Ten years after a shocking tragedy, friends, teammates, coaches and opponents share memories of a player and person whose impact still resonates today.
By Judy Battista | Published Nov. 27, 2017
The first time Antrel Rolle met Sean Taylor, they were 6 years old and playing football for the Homestead Hurricanes in South Florida. The coach then ran a version of the Oklahoma drill: Two players lay on their backs, one of them holding a football, and at the sound of the whistle, they would leap to their feet and blast into each other, hoping to push their opponent backward. Rolle had the ball.
"Coach blew the whistle, and we tried to run through each other," said Rolle, who, like Taylor, went on to win a national championship at the University of Miami and become a Pro Bowler in the NFL. "It was probably the hardest collision of my life. From the time the dude put on pads, he brought everything. His hips, his legs, his butt -- it was a massive, massive impact. Who knew at age 6, he would transform into being known for his hitting power? It's what made him as a player."
Nov. 27 marks the 10-year anniversary of Taylor's death, at age 24, after being shot during a robbery attempt at his South Florida home. It was a tragedy that shook the NFL and led to the Redskins' poignant tribute: On the first defensive snap of the first game without him, they lined up with just 10 players, leaving Taylor's spot at safety empty.
With the passage of a decade, an entire generation of young fans knows Taylor mostly as a name in rings of honor -- the Hurricanes put him in their ring last month, with Taylor's 11-year-old daughter, Jackie, accepting the honor for him -- and from YouTube clips that even other players still study. They saw how his size -- 6-foot-3, 220 pounds -- and physical nature intimidated opponents, how his range meant no ball carrier could be sure they would elude him, how he had 12 interceptions and forced eight fumbles in just 53 games, how his final season was shaping up to be his finest. They hear former running back Maurice Jones-Drew say Taylor was the finest player he ever faced, the one who delivered the hit that let Jones-Drew know he was definitely in the NFL. They hear former wide receiver Donte' Stallworth say that, in his entire career, Taylor was the only defensive player he made sure to locate pre-snap "so I could keep my head on my body."
Taylor's was a football legend forged at warp speed. It began with that first Oklahoma drill, continued to grow when he was a star running back and defensive back out of the Miami area -- he broke a Florida state high school touchdown scoring record held by Emmitt Smith -- and flourished when he was under the mentorship of Ed Reed at the University of Miami. Taylor was a first-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft and a Pro Bowler in 2006 and '07, and though his time in the league ended seven games short of four full seasons, by that point, he was already generating comparisons to Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley.
Those who knew him best as a player, though -- the teammates and opponents and coaches -- still trade stories about Taylor and wonder what he might have become had he played out his full career. These are their memories.
The teammate who was in awe
Clinton Portis knew that Willis McGahee and Frank Gore were coming to Miami to join him at running back. But he was not prepared for the high school player he was watching on tape. Until that point, Portis had never been worried about anybody else coming onto the team and threatening his job. Until he saw Taylor, which prompted a visit to Don Soldinger, the Hurricanes' running backs coach.
"I go into Coach Soldinger's office -- why didn't you tell me we had this guy coming in?" Portis said. "He said he's not playing running back, he's going to play safety. Are you kidding me?"
Portis and Taylor were teammates in Miami and then at Washington. Portis marvels, still, at Taylor's work ethic, how he would sometimes jog to and from practice from his home instead of driving, how he practiced in sleeveless shirts in the bitter cold to be better prepared for the elements. Portis speaks adoringly of Taylor -- he calls him Sean T. -- saying he struck fear in opponents the way few others have, and not just receivers. He commands people to look up the 2001 Miami Hurricanes recruits highlight reel on YouTube for a taste of what Sean T. was like then. He thinks he could have played both ways in the NFL.
But the most unbelievable thing Portis saw Taylor do wasn't even on a play. Portis was not much for going to the gym in the offseason, so he needed training camp to get in shape. He arrived at Redskins camp to take a conditioning test to see Taylor in Levi's and a pair of Converse sneakers, with a black long-sleeve hoodie, on a blazing hot August day. Portis, the last player to arrive, was preparing to do the test, full of suicide sprints and stop-and-go runs, alone.
"He said, 'I'll run it with you,' " Portis said. "I go change. I'm dying. I'm dead to the world, trying to finish the test. Sean didn't change, had on the same jeans, hoodie, some Chuck Taylors, and he came out and he did this workout with me. He finished standing upright, led the entire drill. I'm thinking, I've got to get in shape. I'm passed out on the field. He leaves. I'm so glad he was there. When I come in, they had this crazy look on their face. They went on to tell me, that was his third time doing it that day. I was like, 'What the hell?' He did it with the morning group, then the second group, then he stuck around. He did it three times, and I couldn't finish one. It was how dominant of a mindset he had."
The player who lined up against Taylor
Frank Gore initially heard about Taylor in Pop Warner, but the first time he played against him was when both were sophomores in high school.
"He made a good hit off me," said the Indianapolis Colts' running back. "I felt it."
The two were later teammates at the University of Miami, where they faced each other in practice, neither getting much of an edge.
"We went back and forth," Gore said. "He was a good player, I was a good player. We were all used to going against great guys in practice. I would just say he was a football player. I know every position you put him at, he played that position like he did it for a long time."
The player Taylor liked hitting the most
Greg Jones was a star FSU running back before he was drafted in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Because he was such a physical specimen -- 6-1, 248 pounds -- he was feared by many defenders.
"Sean took it upon himself to let it be known, I'm going to f--- his s--- up," Rolle said.
Most of the time, he did. On the first play of the Miami-FSU game in 2002, Jones ran up the middle, then cut back, and Taylor hit him so hard, his helmet nearly came off.
"That was my first time getting hit like that," Jones said.
Their most famous encounter came when Florida State and Miami played in a bowl game early in 2004. Jones took a handoff and went up the middle. Taylor was waiting in the open field. Jones lowered his head and right shoulder and blasted into Taylor.
"I ran him over," said Jones, who continued for another 10 yards after leaving Taylor on his back. "He jumped up, he started talking trash, everybody kinda going at it. It woke everybody up. He was the ultimate competitor. You had to step your game up."
The receiver who didn't fear Taylor
"Yeah, he tried to intimidate me," Steve Smith Sr said. "I knew he was a hard-nosed, knock-your-block-off type. I never feared going over the middle -- you already knew what the outcome was going to be."
Smith and Taylor had a bit of a connection because linebacker Jon Beason, a Carolina Panthers teammate of Smith's, had told Taylor -- a fellow Miami Hurricane -- about Smith. The receiver and the safety talked and practiced against each other during the week of practices leading up to the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season. On their flight back from Hawaii, they agreed they should get together. It was Smith's last moment with Taylor.
"You wonder, how great would he have been," Smith said. "He was big and fast. You look at Ed Reed. Ed is not big, but Ed is fast. [Taylor] had big and fast. He was sideline to sideline. Look at Kam Chancellor. He can do what Kam can't; he could cover. If he could get a pick, he'd get a pick. He was like (boxer Floyd) Mayweather. Everybody knows he's a hitter. He wanted to separate you from the ball."
The coaches who watched his evolution
When Jerry Gray, now on the Vikings' staff, became Washington's defensive backs coach in 2006, he joined a team that had Taylor playing mostly like a strong safety. Because of his size, he could easily play close to the line of scrimmage, and he had 86 tackles that year. Then he was allowed to play more like a free safety, roaming the deep portion of the field. And he had five interceptions in his final season, which lasted just nine games.
"The hit when he hit the punter at the Pro Bowl, they remember that hit," Gray said. "But that same year, he dropped three interceptions in Green Bay. He got two. It was the most amazing thing. It was symbolic of how he could play with opponents so easily."
Those two interceptions came off Brett Favre, one of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Kurt Warner is the other -- who were intercepted twice by Taylor.
Steve Jackson, who was the Redskins' safeties coach and is now on the Titans' staff, remembers how Taylor began to evolve when his daughter was born. Taylor was never as boisterous as other University of Miami players, but Jackie's birth settled him down.
"He was a man-child out there at first," Jackson said. "When she was born, that's when his stats really took off. He took it seriously. Sean never used to like to get in front of the classroom. I would put players on the board, they would have to draw it up, how everybody fits. That year after she was born, the second or third day of training camp, it was a hard one. I said, Who wants this? and everybody's mouth dropped when he said, 'I got it.' He drew it to a T. The way he approached the game, becoming more of a cognitive player, it transformed him."
When Taylor died, the Washington defensive backs -- among them Shawn Springs, LaRon Landry and Fred Smoot -- collected money for his daughter, Jackie, that was placed into an investment account, which Gray still checks on. Jackie can access the money when she turns 18, and Gray said the account should pay for four years of college for her.
The friend who warned his NFL friends
Vince Wilfork was a freshman at Miami when his defensive coordinator, Randy Shannon, put on some highlights of a player who had committed to the school for the next year.
"Everything he did was either touchdowns or knocking somebody out," Wilfork remembered of Taylor. "I was like, 'Who is this dude?' Every time you watched him play was watching magic; there were just so many plays he made that you really didn't think he was going to make."
That extended even to Miami's famously competitive practices, when starters lined up versus starters for live drills.
"With Sean, you had to have your head on a swivel," Wilfork said. "He would hit you. He was a tone-setter even as a freshman."
And then Wilfork, who was drafted by the Patriots in 2004, carried the word into the NFL.
"I remember sitting in meetings, and Bill Belichick was showing highlights," Wilfork said. "He told Tom Brady, 'Let me tell you something, if you lob a ball up, he will find it. If you don't believe me, watch this play.' He put on a play, and Sean was on one side of the ball, the quarterback threw to the other side, and he tracked the ball from one side of the field to the other. You could just hear in the meeting room, people were like, 'Oh my God.' I thought right then and there everybody on my team saw what type of player he was."
The lineman who faced Taylor 7 times
Shaun O'Hara remembers Giants assistant coach Kevin Gilbride preparing the offense for a game against Washington by pointing out Taylor to running backs.
"This guy is coming downhill," the warning went. "Protect yourself."
There was one play that O'Hara saw on film that still gives him a laugh. Taylor was in his first or second season, and it was toward the end of a play when Taylor was coming up to make a tackle. The ball-carrier was getting tackled, but Taylor was not slowing down as he approached the line, where left guard Jason Whittle was just as determined to not slow down.
"Sean Taylor just lit him up," O'Hara said. "I remember watching that in the offensive-line room. We were all giving Whittle a hard time. After the collision, his knees buckled, and like a drunken sailor, he fell to the ground. We were like, 'Dude, what the heck was that? You got knocked out. This is a safety coming up.' That is who he was. He did love hitting people."
O'Hara recently pulled out the helmet he wore for the Super Bowl at the end of the 2007 season. It had a "21" decal on it.
"We've lost players in the NFL, I don't know that the entire league put a sticker on a helmet for one guy," O'Hara said. "That's a pretty awesome display."
The punter immortalized by Taylor's hit
It's an oddity of Taylor's career: The hit he is best known for came in a game that didn't count, against, of all people, a punter. In the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season, Buffalo punter Brian Moorman was asked to fake a punt. He was running near the sideline when, out of the traffic, emerged Taylor.
"The next thing I knew, I was on my back," Moorman said. "I tell people it's the best Reebok commercial ever -- my shoes were in the air, you could see the bottoms of them. Oh, I was sore. I cancelled my tee time. There was no golf the next morning. My shoulder was really sore.
"That was the hit of all hits. It took a while to shake the cobwebs off."
Moorman said it is one of the regrets of his career that he never got to talk to Taylor -- they went to their separate sidelines after the hit and never met up at the hotel. He knew around the hotel bar, though, every time the highlight was shown on television. "The whole bar went, 'Ooooooh.' "
The jersey that Moorman was wearing when Taylor hit him is the only one Moorman has had framed. The impact ripped a hole in it. And visible on the fabric are little flecks of paint from Taylor's facemask, still embedded in the jersey.
The new-generation safety emulating Taylor
New York Giants safety Landon Collins was a running back as a child, and a Washington Redskins fan. He followed Washington's Clinton Portis closely, and one day, while watching him, Collins noticed the player wearing No. 21. When he was about 12 or 13, Collins started looking up videos and interviews with Taylor, and since then, he has been Collins' favorite player.
"I still do model my game after him," Collins said. "I see ridiculous passion. He's going every play with a full head of steam. If you see him near the ball, people were afraid. He's basically coming to kill you if you have the ball in your hands. He changed the game for big safeties as in myself. You don't see guys move that way. I'm grateful; it gets us big safeties still paid and not moved to linebacker."
Collins says he talks to high school players now who admire Taylor despite having seen him only on tape. He and fellow safeties, like the Seahawks' Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, have talked about Taylor, too. And he has a top-three list of Taylor's best plays.
1) In the 2004 Hall of Fame Game against the Denver Broncos, Taylor, then a rookie, reached over the back of the tight end, grabbed the pass and jogged 3 yards for the first pick-six of his career.
2) In a game against the Bengals, Taylor was lined up at least 12 yards deep as the safety, but still blasted the running back on a toss play.
3) A blocked field-goal try -- Taylor loved to play on special teams units -- in which Taylor picked up the ball and reversed field, running down the sideline and diving into the end zone.
"That's one of my next goals," Collins said. "On an interception, jump from the 5-yard line into the end zone and score like him."
The coach Taylor forever changed
Danny Smith still has a picture of Taylor in his office at the Pittsburgh Steelers and at his home. He was Washington's special teams coach, and he grew particularly close to Taylor, the rare elite player who reveled in playing on the special teams units. On Fridays, the Redskins practiced onside kicks, and Smith struggled to get Taylor to leave the field, because he wanted to keep practicing recovering kicks. Taylor recovered four or five of them in games, Smith recalled.
One time, Smith tried to take an injured Taylor off the kickoff team to protect him. After he announced it during a meeting, Taylor appeared at Smith's office door to ask why Smith was mad at him. When the game arrived, Smith counted the players in his huddle before a kickoff. There were only 10. Taylor had already run onto the field, fearful that Smith would pull him off.
The two grew close off the field. Smith recommended a real estate agent to Taylor, and she convinced Taylor not to spend his money on a house bigger than he needed. Smith would go downstairs at the Redskins' facility at night to get on the Stairmaster and there, in a darkened weight room, he would find Taylor and his young daughter. Taylor had a habit of returning to the facility at night to lift weights. After Jackie was born, Taylor would bring her with him. Smith's son was in high school then, and he and Taylor became good friends, too -- Smith gave up his seat at Taylor's funeral so his son and wife could attend. About five years later, when Jackie came to visit the Redskins with her mother, it was Smith who was asked to show the little girl around where her father had worked.
"You don't know what you're getting in these guys when you get them," Smith said. "I didn't know what I was getting with him. It made me put players in situations and not jump to conclusions; let them react to situations you put them in and make your conclusions from there. He made me think long and hard about that. He was a loner and a great competitor, but he never really responded. He would listen intently, but you didn't get any reaction. Then you'd go into a game, and this guy is flying around, doing exactly what you asked him to do."
Smith has a lingering memory of Taylor from a game against Green Bay when Taylor had two interceptions. It was little more than a month before Taylor died. The Redskins lost that game, but Smith remembers exiting the locker room to head for the bus and seeing Taylor standing at the top of a flight of stairs, talking to each player, assuring them the Redskins would be OK.
"I can't believe it's 10 years," said Smith as he began to cry. "I carry a coin, they passed out in the league, No. 21, Sean Taylor. I keep it on my dresser at home. Every week before I leave the house, I carry it. Every game. I've been doing it for 10 years. I often wonder what he'd be doing right now with his life. Maybe he would still have a chance to be playing the end of his career."