By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008
SEATTLE, Jan. 4 -- The occurrences are too coincidental, too strange to be natural. Of this Washington Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels is sure. All those opponents' missed field goals these last four weeks? The punt that mysteriously rolled those extra 20 yards that night against the Giants?
Such things are Sean Taylor, he said.
"We know he's there, we know he's helping us," Daniels said recently.
Told this over the phone Thursday, screenwriter Christopher Reed gasped, then breathed the word "wow," suddenly wondering if life had come to imitate art. Almost 18 years ago, in the weeks after Hank Gathers, a star forward for the Loyola Marymount basketball team, collapsed and died in a conference tournament game, Reed and his wife and writing partner Cynthia Carle imagined a movie in which Gathers wouldn't leave his teammates behind, pulling them along with a celestial power attributed only to the dead.
The resulting 1997 film, called "The Sixth Man," was about another team called Washington -- the Washington Huskies -- and just happened to be shot at the University of Washington, less than five miles from where the Redskins and Seattle Seahawks play in Saturday's NFC first-round playoff game.
"What's so fascinating about ghosts and how we think about people who are gone is we wonder what power they still have," Reed said. "They are part of us and we wonder what they could help us attain. People want to believe they still have an important part of their life. They are so powerful in your memory you want to believe they are still here."
Reed and Carle are humor writers with an interest in the paranormal. The movie they wrote was a comedy. In it, Washington's star player dies in midseason. After his death, the team falls apart until, just as the season appears lost, he appears as a ghost seen only by his brother, also a player on the team. Strange things begin to happen. Balls suddenly bounce from opponents' hands. Shots that have no chance of going in the basket inexplicably drop through the rim. Guided by their ethereal leader, Washington starts winning, eventually making the NCAA tournament, the Final Four and the national championship game, which naturally comes down to one final Huskies shot.
"When people are living, they sometimes have such strong desires, and when they are cut down in early in real life you wonder if those desires live on in the spirit world," said Randall Miller, the film's director. "Like with the Washington Huskies or the Washington Redskins with Sean Taylor there was probably such a strong desire to be at the top of your game so it just lives through the other players.
"I believe in that."
Miller has followed the Taylor story through a friend who is a Redskins fan. He sees the similarities of the fictional basketball team and the real NFL club, who both use their dead teammate's spirit to inspire them. He has many actor friends who were once professional athletes, and he has always believed professional sports teams are filled with men who possess the same level of talent. The difference comes down to something special -- one slightly better player, a great coach or an experience that pulls everybody together.
Miller thought a lot about this as he pulled together "The Sixth Man." He researched Gathers's death in 1990, read how the players reacted and watched what the team's coach, Paul Westhead, did to lead them on their NCAA run, which ultimately fell one game short of the Final Four.
What Miller decided was the spirit of a fallen teammate could take a team only so far. The dead are, after all, dead and the living must move on. In "The Sixth Man," a ghost had let the Washington Huskies believe they were good enough to be in the national title game and when he arrived to help them win the championship they rejected his advances. He wanted to help with the final shot, but the player refused his assistance. He would take the shot of his life on his own, without paranormal involvement.
And when it went in and Washington won, there was a sense among the victorious players that they had done this themselves, that they -- and no longer a dead teammate -- had accomplished the impossible.
"I think what I was trying to say was that they had used him as a crutch and they needed to let him go," Miller said. "They need to let him go on and at some point you have to let go, too. They weren't really going to be successful themselves until they did that. That's what happens in life when someone dies: You eventually have to let them go.
"In the movie, they needed him because they didn't think they were worthy of really winning on their own. But then they became really worthy. Eventually they had to say, 'It's because of us that this happened.' "
For the Redskins, the belief Taylor is still with them seems to grow stronger every week. The team still lists him as a starter on its depth chart, last Sunday the players and coaches all pointed to the margin of victory, 21 points, and Taylor's number as evidence of his presence. They are certain he is never far away.
On Saturday, they play in a stadium in which the Seahawks celebrate the power of the local fans so much it flies a flag on a concourse outside with the number "12" as in the 12th man. And yet the Redskins are here in this city where "The Sixth Man" was filmed because they believe in their own 12th man.