ASHBURN, Va. -- As he made his way from the autograph-seekers to the Washington Redskins' locker room, the frazzle-haired safety wearing No. 21 was approached by a reporter.
"Time for the Sean Taylor press conference?" the reporter said with a smile and the faintest of hopes.
"Never," Taylor replied - and there was no smile on his face.
Four times over six days of training camp, the Redskins tentatively scheduled their enigmatic Pro Bowler to make a rare appearance before the notepads and microphones. Each time, Taylor said no at the last minute, maintaining the barrier that has kept fans from learning more about one of the fiercest hitters in football.
"Honestly, man, this thing's like a never-ending story every year," receiver Santana Moss said. "People ask questions more and more about Sean."
Too bad, Santana. As long as Taylor remains quiet, his friends on the team have to shoulder the speaking load. Taylor has a natural University of Miami connection with Moss and running back Clinton Portis, but others are still trying to figure him out.
"He's one of those solo-type guys," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "But it's very obvious he's doing something different from last year."
That much is true. For a change, the Taylor news has been nearly all positive. He arrived at camp leaner and fitter. He's coming off his first Pro Bowl. The defense has been altered to maximize his talents: He will play a true free safety position for the first time in his four-year NFL career, allowing him to use his speed to chase down interceptions and terrorize receivers.
The early reviews are impressive, almost scary.
Assistant coach Gregg Williams: "I've said before he's the best athlete I've ever seen - now he's a better athlete. It's amazing how even he found a way to improve."
Linebacker Marcus Washington: "He was working out two or three times a day. He eats pretty good, a lot of fruit and vegetables. He told me he only eats fish, not a lot of meat, pork, and beef. He was saying he feels good when he eats like that."
Wynn: "It just seems like a shark that tastes a little bit of blood. He's not content with just hanging his hat on all the accolades that he got last year. This guy, he's taking his game to another level. He covers way more of the field just from losing this weight, just like a center fielder without the left fielder or right fielder. He's covering both sides."
Portis: "Defensive player of the year. ... You're going to see some picks. You're going to see some heads getting knocked off. You're going to see some receivers retire. You're going to see everything you've been looking for."
The rap against Taylor has always been his lack of discipline - on and off the field. His multiple legal troubles, including a yearlong saga over an assault case in Miami, have been a distraction. He's also been fined by the NFL at least seven times for late hits and other infractions.
No one hits harder - that's why he gets the Pro Bowl votes - but there were times last year when Taylor appeared to need lessons in How to Play Football 101. He was missing tackles, taking bad angles and leaving receivers open. He had only one interception, and the defense ranked 31st in the league. In the Pro Bowl, Taylor leveled punter Brian Moorman with a hit that looked out of place in an all-star exhibition game.
That's all old news, at least for coaches and teammates. Williams said Taylor is becoming a "smarter tackler" and that the change in the defense "removes the clutter" so that Taylor can concentrate on what he does best. All say that Taylor is now more mature, citing the commitment to change his diet and the fact he hasn't appeared in a courtroom in more than a year.
"He got a chance to be at the Pro Bowl," Williams said. "And the impact that some of those guys had on him over there has kind of lit a fire underneath him. He's come back with personal goals and personal improvement things."
What exactly are those goals? Who at the Pro Bowl inspired him? What was he thinking when he laid out Moorman?
Good questions. Maybe one day Taylor will answer them.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press