As slim as a noodle at age 14, Sean Michael Taylor wanted to play running back for the Florida City Razorbacks. But the coach of the Pop Warner team, with players restricted to 140 pounds or less, placed Taylor at third-string tailback.
Taylor's shiftiness and speed during his first day at Florida City Park didn't sway the coach. So Peter Taylor advised his son to switch to one of football's most unglamorous positions, safety, where coaches seldom place gifted athletes.
"Come over to [the secondary] and knock a few running backs out," Peter Taylor instructed his son. "And who knows? You might be playing back there in time."
At least, Taylor would be guaranteed playing time at safety by exploiting his athleticism. So he heeded his dad's suggestion.
"I wasn't into sitting on the bench, so I hurried up and got with the program at safety," Taylor, now 21, recalled this week at Redskins Park. "I started having a good time laying cats out, and before you know it I wasn't looking at running back anymore."
Taylor, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, is anything but an ordinary safety, possessing an extraordinary blend of size, speed and strength. The University of Miami product enters his NFL rookie season with the Washington Redskins after being drafted fifth overall. He has recovered from an offseason that was replete with negative press, mostly for hiring and firing agents and skipping out early on a league-mandated rookie symposium, with a promising preseason. At free safety, Taylor displayed ball-hawking skills (three interceptions) and hitting ability (two forced fumbles) to bolster predictions that he is destined for stardom.
"He took to it real quick," Coach Joe Gibbs said of Taylor's performance. "He's got real good football intelligence. There's not many guys who make those kinds of plays that quick."
Toward the end of the preseason, however, Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, said he hoped that Taylor would experience NFL lessons typical for rookies. Washington's defensive coaches weren't displeased that the Redskins' secondary struggled during a 28-3 loss against the speedy St. Louis Rams in the penultimate exhibition game Aug. 27.
"He's nowhere near reaching his potential," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "He hasn't had to reach down to make things happen. But that time will come."
Taylor is far from grasping the nuances of playing safety in the NFL. Coaches say that as defensive quarterback and the last line of the defense, Taylor must learn to recognize plays more rapidly instead of mainly relying on his physical talents. His coaches have couched their words when talking about Taylor's study habits.
The safety is candid about not extensively watching film. "Honestly, I'm not a person that's going to study film for hours and hours," Taylor said. "I feel there's a time to study but you don't have to overwork your mind. What I do is I take what I know and use it, and I build off that."
Taylor occasionally seems aloof to people who don't know him. He maintains a palpable distance toward strangers. But he is sometimes full of charm and outgoing among relatives, friends and teammates. Overall, Taylor is a private, quiet person with a self-effacing personality. "He's the type of person who lets his actions speak," said his father, the police chief of Florida City.
Taylor's personality is especially striking in contrast to Miami players known for their brashness. The group includes Taylor's buddies: Cleveland Browns rookie tight end Kellen Winslow, drafted one slot after Taylor; Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis; and Redskins star tailback Clinton Portis.
"He's not like the average Miami guy; he's not arrogant," said Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot, who has befriended Taylor. "You meet a lot of the Miami guys and they're arrogant. He's totally different from Kellen Winslow."
Taylor's demeanor is transformed on the football field. His soft voice rises to an assertive tone that generates trash talking. Taylor's quiet confidence is replaced by cockiness, and the safety shows an entertainer's flair.
"After that whole day I was relaxing and being humble, I get to talk without anybody getting offended at how demanding my voice can be," Taylor explained. "It's just like you caged a wild lion up for a little bit, and you let him out again. And he's just furious. That's when I get to unleash myself out there."
Smoot said: "He kind of turns into an animal. He gets loud and gets into his game."
Off the field, Taylor shies from the limelight. Before the 2003 college football season, Taylor made Playboy's all-American team as a junior. One benefit was being flown to Hugh Hefner's 30-room Playboy mansion in Beverly Hills for a photo shoot with the other top players and a chance to mingle with some of the world's most beautiful women. Taylor was the only no-show for reasons he declines to make public, although he added that the distance from Miami made his decision easier.
"I didn't blow it off; I just couldn't make it," said Taylor, named to the NCAA's all-America first team last season. "It [the reason] was serious enough for me to stay home."
Randy Shannon, the Hurricanes' defensive coordinator, wasn't surprised that Taylor declined the invitation. Shannon can envision Taylor being considered an eccentric in the NFL. "Sean doesn't worry about nothing else but ball," Shannon said. "He just wants to play football and be with his boys. Football, football, watch some film and work out. That's Sean."
On April 24, NFL draft day, Taylor remained with a throng of family and friends at Tavernier, Fla., instead of appearing in Madison Square Garden with other top prospects.
"He reminds me of Barry Sanders, personality-wise," said Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, referring to the Detroit Lions tailback who abruptly retired at the peak of his career. "He doesn't want all of you all [the media] in his face. He doesn't want all the attention. He just wants to be a baller. He just wants to make plays."
Taylor makes plays using his massive physique -- linebacker Marcus Washington calls Taylor "meast" as in man-beast -- which brings extra punch to his tackles. "He's the same size as me," marveled the 6-3, 253-pound Arrington, "and he's playing safety,"
Taylor's Popeye-size left bicep has a tattoo of a verse in Psalm 25, concluding with "God Forgive Me." The rookie's right arm is decorated with another tattoo entitled "Steel Standing," to indicate sturdiness. "Can't be bent, can't be broken," Taylor explained. "I'm steel standing."
Taylor, whose father is 5-11, is one of the tallest, biggest members of his extended family. He has a theory about his size: eating his great-grandmother Moma's cornmeal porridge over the years during visits to Holmstead, Fla. "Every summer I go down there, 'Eat this, eat that,' " said Taylor, laughing. "She turned me into a fat boy a couple of summers, just eating and loving good food."
At Taylor's pre-draft workout for NFL teams, he registered a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash on grass despite running with a hamstring ailment.
Taylor's physical traits allow him to cover receivers usually assigned to smaller cornerbacks. He can defend slot receivers one-on-one, and can be used outside against big wideouts such as the 6-3, 226-pound Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles. Taylor also has the size and speed to match up against 6-5, 253-pound tight end Jeremy Shockey of the New York Giants.
Jackson concocted a nickname for Taylor, "Swoop," because of the rookie's playmaking skill. "When the ball is in the air," Jackson explained, "he swoops down on it like a hawk." Taylor, whose locker-room nickname is plain S.T., had been unaware of the moniker since the assistant coaches had kept it to themselves. When Taylor was informed about it this week, he responded with a toothy grin: "That's a nice one. I like that."
Last season at Miami, Taylor swooped enough for 10 interceptions in 12 games, matching a school record. Using his tailback moves, Taylor set a school mark by returning three interceptions for touchdowns. Taylor derives his most pleasure from scoring.
"When you're a defensive person, getting into that end zone is a great feeling," said Taylor, who averaged 18.4 yards after interceptions last year. "As soon as you cross that plane, it's just a different feeling."
Taylor was Washington's sixth-highest pick in 40 years and Gibbs's first selection since returning to the NFL. Gibbs jokingly described the pre-draft evaluation of Taylor as "the most researched thing in the history of sports."
Before the draft, the Redskins sent scout Trent Baalke to Miami for three days to form a Taylor dossier. Baalke interviewed teammates, coaches, academic advisers and family members. The Redskins flew Taylor to Washington for two days with the coaching staff. Williams and company watched every 2003 Hurricanes game multiple times.
"We were going to turn over every stone," Redskins Vice President Vinny Cerrato said. "There was no more tape we could have watched on the guy, no more people that we could have talked to, so it was very well researched."
However, within days of his selection, Taylor's story turned into a mini-soap opera. He fired Drew Rosenhaus, his agent, two days after the draft. He was fined $25,000 by the NFL for leaving a mandatory rookie symposium in late June. After almost three months without an agent, Taylor hired representatives in late July. Following a few days of negotiations with the Redskins, Taylor on July 27 signed a six-year contract potentially worth $40 million. But on Aug 3, he fired the agents who had negotiated the deal -- Eugene Mato and Jeff Moorad -- and rehired Rosenhaus. The reason: he was unhappy with his contract.
Taylor can earn up to $9 million annually if he makes the Pro Bowl, making him the NFL's highest-paid safety. However, Taylor is disturbed that his guaranteed salary -- $17.3 million over the length of the deal -- is markedly less than that of other top draft picks.
The Redskins believe that Taylor's off-the-field issues showed immaturity from a rookie in unfamiliar surroundings, and are not indicative of deeper problems that did not turn up in their background check.
"Some of the things he did firing agents and all that, I don't know how you do research for that if a guy has never hired an agent before," Cerrato said. "I think you see a different guy from when he was here right after the draft. He's a guy that I think has grown up."
Taylor described his agent odyssey as a process of elimination that he was unprepared for. "When you meet an agent, it's Life 101," said Taylor, the youngest player on the Redskins. "There are so many guys coming at you. You weed out the good from the bad and in that good you weed out a little bit more bad."
Taylor's public image wasn't helped by his decision to rarely grant media interviews.
During Gibbs's final minicamp in early June, Taylor gave his first group interview session in several weeks. As he addressed the gathering, Arrington snuck up behind him with a shaving cream pie. No one tipped off Taylor, and Arrington shoved the pie into Taylor's face. Guffaws turned to gasps as Taylor cursed and said he was blinded. Because of eye irritation, Taylor watched the next day's practice wearing sunglasses.
During the news conference in late July announcing his contract, Taylor expressed disappointment about an article reporting that he had departed the rookie symposium. He now concedes that he underestimated the significance of the event.
Later, Taylor vowed that he would never speak to the media. Arrington, Portis and Smoot each advised Taylor that it wouldn't be prudent to stay silent indefinitely. Arrington told Taylor that his rookie experience with the media didn't go smoothly either.
Taylor insists that the main reason for his public reticence wasn't the early negative press, but the media neutrality during Arrington's prank. "That was a big part of why I didn't talk to 'em any more after that. Because they were asking me the same questions, and I was getting pies thrown in my face, which wasn't too funny at the time."
Taylor admits that adapting to the NFL off the field was compounded by moving from Miami for the first time in his life while becoming a millionaire. After joining the Redskins, Taylor stayed in a temporary apartment at the Dulles Town Center. "Miami was home," Pete Taylor said. "He knew everyone and everywhere to go."
There were minor issues, such as Taylor's inability to maintain his familiar cornrows from college. The safety got rid of them because he knew no one in Washington to braid them regularly.
One of Taylor's closest teammates is rookie wideout Garnell Wilds, who roomed with the safety at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, where players stayed during training camp. Taylor and Wilds share similarities. Wilds, who is on the practice squad, is from Tampa and played at Virginia Tech, which faces Miami in the Big East.
"I'm used to seeing my folks at least once a week and you get no chance of that here," said Taylor, who is close to his mother, Donna Junor, as well as his father, although they split up soon after his birth. "It's something I've never had to deal with before.
"This is my kind of growing-up-on-my-own type thing. It's me fending for myself out here. After this, I can say I can go anywhere and be myself and be fine with it."