An impending trial on felony weapons charges and the possibility of a three-year mandatory minimum jail sentence would shake most young men. The possible legal ramifications might hover constantly, distracting the accused at work and blurring his focus, particularly if his employment thrusts him into the limelight.
Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, charged with felony assault with a firearm stemming from an incident in June, lives each day uncertain of his long-term freedom, but since reporting to the team for the start of training camp he has shown no signs of being conflicted or preoccupied. For Taylor, football appears to be a sanctuary, providing structure and camaraderie and filling his hours with practices and meetings and film sessions.
"The man is a focused individual," said Taylor's lawyer, Ed Carhart, "I can tell you that. He's one of these people that football is his life."
Carhart filed a motion to postpone Taylor's Sept. 12 Miami trial date yesterday, he said, and a hearing on the matter is set for tomorrow. Carhart said he will request that Taylor's appearance be waived for tomorrow's hearing, and sources said Taylor is not expected to miss practice to be there, although he has been given the use of owner Daniel Snyder's private plane in the unlikely event the judge upholds the Monday trial date. A source with the State Attorney's Office said "there is no need" for Taylor to attend tomorrow's hearing and that since both the defense and prosecution favor a continuance, the procedure is likely to take only a matter of minutes. The prosecution is not opposed to a postponement until after the Super Bowl in February.
Taylor's offseason -- including boycotting the team's workout program, refusing to return Coach Joe Gibbs's phone calls, and allegedly brandishing a gun and assaulting men he claims stole two of his all-terrain vehicles -- was a major storyline as the Redskins opened training camp, yet he has been uncharacteristically anonymous since. His rookie season was quite a contrast, marked by a series of agent switches, unhappiness about his rookie contract, a one-game suspension for a DUI arrest (he was later acquitted) and repeated fines for violent conduct on the field and NFL game-day uniform violations. Where once chaos seemed to swirl around him, Taylor, 22, has been almost placid off the field the last six weeks despite his legal situation.
"I think it's good for him to be around his other family, and his brothers on this football team," Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington said. "I think it gets him away from all that other stuff. When you're out there playing, man, it's almost like being in your own world, and the only thing that matters is you and your teammates. And I think that's good for him, especially at a time like this."
Taylor, the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft, declined to comment for this story, and has kept a very low profile since returning to Washington. He answered a bevy of questions at a news conference Aug. 1, but has generally declined to speak publicly since. Taylor has been uncomfortable with the press throughout his brief tenure here, but, where before he was openly hostile at times, he now adopts a more friendly demeanor. While the media attention has turned to the Redskins' offense and quarterback Patrick Ramsey, Taylor has quietly starred on the field.
"He's had a very, very good preseason," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "All of our defensive coaches feel the same way. I think he's a guy who loves football; this is where he belongs, this is what he loves doing. And I think he's had great concentration and I don't think he's shown any distraction or anything. I think he's been totally focused on football, as a matter of fact. [The legal problems] become something you don't even think about."
After two weeks, Taylor rose from the bottom of the depth chart to reclaim his starting free safety position, and is set to start Sunday's season opener against Chicago (in 2004 he did not start until the third game). He showed up in excellent condition -- allaying any concern that his offseason in South Florida was spent largely in South Beach -- displayed an immediate knowledge of the defense despite missing so many weeks of meetings and practices, and seems poised to build upon his successful rookie season.
"You do put a premium on the offseason," strong safety Ryan Clark said, "but some guys have the talent and they're able to overcome that. And he's come back and he hasn't missed a beat. He still knows what he's doing and sometimes when he doesn't his athletic ability takes over from there. He's just blessed, man, and it's obvious. We all see it, and he's done a great job since he's come back."
Taylor, 6 feet 2, 232 pounds, has the body type and intimidating presence to change games from the secondary. He lives to make tackles, has tremendous speed, a gift for prying the football loose from ballcarriers and excellent coverage skills. His reliance on those gifts at times led him to stray from sound fundamentals, which made his decision not to participate in Washington's offseason program all the more troubling for coaches. But those same coaches say Taylor has displayed a better understanding of the defense.
"With a year under his belt, he feels more at ease," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "He's not there yet -- he's not a finished product by any means -- but [safeties coach] Steve Jackson's done a tremendous job of bringing him up to speed in a short amount of time. I've never changed my opinion that he's the best kid I've ever coached, athletically, and I take it real personal in making sure that he matures in the right way as a football player. He's got to take some huge steps here in year two, but when you go back over time in this league, that's usually when the great ones really make a big jump. He's primed to do that."
Several Redskins said Taylor is more driven than ever to prove that his troubles will not affect his play, and that he is one of the dominant safeties in the NFL. They expect him to be a big part of one of the league's premier defenses, and improve on his four-interception, one-sack season.
"I think he's a special person," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "He'll be all right. He's still growing, he's a young pup in his second year in the league, man, and he'll be fine. We care about him, and not because it's a football thing, but as a personal thing. I was just happy that he was all right. I gave him a big embrace the first time I saw him and I was just happy that he was okay from everything. That was my main concern, not, 'Were you in your playbook?' We'll find that out when the time is right. He's still learning, but he's a phenomenal athlete. I think he'll be fine."