfair that our first opportunity to know this man in full comes the day his 18-month-old daughter played with her father's funeral program while prancing next to his casket.
At the end of the service, little Jackie bumped into a bouquet of flowers, stumbled and ran back into her mother's arms, oblivious to her father's death as we were to his life.