The 10th anniversary of Sean Taylor’s death brought a wave of cautiously hopeful stories about his legacy — stories about how many younger defensive backs now model themselves after Taylor’s style of play, even if they lack his physical talents. That’s a sunny way of looking at the Taylor tragedy from a decade’s distance
The immediate legacy for some of Taylor’s peers, though, was considerably different: less removed, far more intense, and still harrowing to hear. Clinton Portis and Santana Moss — two of Taylor’s closest friends with the Redskins — have talked about the impact of his death repeatedly over the past decade. But in a lengthy sit-down with NBC Washington’s Carol Maloney this fall, the two men were about as searing as they’ve ever been.
Portis, for example, talked about the team’s decision to move Taylor’s locker from Redskins Park to a FedEx Field display during the 2010 offseason. Moss and Portis both released statements in support of that decision at the time — “I think the true fans, the people who’ve really been down with the Redskins from Day 1, win, lose or draw, I think they’ll have a great appreciation” of the locker, Portis said then. But in the conversation with Maloney, he made it clear how much the decision impacted him.
“I remember when they came and said they were taking Sean’s locker, and I looked like, ‘Why in the hell would you do that?'” Portis said. “I felt like for this little [expletive] space, this little small space, you can’t leave and block it off so no one else ever sit here? And they moved his locker, and I kid you not, I never cared about football the same. Because at that moment, I just felt like we were replaceable. Like, damn, Sean T., the legend of Sean T., and you go and move his locker and just put anybody here . . . “
“I think it just became reality, and the realization was we’re meaningless,” Portis said later. “Like, you just snatch the name and change the locker. Like, Sean T.? You know what I mean? If you all do that to Sean T., I don’t mean [expletive] to this organization. That’s the way I felt . . . All of the sudden, I’m telling ‘Tana, man, to hell with this. Like, they’re playing around. And I just didn’t care.”
Portis remembered this event happening a year after Taylor’s death, while it actually came two years later, in the offseason before Portis’s final NFL campaign. But Moss said he remembered hearing Portis talk about how much it bothered him.
“You could tell that a lot of that stuff that we was going through after that situation kind of stirred from that one year, 2007, when we lost our good friend,” Moss said.
Portis expanded on that point when asked about eventually emerging from the pain.
“I don’t think you come out of the dark place, because you look at 2007 — 2008 probably could have been or would have been my best year in football,” Portis said. “Then all of the sudden that [expletive] Coach Zorn just really ruined that. And if you think about it, it was around the same time. He ruined that moment. He ruined that recovery trail. And then I really stopped caring.”
Portis detailed some of his specific complaints against Zorn — more on that later — before Moss picked up the story.
“I mean, no, he’s telling a lot of truth,” Moss said. “I lost a lot of sleep. I haven’t slept the same since Sean’s passing. I’ve become paranoid. I’ve become somebody that’s always watching his back . . . I don’t sleep more than three hours, four hours now at night, and it all stemmed from that year.”
Moss then talked about how every week of his career after Taylor’s death, he felt like they were still playing together.
“I would look up and tell him, come play with me,” Moss said. “Even when it was crunchtime. I remember games when I felt like a play needed to be made — c’mon Sean, I need you, let’s go. They’re gonna need me, I need you. And I promise you, I would go out there and make a play and I would laugh and smile and smirk and look up, just like man, this stuff is unreal. You can’t tell this story. You can’t tell somebody you’re doing this.”
Portis later returned to the Zorn issue, speaking at length about the head coach who replaced the retired Joe Gibbs in the season after Taylor died. The running back seemed unamused by Zorn’s quirks, from “that Hip Hip Hooray [expletive],” as he called it, to “the little tents he built” to shield players from the sun.
“I should have broke them,” Portis said of the tents. “He was so much of a cornball and separated so much amongst the players. Because at that time, you had people coming off of [Taylor’s death] who really were trying to adapt Sean’s mentality. Like people were still playing for Sean T.”
Portis suggested that Zorn “wanted to take all the credit or make it about him and teach lessons instead of allowing grown men to go out and play,” saying this led to rebellion in the locker room. He said the Redskins would have won a Super Bowl by now if they had given the head coaching job to Gregg Williams, Jerry Gray or Greg Blache instead of Zorn after the departure of Gibbs. And then he brought up another story, about how he, Moss and Taylor started their own tradition early in the 2006 season.
Portis, he said, had been telling his friends how the best game of his career came in Denver, while he was hung over, so he told them he was going to take a pregame shot before an early-season meeting with the Jaguars. They all did a shot, and they all played extremely well in Washington’s overtime win: Portis ran for 112 yards and a touchdown, and Moss caught a game-winning 68-yard touchdown in overtime. The trio then began taking one shot each of Hennessy before games.
“Prior to the game, on our way, we would take a little shot,” Portis said. “Not like going out and getting sloppy wasted; just adrenaline. You know, you take a shot and you were done with it. Me, Santana and Sean, we did this for a year and a half before anybody knew. We never told anybody. It was just, hey, here’s a little sip, bam, that was it.”
Moss said it was just another form of bonding for the players, and that if it had negatively impacted their performance, they would have stopped. But Portis said other players later started adopting the same habit, and that Zorn thought the players were doing it in honor of Taylor. And so the coach brought it up in a team meeting.
“All of the sudden Coach Zorn came in and ‘Oh yeah, guys are taking sips for Sean.’ What?” Portis said.
“And it bothered me when that happened, too, because we [were] doing it way prior to him getting here,” Moss said of Zorn. “So he spoke out about it — Hey, I hear you guys . . . you know that liquor is a downer? Don’t you feel down when you drink? And we’re like, ‘What is this conversation going to?’ And then I remember stepping out of the meeting room and he grabbed me, like, ‘Santana, are you one of those guys?’ And I think he wanted me to tell on everybody. And I said, ‘Coach, look here man, I don’t know about everybody else, but yeah, I’m that guy. But do you have a problem with my play?’”
The coach, Moss said, did not. But Portis said that Zorn “lost the locker room” when he asked players about the tradition.
“He just kind of lost a lot of us,” Moss said. “He said that, and that kind of lost us together when it came to him. Like, ‘Man, he spoke of that name wrong.’ You know, that’s kind of like a low blow. Like, don’t bring his name up in that way, you know what I mean? That’s wrong.”
After Maloney asked more about the pregame shots, Portis offered a lengthier explanation, explaining how he avoided pain medications throughout his career.
“They give you shots [of medication], they give you all these pain meds, they give you all this [stuff]. Me, I didn’t take shots,” Portis said. “You ask anybody. We needed to get an IV one time; it took me three hours to get an IV bag, because I hate needles. I don’t take meds; I don’t take shots. That just wasn’t me. So in pain or anything else, what did I do? You know what, I’ve got to play: Get my mind right, take my little sip, and I’m out of here.
“It wasn’t something even planned,” Moss said. “Once you get out there and all that adrenaline going on, that [alcohol] is out you, you know what I mean? You’re taking all this Gatorade and water you don’t have it in your system no more . . . And that was just kind of having fun. You know what, let’s take that stress out of our heads and say let’s just have fun and not care so much. Because sometimes as players, you put so much pressure on yourself to go out there and perform. Man, let’s relax.”
The interview lasts more than 45 minutes, and yet it’s a gripping watch. (Here’s the link again.) And there might not be a more gripping part than Portis talking about his career, post-Taylor.
“I can remember telling Santana — I’m not even sure if Santana remembers this — I can remember telling Santana after Sean passed, this [isn’t] for me anymore,” Portis said. “And Santana always thought I was playing. I was like, ‘Man, this game’s not even the same.’ Me and Santana used to ride to the game together all the time. And I just was like, ‘Man, I’m not even excited about stepping on the field.’”