By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
This was the Sean Taylor most people saw, the one who glared past interviewers, who struggled to open up to coaches and who fired his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, just days after signing his first contract because he felt Rosenhaus spent too much time indulging a father Taylor had yet to fully embrace.
Ultimately it was these two sides -- the warm, giving son who wanted to bring his family together and the brooding, suspicious man who trusted few -- that led him to be sleeping, protected only by a machete, early the morning of Nov. 26 in the house in Palmetto Bay he bought for his mother, great-grandmother and half-brothers and sisters. It is what left Taylor exposed when four men, one of whom had connections to his half-sister Sasha Johnson, scaled the wall outside of the home where he had come to sleep for a single night. And where defending himself, his girlfriend and daughter, he was fatally shot.
Aulga Clarke will be in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl today, as will some 15 of Taylor's relatives, mostly on his father's side of the family, all of whom are still trying to grasp exactly why he is gone.
"It was just his time," said Ed Hill, a cousin of Taylor's father. "There's nothing else you can say."
* * *
No event, say those who knew Taylor well, shaped him more than the custody dispute between his father, Pedro Taylor, and mother, Donna Junor, who never married after he was born in 1983.
Family members talk around the subject, saying that Donna sued Pedro for child support only to later have Pedro win custody when a judge decided that Pedro, who was married at the time and became police chief of nearby Florida City, had the more stable living situation.
Records in Miami-Dade County Family Court show a lengthy battle between the parents that began with an order for Pedro to pay $45 a week in child support when Sean was 2 and culminated with a court order sending Sean to live with his father on July 28, 1994. Sean was 11 at the time, in the summer before sixth grade.
The arrangement troubled him, family members said, leaving him to shuttle on Sunday nights to his father's house just outside Miami city limits, where he lived on weeknights, only to return to his mother's home farther south on Friday afternoons. Before the move, Clarke, who watched him often, remembered Sean as a happy and rambunctious child who would climb the ackee trees in her back yard to bring down the fruit so she could make a traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee stewed with cod, onions and tomatoes. After he moved away he grew sadder, she said.
One Christmas, Clarke found Sean standing down the street from her house under a light pole with tears streaming down his face.
"I don't live anywhere," she said he told her. "I don't have a home."
"What do you mean you don't live anywhere?" Clarke remembered saying, weeping herself. "Your grandmother has a home, your mother has a home, your father has a home and you have a bedroom right here down the hall in this house."
But the sense of detachment lingered for years. Taylor's cousin, David Walsh, said Taylor felt like an outsider in his father's house, the half-brother from troubled Homestead suddenly thrust into a new family in a middle-class home. Pedro and Sean were not close for years, relatives say. Walsh, who was more than 10 years older than Sean, remembers Pedro used to call him to try to understand what his son was thinking.
Pedro admittedly was the taskmaster, pushing his son into sports, going as far as to make him run sprints after football games. Many who know the father say Sean's competitiveness came from Pedro, who was an aggressive guard on the church basketball team and was a good but undersize football player growing up in the Miami area. From Junor, who would not speak for this story, came his generous side, but also his skeptical nature.
"She's the sweetest person in the world, but she doesn't trust you," Walsh said. "She and Sean are identical. She's just like him. She has a small circle of trust."
A friend with ties to both parents surmised after Taylor's death that the fallout from the custody issue was probably the root of some of his more notorious public incidents, including an arrest after a fight over some all-terrain vehicles that had been stolen, two spitting incidents in the NFL and some of his disputes with the Redskins over contracts and offseason workouts. "I think if you look at it you will find that's the case," said the friend, who did not want to offend either parent and asked to remain anonymous.
"I think Sean going to live with his dad was the difference between being on the streets and being in the NFL," Walsh said. "His father taught him a work ethic. He sent him to Gulliver Prep," an expensive private high school where he met his girlfriend Jackie. "Pedro was really instrumental in Sean's success. But at the same time their relationship wasn't a father-son relationship. His father helped him, but Sean was always looking for the person to say: 'Sean don't do this. Sean don't do that.' "
There was always a sense Taylor was searching for family.
* * *
While some say Taylor struggled early with Jackie's father, Rene Garcia, a wealthy Miami businessman, the two men came to gain a healthy respect for each other when they each realized the other's devotion to Jackie.
After he became a professional football star and the money came pouring in, Taylor doted on the family members to whom he was the closest. He took Walsh on trips to places such as Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Las Vegas, often never revealing where they were going. "Don't bother packing. We'll just buy stuff when we get there," Taylor would tell his cousin.
When Taylor was considering buying the house in Palmetto Bay two years ago, he drove his great-grandmother to see the property, stopping at the gate outside for a peek in the yard. As Clarke gazed through the bars he said, "I'm getting this for you, my mother and Jamaal," his youngest half-brother.
Each of his three half-brothers and sisters had rooms in the house, as did Junor and Clarke. Taylor also bought Johnson a car. Still, despite his hopes of uniting his mother's side of the family under one roof, it did not happen. Clarke didn't want to leave her ackee trees and Junor, some family members say, found the house too big and preferred the home where she lived.
When he arrived in Washington in 2004, Taylor seemed unsure whom to believe in. For the first time, he was away from the few friends and family he trusted and thus rebelled against attempts to corral him. He left a rookie symposium and skipped voluntary minicamps because he thought anything that wasn't mandatory was unnecessary, those who know him best say.
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.
Eventually, Taylor was arrested for felony aggravated assault with a weapon and misdemeanor battery, spent several hours in jail and then was dragged through a protracted legal battle in which he faced prison time. The felony charges ultimately were dropped.
But in the aftermath of the incident, he was scared. Williams could see it as Taylor sat in his office. Once again, the coach yelled at Taylor, this time for 1 1/2 hours. Around the same time, Pedro Taylor had a similar conversation with Sean in one of their first father-son heart-to-heart talks.
"The young man was scared and it was the first time I witnessed it," Williams said. "He made significant life changes. It had nothing to do with football."
Those who know him best swear Taylor did not have a gun that day. They insist he didn't like guns and didn't want them around, that he was covering for a friend who soon became an ex-friend. The code he lived by said he would take the blame; he didn't care what people thought of him anyway. But the code also said the men who got him in trouble were cut from his life. He could not trust them anymore.
"I forgive but I don't forget," Clarke said he told her.
Williams said that after he screamed at Taylor that day in his office, the player finally relented. Not much. But pieces of the person inside began to peek out. In time, he started to smile at people around Redskins Park. He said hello to secretaries and coaches. London Fletcher, just arrived last season from the Buffalo Bills, cautiously kept his distance, having been warned by others in the league that Taylor would be difficult to approach. Instead, Taylor came to him, grinned and stuck out his hand. The wall of mistrust was giving way ever so little.
* * *
In the end, the player for whom trust came so hard was in Miami on the night of Nov. 26 because he had come to have the one doctor he believed in most, John Uribe at the University of Miami, look at his knee. No matter what the Redskins' doctors said, Uribe was the one he listened to.
That night, after watching the Redskins lose to Tampa Bay and embarking on a 30-mile bicycle ride to push his return to the field, he went to sleep early in the Palmetto Bay home with both Jackies. He did not set a burglar alarm, nor would he spend the few hundred dollars for a security guard despite a recent robbery in the home. Instead it was Taylor alone with his girlfriend and daughter, a family he always wanted to have, when the intruders entered.
Clarke said that Jackie Garcia told her Sean braced himself against the door to keep the intruders from coming into the bedroom where they were sleeping. The robbers kicked in the door and were confronted by Taylor, who wielded a machete. One of them fired a gun, the bullet hitting Sean in the right leg, severing his femoral artery and lodging in his left thigh, and the player fell immediately. A couple of times he tried to push himself up, but he was fading fast.
Desperate and thinking the blood that gushed out was coming from Taylor's stomach, Jackie tried to stick towels there, missing the wound in his leg. Not that it would have mattered. By the time the paramedics arrived, nine minutes after the shooting, he essentially had bled to death.
Though Taylor was revived through blood transfusions and lived through the day, he quickly turned for the worse early the next morning. A little after 3:30 a.m. the doctor came down to the hospital waiting room and said, "We have tried everything and there is nothing more we can do."
At that moment, with her world suddenly crumbling, Clarke wanted to see her great-grandson, the one she called "the perfect child," one last time. Pedro Taylor gently tried to dissuade her, but she persisted.
There were no horrors that could have prepared her for the sight of Sean Taylor lying there in his room. The doctors said his body had rejected the blood they had given him and his organs simply shut down. His torso was wrapped with special blankets, but she could see it was bloated. His face was barely recognizable, his mouth misshapen from tubes.
Still, she kissed him on the forehead. Her final goodbye to the kind, mistrustful man who wanted so much to bring family together.
Staff writer Amy Shipley and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.