KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- The plane ride from Phoenix to Honolulu on Monday was a lot longer for Vince Wilfork than the seven-hour trip the other passengers on the flight endured.
Wilfork, the Patriots' Pro Bowl nose tackle, had his mind on another devastating loss, that of his good friend Sean Taylor, who died tragically on Nov. 27 from wounds suffered when intruders entered his Miami home and shot him. Taylor was voted to the NFC Pro Bowl team and would have been making his second appearance in Hawaii, along with Wilfork, his close friend from the University of Miami who entered the NFL the same year as Taylor.
"The flight over here was sad for me because I knew he was supposed to be over here, hanging out with me," Wilfork said. "It really got me down, it really made me sad."
Now that Wilfork has his feet on the ground here, it hasn't gotten any easier. There are reminders of Taylor at every turn.
Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels handed out key chains made out of crystal, with a profile of Taylor's likeness lasered inside. Running back Rock Cartwright had t-shirts made up to honor Taylor's memory, and handed those out. And the "21" decals can be seen on every Pro Bowl player's helmet.
And on Sunday, well, there's no telling what kind of emotions will form.
With the blessing of the NFL and at the suggestion of Taylor's father, Pedro Taylor, the Redskins' three representatives in the game -- tight end Chris Cooley, offensive tackle Chris Samuels and long snapper Ethan Albright -- will wear Taylor's No. 21 jersey to honor their fallen teammate. The jerseys will be auctioned after the game, with the proceeds benefiting the Sean Taylor Memorial Trust Fund that was established for Taylor's daughter, Jackie.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder has paid for members of Taylor's family to spend the week in Hawaii and attend Sunday's game.
"It's good to see everyone is still remembering Sean," said Samuels. "It's good to see he hasn't been forgotten."
Not by a long shot. Leading the NFL in interceptions at the time of his death, Taylor was voted into the Pro Bowl as the NFC's starting free safety. He was the leading vote-getter at the position among fans, coaches and players.
Players still talk about the hit he put on Bills punter Brian Moorman while playing special teams for the NFC squad last year. Moorman was attempting a fake punt when Taylor leveled him. It wasn't so much the hit that had people talking, but that it took place in the Pro Bowl, an exhibition with no real incentive to play hard.
But it epitomized how Taylor played -- in practice, exhibitions or real games.
Samuels and Cooley laughed when they recalled the memory of Taylor's hit on Moorman. Cooley said he's going to go out on Sunday and "play hard, the way Sean did, especially now that I'm wearing his '21.'"
"You're in the Pro Bowl and guys aren't going all out, but Sean Taylor, he stepped on the field and laid the dude out," Samuels said. "But that was Sean. He left so much on and off the field. Most guys, they'll go out there in practice, do what they have to do to get ready to play the game. But Sean came out in practice and played as hard as he could. So you knew during the game that he would give everything he had."
It was that memory of Taylor that ironically played a role in giving the Redskins new life shortly after Taylor's death.
Mired in a three-game slump and seemingly going nowhere, the 5-6 Redskins had to play the Buffalo Bills one day before burying their friend -- an impossible task for such a distraught team. Predictably, the Redskins lost, and so, it appeared was their season.
The organization had been rocked to its core. And there was no greater proof of that than the lack of concentration by Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs late in the loss to Buffalo. The Redskins were penalized when Gibbs inexplicably called an illegal timeout, turning Bills kicker Rian Lindell's 51-yard field goal attempt into a game-winning 36-yarder with no time left.
Pregame tributes to Taylor, who had died just five days earlier, didn't help the concentration level of every Redskins player and coach that day.
"The game where we had the moment of silence after his death, I mean half the team was in tears on the sideline," Albright said. "I looked up and down (the sideline) and everyone was crying. I had tears coming out of my eyes.
"I had never felt like that before a game. Usually you have an adrenaline rush. Not that day. It wasn't a great work environment. It was sad to see someone lose their life like that, especially someone as likable as Sean was."
Three days later, in a Thursday night game on national television, the Redskins beat the Chicago Bears, despite losing their sixth starter for the season to injury, this time quarterback Jason Campbell, who dislocated his kneecap. It was the start of four straight wins for the Redskins to close the regular season, which resulted in them capturing the NFC's final playoff berth.
Pedro Taylor had addressed the team the day after his son died, urging them to "win for Sean." It was a rallying cry for the remainder of the season, a way to cope with their grief and a way in which the team became galvanized.
"When Sean passed away, I remembered telling one of the guys, 'Man, I don't want to even play the rest of the season,' " Samuels said. "But (cornerback) Shawn Springs told me, 'Look, man, we got to keep going for Sean Taylor. That's what he would want.'
"Right then and there, the light switch went on, and I was like, 'You're right, man, we have to do this for Sean.' That right there got me going. That got all of us going."
Now Taylor's teammates and friends get another opportunity to honor his memory this week. And it won't be easy for some.
"A day doesn't go by without me thinking about him, especially over here (in Hawaii)," Wilfork said. "It's going to be kind of strange on Sunday to see players wearing his number. It's going to be kind of tough."