Sorrow And Hope

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Seattle game was over, and a beat-up and bandaged Clinton Portis sat on a stool in a near-empty corridor of Qwest Field. Before he explained how the NFL's leading rusher backpacked his team to victory again, No. 26 spoke of No. 21, whose encased cubicle still sits next to his in memoriam.

"It's going to be tough, you know, the year anniversary," Portis said. "But really I don't think there's a day that goes by that I don't think about Sean. You always think about it; that ain't gonna never change."

A year ago tomorrow, Portis received the news at 5 a.m. with a knock on his door.

"Sean passed," he was told.

Sean Taylor's death early that morning from a gunshot wound the day before rocked a region and a franchise and sent his best friend on the Washington Redskins into a state of "total shock."

"Where I didn't want to believe it; it just couldn't be true, you know?"

He wept for the 24-year-old safety, remembering how the two University of Miami roughnecks forged a bond in college that transcended forearm shivers, look-at-me touchdowns and a football fraternity known simply as, "The U."

And then, within moments of digesting the tragic news, Portis did what he had to do, what he's always done: He picked himself up. Emotionally.

Having flown to Miami the day of the shooting, Portis began by making tearful calls to teammates, telling them Taylor was gone. He drove across town to comfort Sean's father, Pedro "Pete" Taylor, and, with little sleep, went back to Washington the next morning with Pete and Jackie Garcia, the mother of Taylor's daughter and the woman Taylor hoped to marry.

One year ago, Portis stood in front of Pete, Jackie and Taylor's extended family in Ashburn. Through more tears, he spoke about the greatest loss he has suffered. Then he went to work on a eulogy he would deliver the following week at Taylor's funeral.

In a span of 12 days, Portis would take six flights to and from Miami, play three games and take a genuine personal inventory.

"Of course something like that changes you, shows you got to be more appreciative of everything you have, be blessed and be thankful for it," Portis said. "It doesn't take the anniversary to do that."

Fifty-four more yards Sunday against the New York Giants and only John Riggins will have rushed for more than yards in a burgundy-and-gold uniform than Portis. That's great and all, and the accomplishment will further endear Portis to the legions of people who have seen him finish the same kind of physical, tough, bruising runs Larry Brown and Riggo used to finish.

But over the past year, Portis has been about so much more than numbers and durability. More than anyone, the carefree prankster most fans came to know suddenly grew from the tragedy, helping a team and town cope with horrible grief after Taylor was slain in Miami by young thieves who had broken into his home.

Portis speaks with members of Taylor's family often, he said, checking in with Jackie, Taylor's brother, his best friend and his mother. "I call them, they'll call me," he said. "I call to check-in, see what baby J is doin' -- she's speaking Spanish, learning all kinds of new stuff."

In the weeks that followed Taylor's murder, Portis underwent a spiritual transformation, becoming one of a half-dozen Redskins players who kneeled and prayed beside the Rev. Brett Fuller, the team's former chaplain, when, Portis said last December, "I committed my life to Christ."

His girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy in the offseason, making Portis a father for the first time. He remembers how Taylor's daughter, Jackie, had helped his friend mature and become more accountable to his family and others. Portis said during training camp he felt some of the same pull from his child, the feeling he was here for something larger than merely a career as an NFL player.

He often says, "I'm not the perfect Christian," and much of the playful parts of his personality have begun to return.

Beyond the person, Portis says, he really misses Sean Taylor, the menacing Pro Bowl safety. He firmly believes the Redskins would have been a bona fide Super Bowl contender coming out of training camp if Taylor were still here.

"That was one of the toughest moments, when you sit and think about who it was," Portis said. "You talkin' about a man who was going to set the salary cap and the league on fire. You got to pay him like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning -- as a defensive player! You talkin' about probably one of the most feared players. You put him in there with [Mike] Singletary and [Dick] Butkus and Ronnie Lott after a four-year span.

"Imagine if we could have got eight to 10 years of him," Portis continued. "This man was in his prime, and it's hard to think where was he about to take it to. I mean, what was his next level? Like right now, for us, LaRon Landry is playing out of position.

"I'm not the coach, but I think LaRon impacted the game more in the box. Although we got [Chris] Horton and Horton playing good, Sean allowed LaRon to go out and be the maniac that he is. But Sean was capable of being the maniac at free safety, and LaRon got to learn that position. So it's a learning curve. If affected us a lot [on the field], but there's always what if.

"Look, we don't have him, we all miss him, and we got to get comfortable with that."

He nodded to himself, rose from his seat and readied himself to answer questions about another football game in November, almost a year to the day of Taylor's death.

"It's going to be tough," he said. "I'm sure it's going to be emotional. More people are going to think of it just 'cause it's the anniversary. But, like I said, I don't think there's a day for myself or a few of my teammates that don't go by that you don't think about it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company