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Rest In Peace

An appreciation for Redskins’ Sean Taylor

The former safety was fun to watch, fun to support and was human as hell. He was also a superhero.

I ran into Fred Smoot at a bar about two weeks ago. We’d never met, so I challenged him to a game of foosball and, ever the competitor, he said yes. Sometime into the game I said; “Ten years.” He nodded and we began talking about Sean Taylor. At that time the anniversary of Taylor’s death was still a couple of weeks away and I’d just spoken with my friend Julian Kimble about Taylor for a story he was writing. The talks helped me remember a time and a person that I’d put so far in the back of my brain that I’d forgotten how much there was to remember.

Today is the 10th anniversary of his death, a gruesome, unfortunate and devastating event that rocked not just my world, but the collective worlds of a few fan bases nationwide.

You have to understand. Sean Taylor was my favorite football player ever. When he died, my love for not just my hometown team, but also for the sport itself within me as a fan, died too. I was working at The Washington Post Express at the time and was still relatively new to the newsroom. When reports first came that he’d been shot and was in the hospital, pundits immediately jumped on the situation and used it as a way to critique Taylor’s “lifestyle.” It was unfair, incorrect and irresponsible.

Had Taylor had a run-in or two or six with the law? Sure. He was a black man in America. Had he been flagged and fined for relatively irresponsible and sometimes gross plays on the football field? Absolutely. But the instant assertion that his death was somehow deserved was a devastating gut punch to so many young black folks who ADORED Taylor. As it turns out, they were all so very wrong. Loud wrong.

Taylor died defending his family in his home. He was injured and thus not playing at the time, so was not with the team, a detail we found out later was an excused absence, from Washington coach Joe Gibbs. His killers did not think he would be home and intended to rob the house while he away. He was very much there and grabbed a machete to fend off his attackers. They shot him. That was the first news.

When that news broke, nobody was really sure how to react. Was he dead? Was he OK? How did this happen? Then, reports said that he was basically bleeding out and near death. Many in my newsroom didn’t really understand how important he was to the city and at the time, we didn’t create what we call “magazine” covers (one picture, no story) unless it was a superbig moment. I convinced my editor that this fit the bill. I remember him asking me a very professional and legit journalism question: What if we have to do another one when he dies?

I said very plainly, “Then we’ll do another one if he dies.” We did.

Sean Taylor was a hard ass, excellent football player. He was also a soft-spoken man who preferred to talk about his family more than anything. He’d recently had a daughter before his death, something that clearly changed his entire outlook on life and his job. He was a focused man. He was on his way to being one of the best players in the NFL, if not ever. Sean Taylor was the best football player Washington had seen in a generation.

When he did die, the feeling of despair was something I’ll never forget. I thought I had forgotten it until today. It’s a well-known fact in black America that even the coolest dudes get shot all the time. That’s a reality that we live with. But they aren’t all superstars who we all rooted for, which may be unfair, but is certainly real.

I asked Smoot about the No. 21, and why Taylor switched. This might sound weird, but that number has a very serious fraternity and culture around it that trickles down to even youth ball. All numbers do, but that was one special to me. I wore it in every sport I played in high school and honestly leaned toward guys who wore it in the pros or college as my favorites. Taylor switched to the number after Smoot left Washington for Minnesota. They’d played together in Taylor’s rookie year.

What he told me next might be a story he’s told before, but was new to me. He said that Taylor was “holding” his number. He’d planned to give it back if Smoot ever returned, an obvious show of respect. Lo and behold, Smoot did return, but didn’t ask for the number back. Taylor had taken it and become a different player and man, and there was no way Smoot was going to mess that up. Smoot switched to 27. That floored me.

Smoot talked about Taylor as a teammate, and as a guy and after a while, we changed the subject. I was happy to hear from someone who personally knew him, but the bittersweet nature of the situation was palpable. We moved on and had a fun time, but that number story stuck with me.

Taylor’s importance to a certain generation of people in the D.C. and Miami area is impossible to overstate. He was the man. He was fun to watch, fun to support and made the kind of mistakes that normal people with complex lives make. He was human as hell. But also a superhero. It was the kind of combo that you knew you weren’t going to see for a long time again.

As per usual in D.C., various tribute shirts, hats and paraphernalia with his face and name on them went up for sale from dudes in the city. You know the look. But this time, it felt different. People bought them because they wanted to wear them, instantly. I rocked my “21 Taylor” hat for weeks after he died. I had it in two colors.

I could honestly talk forever about what it was like to have an athlete who played for your hometown team that you actually liked. Up until that point, all my favorite athletes (Allen Iverson aside) were basically my dad’s heroes passed down, or dudes who I liked because they were good or weird in some way I enjoyed. Taylor was the kind of player that you FELT as a person, if you liked him.

“Maybe it was because we were around the same age,” my colleague Justin Tinsley wrote me today. “Maybe it was because my a– was stupid enough to try and insinuate Roy Williams was better (blame me being a blind, dumb Cowboys fan smh lol). Maybe it was because Sean was part of my favorite college football team of all time in the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. But his death hit me like a ton of bricks. And still does. … He died doing what any man says he will always do — protect his family.”

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about who Taylor might be if he were alive today. Would his game have been legislated out of the NFL and thus him too? Would he have become perhaps the best safety of all time? Might his bust have been in Canton, Ohio? There’s obviously no way to know, which is clearly was makes everything so painful, to be plain.

The story of his arrested development is the story of so many young black and brown men and women in this nation. It’s why it still hurts, 10 years later, because in many ways, it’s really every day for most of us.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.