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Brilliant Light, Persistent Shadow

Sean Taylor was supposed to start at safety for the NFC in Sunday's Pro Bowl in Honolulu. The game should have announced Taylor's 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.

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Around Redskins Park, the team's training complex in Ashburn, Taylor glowered, rarely smiling, rarely saying anything. While many with the team were privately wary of their new star safety, Williams immediately realized Taylor had something softer trapped inside.

Williams and Taylor began a series of fierce talks in Williams's office. Player sat. Coach yelled. It quickly became clear to Williams what many in Taylor's family already knew: He had a code by which he lived and played. Taylor was uninterested in the fame that came with being an NFL star. He turned away the media because he felt reporters would only build up athletes to tear them down. He rejected commercial endorsements because he had no interest in fame.

Williams said that if a teammate showed fear on the field or an opponent dared challenge his fire, Taylor would fly into rages. As a result, there were several times he had to be chased away from fellow players because he was so disgusted by their timidity. Any stranger who smiled at him around the football building was looked at skeptically.

A couple of years ago, during a cold spell in Washington, the pipes in Taylor's townhouse in Ashburn froze, then burst, damaging several parts of the home. The team found him a contractor that people in the Redskins organization liked. They told Taylor the workers were good. But still, the player could not leave the men alone, Williams recalled, missing meetings simply to be in the house to watch the workers, making sure they did everything right and took nothing.

"He had trust issues," Walsh said.

Somehow, Williams was able to crack this. He had spent so much of his coaching career trying to "manufacture toughness" in his players, he said, and here was one who came ready-made with all the ferocity the game demanded. Williams, at one point the odds-on favorite to replace Joe Gibbs as the Redskins' head coach, last week signed on as defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars after being let go by Washington.

Away from the game, at home with his family, Williams was the one Redskins official Taylor talked about. The words were always the same, family members said. He might not always have liked Williams, the way the coach screamed at him in his office. But he respected Williams. Coming from Taylor, this was high praise.

And yet the player who trusted few adults loved children. There was an innocence to children, friends and family think he believed, a special warmth that had yet to be spoiled by adults. Williams remembers Taylor at training camp, taking kids away from the sight of reporters to talk and sign autographs.

When Rene Garcia showed up with his daughter to clean out Taylor's Ashburn townhouse in December, sources say he was stunned to see neighbors pouring from their homes to tell stories of the football star who came out into the street to play with the children, who was invited to their birthday parties, said he would come and then actually did.

"He loved kids because of his own childhood and what he felt he missed," Walsh said.

In the weeks after his death, it often was said that Taylor changed when he and Jackie had their own child, a daughter also named Jackie who today is approaching her second birthday. Those closest to him say he did soften a bit for the girl, but that the biggest adjustment really came after his arrest in the ATV incident in 2005.

From all family accounts, and what Williams could glean from his conversations with Taylor, the player was angry when two of the vehicles he purchased were stolen from behind Clarke's house that day. Sure as always he could take care of things himself, he gathered a couple of friends from his youth and went to see the person he suspected of the theft. A fight ensued, with Taylor pummeling a man who stood even bigger than him. One of those Taylor accosted said Taylor showed a gun and revenge was extracted later that night when someone sprayed the house Taylor and his friends retreated to with bullets.


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