Brilliant Light, Persistent Shadow
Sunday, February 10, 2008
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- On the Sunday evening before Thanksgiving, Sean Taylor showed up unannounced at the home of his great-grandmother, Aulga Clarke. His girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, was with him and they carried a mop and a vacuum cleaner. His right leg, which had been injured the Sunday before, was wrapped in a splint and he hopped rather than walked.
His employers, the Washington Redskins, did not take him on their trip to Dallas that weekend, in part because they thought flying could further aggravate the injury -- a sprained knee. But Taylor, never one to heed such orders, had come to the single-story, pastel-colored home of the 87-year-old matriarch of his mother's family, a woman he called "Mama," because on the following Thursday she would be hosting the family's Thanksgiving dinner and the house was going to need cleaning. Nobody -- not family, not friends and certainly not the Redskins -- knew he was there until the moment he walked through the front gate.
"I came here to clean your house," Clarke remembered him saying.
"But how can you clean up the house on a sick knee?" she asked.
Taylor simply smiled. And for the next six hours, until midnight, he scrubbed the home, hobbling about with sponges and mops, until it sparkled. When he was done, he reached down and hugged Clarke.
"I love you," she could still hear him say a few weeks after his death on Nov. 27. "Anytime you need me, you call me."
Then he was gone.
"That was the last time I saw my great-grandson alive," Clarke said.
On Sunday, Taylor was supposed to start at safety for the NFC in the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. The game should have announced his status as a player on the verge of becoming the best safety in the National Football League. Instead it will be a final football memorial for a life gone at 24.
To those who knew him, Taylor's appearance at his great-grandmother's house was Sean: impulsive, mysterious and yet sincerely heartfelt. Throughout his family there are stories like this, tales of a football player worth millions hoisting himself on the roof of his aunt's house to re-shingle it after a hurricane roared through, or attaching a trailer to the back of his sport-utility vehicle and tugging his own lawn equipment half an hour to relatives' homes to cut their grass, without being asked, driving away before thank-yous could be given.
And yet with his kindness there also came the cold, calculating eyes of a man wounded by a broken family, unsure of whom to trust, letting in only those most important to him, scowling threateningly at all others. Even close family members found him frustrating to read, never knowing his innermost thoughts.
"Always measuring," his defensive coordinator with the Redskins, Gregg Williams, would later say.