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Hit Man: How Sean Taylor Left His Mark

By Vidur Malik

May 4, 2013

Like many naive young men, I dreamed of being a football star. Like so many of those men, I had to accept that it would never happen. I wanted to be the powerful athlete who could bring down the strongest opponents and outrun the fastest ones. But I was not built for the brutal game.

I needed to channel that desire to someone who could be what I could not. I chose Sean Taylor. Taylor played free safety for the Washington Redskins and when I was in high school, still playing football, I became a fan. He was fast and strong, six-two and over 200 pounds, and possessed a skill set that was especially lethal: he was a merciless tackler. He was the most badass player at the most badass position in football, an already badass game. He never talked much, and this lent an element of mystery that made him all the more compelling. I don’t remember hearing him talk in an interview or a press conference.

His decision-making, off the field, could also be badass, too much so. He was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm and simple battery for aiming a gun at a group of men who apparently robbed him of his all-terrain vehicles in June 2005. He was fined and ejected from a 2006 playoff game for spitting on Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman. Stupid as these transgressions were, when combined with his devastating playing style, they helped mold his intimidating persona. He had come into the league and quickly established a reputation as an intimidator and had a nickname to match: “Meast”- half-man, half-beast.

Then he died.

On Nov. 26, 2007, he was shot during a home invasion. A bullet pierced his femoral artery. He died the next day.

His death was one of those “I remember exactly where I was when I found out” moments. I was a college freshman, getting ready for morning class and making my daily visit to espn.com before heading out the door. I learned the night before that he had been shot, but the reports didn’t make the situation seem too dire.

When I read the ESPN headline, “Redskins’ Taylor Dies,” the news hit me the way Taylor had hit his opponents: swiftly, without time to prepare. I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. I know I had an 8 a.m. psychology class and I talked about Taylor’s death with fellow football fans later that day. I remember watching an interview with Redskins running back Clinton Portis, one of Taylor’s close friends on the team, in a friend’s dorm room.

Five years have passed since Taylor’s death, and I still think of him from time to time. I think of what he was able to accomplish as a player in such a short career. Yet most people knew nothing about him besides his ability to hurt.

So not long ago, I decided to find out what I could about who Sean Taylor really was. I would find his teammates and perhaps travel to Miami, his hometown, and talk to his friends and family, and through them piece together a narrative of his life.

Things began promisingly. Cory Johnson — the head football coach at Miami Killian High School where Taylor spent his first two years of high school, and his brother Leron talked to me about Taylor’s early years. They told me that he was a quiet person who loved playing football. They did not think his run-ins with the police were indicative of more serious problems. I spoke with Ashon Lillie, a police officer who works with Taylor’s father Pedro, the chief of police of Florida City, who told me that his son idolizes Taylor.

But then I encountered two problems. The first was Taylor’s father, who threatened me with legal action if I pursued the story of his son.

The other was Sean Taylor himself, or rather the Taylor that began to emerge in stories people told. In death, as it was in life, Taylor remained an enigma. He was not the sort of person whose life evoked stories and tales and images that endured years after he died. I began to wonder whether the true Sean Taylor was, in fact, the player I had so admired for being all that I could not be: the safety, the “Meast.” Perhaps the story of Sean Taylor was to be told not in how he lived, but in how he played the game

I did not appreciate the athleticism required to be a safety until I played football. On my high school freshman team, our most athletic players were safeties, because the position required so much. From then on, safeties occupied a bigger chunk of my appreciation of the game.

They are called safeties for a reason. They line up furthest from the quarterback and are the last line of defense, the last two players the ball carrier must evade to get to the end zone. Good safeties specialize in one aspect of the game, be it tackling, coverage or blitzing. The great ones take skills from every other defensive position and apply them to their own role. They tackle like beefier linebackers, cover like swift cornerbacks and rush like immense linemen.

One of the best compliments a football player can get goes something like this: “He’s not a running back/wide receiver/tight end; He’s a football player.” This means a player possesses a complete mastery of the game. Safeties take that praise one step further. They are not just football players; they are athletes. Like Taylor, they must be physical enough to hit bigger offensive players and fast enough to keep up with the quicker ones. This athleticism transfers most seamlessly to sports like track and field or basketball. Take safety Eric Reid, the 18th overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. At the NFL combine, where draftees go through a gauntlet of drills to test their measurables, Reid ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, benched 17 reps of the 225-pound bench press and registered a vertical leap of 40.5 inches. The 4.53 40 time is actually about a tenth of a second slower than most safeties would like clock in at, and the 40-inch leap is comparable to that of NBA players.

On the field, however, these impressive numbers hold little value. Reid could be the next Sean Taylor, or he could be one of the many flops who enter every year with high expectations only to find themselves looking for a regular job. Because once the ball is snapped, safeties cannot rely on their natural abilities alone. Like every other football player they must be able to read and react to opponents in seconds, but in the case of safeties must do so dozens of yards away from the action. Because they are so far removed from the line of scrimmage, safeties must be able to cover a lot of ground if they are to have an impact, especially on a pass play. They have to decide, correctly, where the ball is going, make their way quickly to that spot and be prepared to either tackle the receiver, knock the ball down, or better still, intercept the pass and maybe even run it back for a touchdown.

Safeties must also have the courage to run to the scrum in front of them, all the while paying heed to the receivers trying to get behind them. When a running back breaks through the defensive line and past the linebacker, safeties must make the tackle their bigger teammates missed. They have to be able to rush the quarterback –– before he can throw to the receiver the play has left uncovered.

All these many tasks means that safeties are often the statistical standouts of their defenses, routinely leading their teams in interceptions and also ranking high in tackles, sacks and recovered fumbles. The best safeties also return punts.

So it was that I gravitated to safeties when I watched football. I saw safeties as the apotheosis of the complete football player. They were physical marvels, tall and powerful. They looked the way football players should look.

Every team has, or wants, a safety that can confuse and hurt. Dashon Goldson did both with the San Francisco 49ers, and was one of the most coveted free agents of the 2013 offseason. Bernard Pollard, now with the Houston Texans, earned a reputation as a Patriot hunter because of his hits on New England players Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Stevan Ridley, all of which caused some sort of injury.

These hits do not just hurt at the moment of impact. They linger. The hardest hit I took in high school bothered me for much longer than its duration. I was a blocker on a kick return, which is football at its most anarchic. Blockers run around looking for someone to hit; defenders sprint after the returner trying to level blockers in their path. I was one of those blockers.

A defender blindsided me; the force of the impact centered on my helmet’s earhole. I hit the ground, got back up and did not re-enter the game. I remember feeling a ringing in my head. It was not, strictly speaking, a serious hit. But it was powerful enough to provide me the proper introduction to a game that, unlike mere contact sports, is really a “collision” sport.

I have tackled and been tackled and the pain, while present, is often more subtle. If an opponent’s facemask, say, strikes an unprotected part of your body, it will leave a bruise that will eventually take on every color of the rainbow. A cleat leaves a stinging cut. Then there is just the day after a game, when it hurts to walk or cough.

Sean Taylor must have loved inflicting the pain. I certainly did not. I was the player who shied away from contact, who would flinch when I felt its presence. I was not and am not a football player. I love the strategy. The pain I can do without.

From an early age, those who watched Taylor play saw in him the makings of a hitter. Among his early mentors were the Johnson brothers, Cory and Leron, who grew up near Taylor in the Fairway Heights section of Miami.

“His nose for the ball and the way he would stick his head into the fire was pretty remarkable,” says Cory Johnson. “We could tell that as soon as his skill set caught up with his frame and his knack for playing it was going to be something special to watch.”

Taylor’s gifts were not limited to football. “He was always looking to dunk on somebody,” says Leron Johnson of his explosiveness on the basketball court.

Taylor grew up with his father Pedro and his wife. Taylor’s biological mother Donna Junor lost custody of him when he was 9, reported the New York Times. Pedro Taylor coached his son, putting together drills from equipment he bought at Home Depot, says Cory Johnson.

His aggression on the field aside, the Johnsons recall Taylor as a quiet young man who would get angry only when provoked. He was easy to coach and eager to learn.

“The kid played ball for all the right reasons,” Cory Johnson said.

Taylor played defense at Miami Killian High School and later transferred to Gulliver Prep so he could play on offense as well. He was a standout on both sides of the ball there. Film of Taylor in high school shows him running upright past defenders, his long strides making it look maddeningly easy. In 2000, the year Gulliver won the Florida Class 2A state championship, Taylor rushed for 44 touchdowns. He was that rare high school player who was a standout on defense too.

As a Miami Hurricane, Taylor displayed talents that looked like they would translate seamlessly to the next level. He intercepted 10 passes in his final college season and picked off two Craig Krenzel throws in Miami’s 31-24 loss to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which doubled as that season’s national championship game and Taylor’s final collegiate contest. When he ran his strides were long and graceful, and when he had space to build his momentum during a punt or interception return, he looked like he was almost floating.

At Miami, he also showed the football world what kind of hitter he would be when he entered the NFL. He hit in all kinds of ways. He would deliver the finishing blow to a ball carrier who was already tied up by another defender. He would grab fistfuls of jersey and throw an opponent down to the ground as effortlessly as someone slams shut a car trunk.

The Redskins took Taylor fifth overall in the 2003 NFL draft, and he quickly made an impact, with 76 total tackles and four interceptions in his rookie season. He made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and posthumously in 2007. At the time of his death, he was leading the league in interceptions, with five in nine games. He ended his career and life with 299 total tackles, 12 interceptions, eight forced fumbles and two sacks.

Gregg Williams, his defensive coordinator with Washington, told ESPN.com that Taylor was simply “the best football player I’ve ever coached –– by far.”

As quickly as he displayed his talent, he displayed his discipline issues. He was fined $25,000 for missing part of the NFL rookie symposium and continued getting in trouble. He was charged with driving under the influence in October 2004 and was later acquitted. In his most serious incident, he was hit with three aggravated assault charges and a misdemeanor for a June 1, 2005 altercation with two men who stole his two all-terrain vehicles. According to the Washington Post, he allegedly drove to West Perrine, a dangerous section of Miami near Fairway Heights, with Charles Elwood Caughman, also a defendant in the case, and pointed a gun at the two men. They left and returned 10 minutes later with a larger group. After a fight in which Taylor hit a man, they left and parked Taylor’s SUV at the home of a friend’s mother. The car was shot up soon after, but no one was hurt. According to the Post, that incident was not considered part of the fight involving Taylor.

Leron Johnson said the people who took Taylor’s all-terrain vehicles demanded money for them, and Taylor may have acted the way he did because he felt disrespected, and not because he was a criminal.

Taylor, who said he did not have a gun during the fight, would have faced up to 46 years in prison, but made a plea deal in which he was placed on 18 months of probation and was required to talk to 10 schools in Miami-Dade County about education and donate $1,000 each to those schools.

After all that came the alleged turnaround portion of Taylor’s life, when he grew up and had a daughter. It was this point in his life that he sprained his right knee against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 11, 2007.

In the early morning of Nov. 26, 2007, five men broke into his house. His girlfriend Jackie Garcia and the couple’s daughter, Jackie, hid under the bedsheets while Taylor picked up a machete that he had for protection, according to ESPN. He saw Eric Rivera Jr. at his bedroom door. Rivera Jr. allegedly fired two shots. One hit Taylor in his leg, striking his femoral artery. He bled, profusely, slipped into a coma and died the following day at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The trial for four of the five men charged with Taylor’s murder – Rivera Jr., Jason Scott Mitchell, Timmy Lee Brown and Charles K. Wardlow – has been delayed nine times and is currently scheduled to start August 12 Venjah Hunte plead guilty to charges of burglary and murder.

According to reports after his death, Taylor’s generosity may have led to his death. The Naples News reported in 2008 that Wardlow was dating Taylor’s sister and that he, along with Mitchell, were paid by Taylor for cutting the grass at his house for a birthday party Taylor was throwing for his sister. The Naples News also reported Mitchell as saying that he did not think Taylor would be home, as the Redskins played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road Nov. 26. The story reported Mitchell as saying Taylor gave $10,000 to his sister and brother. The headline of the New York Times story detailing his life and death had a sobering headline that certainly did not paint Taylor as a thug or troubled person: “Taylor’s Heart of Kindness Might Have Left Him Vulnerable.”

In the days after his death, much of the conversation in the media focused on how Taylor was just beginning to mature. I would hear about how having a daughter calmed Taylor down. Leron Johnson did not see it that way.

“I wouldn’t say having a child calmed him down because he was never a wild dude like that,” Leron Johnson said.

Sean Taylor lives on in Youtube, on highlights of his most vicious tackles, hit after hit shown without pause and without the interruption of more mundane plays. There are some 10 Youtube videos entitled “Sean Taylor Highlights” or a variation of the phrase. They have gotten millions of views, and with them admirers. “He was a safety but he had a linebacker mentality,” Oakland Raiders defensive end Andre Carter, who played with Taylor on the Redskins, told me. “You had to be aware of where Sean was.”

Taylor lingered in his opponents’ heads. Former wide receiver Chad Johnson, who was then Chad Ochocinco, was once asked by a Twitter follower: “Who do u hate seein across from u when u line up the most?” He replied, “Sean Taylor. Gave me 3 concussions in a 2 year span.”

Together the hits make Taylor seem like a bully. I almost felt sorry for his opponents, as if the way they were being treated was an injustice.

But this was just a distillation of football, as played on its highest, if most violent level. Bodies clash and sometimes break. It is in the nature of the game.

But the beauty of the game for me is in the work, the intricacies of strategy that go into making the contact possible. Players study film in the hope of being able to anticipate –– to know –– what their opponents will do in a host of complex, rapidly unfolding situations. For a defender like Taylor, film study provides the clues that will allow him to be in just the right spot and the very moment his opponent is most vulnerable. Then he can hit him as hard as he can. Taylor’s hit on Florida State wide receiver P.K. Sam during was perhaps his most devastating shot. As Sam tried to catch a pass Taylor led with his helmet, pinning it between Sam’s helmet and shoulder, pushing him back and up with his arms. Sam went airborne, spinning around like a piece of paper on a windy day.

I do not enjoy seeing players get hurt. I did not like hearing about the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, in which defenders awarded cash payments to teammates for especially vicious hits. I was a bit sickened when I read recently that Taylor may have gotten paid in a similar arrangement in Washington by his former coach Gregg Williams: the Saints defensive coordinator who was fired for running the bounty program.

But I can appreciate players who prepare well for their opponents so that they can put themselves in situations where they can make good, hard tackles. This is the aspect of football of which I cannot get enough. I will imagine plays unfolding in my head, seeing all sorts of routes that receivers might run. Then I imagine how the defense might prepare and react. Hour upon hour, week after week of film and repetition, and running the play again in the hope of scoring a touchdown, or in the case of a safety like Sean Taylor, making the big, memorable hit.

Intimidation comes only to the smartest players. Talent alone cannot make a man a superstar. Taylor had to master all the technical skills to begin to become so frightening a player. Then he had to become a student, of the game, of his opponents.

I watched the Taylor highlights with Andy Lancberg, the head football coach at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, who recalled Sean Taylor as a hitter and a bit of a thug. I first asked whether he could recall how Taylor died.

“Why do I keep on thinking shootout?” Lancberg said. “Drug-related?”

Just looking at Taylor told Lancberg a lot about the kind of player he was. He was struck by Taylor’s size — 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds — when watching the YouTube video “The Legend of Sean.”

“That’s pretty humongous for a free safety,” Lancberg said.

We then start watching the hits. Good tackling starts with an explosion –– a tackler wanted to get his hips out of his defensive crouch quickly to make a powerful first step toward the ball carrier. Lancberg likened a good, hip-generated first step to a coil springing forward. Taylor, he noted, has particularly powerful hips. “He probably could squat his ass off, this guy,” Lancberg said of Taylor’s weight training.

That explosion, in turn, made Taylor’s tackling altogether different than most safeties. His opponents would not just fall. They would bounce off of him, or rise off their feet, blows exacerbated by the very wide shoulder pads he wore. Most defensive backs wear smaller gear. Taylor’s made his walk a bit more upright, his chest a bit bigger.

Most of his hits began the same way — lowering one of his shoulders and driving it into the opponent. This technique, however, can backfire. Miss the tackle and the defender takes himself out of the play. This approach, Taylor’s approach, goes against football fundamentals, which call for tacklers to wrap their arms around the opponent while lowering their shoulder, so they can latch on and drive the opposing player to the ground. Many of Taylor’s hits — the missile-like launches and forearm shots, in particular — might well have been whistled for penalties for unnecessary roughness.

Taylor did not completely ignore the fundamentals. His tackle of Denver Broncos running back Tatum Bell was textbook. Bell took a handoff but ran into a blocker. He stumbled, and by the time he regained his footing, Taylor had shot through the hole, driven his shoulder into Bell’s midsection and wrapped his arms around Bell’s hips, making it impossible for Bell to break the tackle. The force of the impact drove Bell back two yards. Taylor slammed him to the turf.

But perhaps the most telling moment came in a tackle that did not actually happen. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terry Glenn was running a crossing route over the middle — where receivers are most exposed and particularly vulnerable. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw Glenn a pass that would lead him right into a charging Taylor. Instead of reaching for the ball, Glenn brought his arms back to his body to get out of Taylor’s way. This is called “alligator arming” and is a sin hard to live down. The pass sailed by him, and Glenn flinched as Taylor approached, even though the play was over.

The 2012 season would have been Taylor’s ninth. He would have turned 30 on April 1, and probably would have been on the downswing of his career. “He would’ve been a shell of himself,” Lancberg said. Perhaps, Lancberg went on, he might have moved from defensive back to pass-rushing outside linebacker.

It would have been sad to see Taylor’s skills fade, because it was on the field, playing the position he played the way he played it, that set him apart. He died when he was at the peak of his ability, which left admirers like me to wonder what more we might have seen from him had the intruders not come upon him that night five years ago. Careers and lives are not supposed to end like this. Sean Taylor was not supposed to be bleed to death from a bullet in the leg.

For a few years, I watched, in awe, an athlete who was everything I did not have the capacity to be. He made the game look easy and beautiful by the very act of being the most violent player on the field. He was my polar opposite. I am weak and he was strong. I am timid and he was a bully. I do not have swagger, and on the field of play Sean Taylor was a bad, bad man.

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