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Sean Taylor gave a generation of Washington fans a reason to love football

A look back on the 10th anniversary of Taylor’s death.

Everyone who went after Sean Taylor on the football field paid the price. Maybe Eric Frampton didn’t do his research; maybe the adrenaline overwhelmed him. But he learned this lesson the hard way in October 2007.

A grainy video shows Frampton, then rookie safety with the Lions, jawing with Taylor prior to a Week 5 game between Detroit and Washington. Taylor later crushed Frampton’s hubris — along with Frampton’s body — during a fourth-quarter punt return: a great block that helped set up a score in a blowout victory and sent a message.

It was a game-changing play in the form of a ferocious hit. It was signature Taylor: a stark representation of his “don’t start none, won’t be none” ethos. It was the distillation of a man who, to a generation of Washington and Miami fans, became a hero.

Taylor is a tie that binds the oldest of millennials with those whose earliest memories of football may very well include Taylor damn near bisecting opposing players, just as he did Frampton. For Washington football fans of that generation, Taylor finally gave them a star who was theirs. No longer would they have to enviously listen to their parents tell stories of Riggins and Theismann. Darrell Green was the great who spanned generations in his 20-year career with the team. But Taylor, bone-crushing Taylor, was theirs.

That’s why his tragic death — he was shot and killed at the age of 24 during a burglary attempt of his suburban Miami home — 10 years ago to the day, is so painful to this generation. We lost one of our own.

Our generation has a certain appreciation for Sean Taylor — for better and for worse —because we know people similar to him. We have friends who remind us of him. Or we are that friend. While he was standoffish with the media, we felt we knew him. And because we’re part of the same generation, we aren’t so far removed from our youth that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to make poor decisions that aren’t representative of our character. What it’s like to learn from those moments. What it’s like to be young.

One of the more important lessons you need to learn growing up is who to avoid. You stay away from people who start shit, because they’ll put you in bad situations. They’re the anchors who will weigh you down during your ascent. Sean Taylor didn’t start fights — he ended them. You needed someone like that in your circle, and despite how the media portrayed him due to his standoffishness, you wanted someone like that around.

“He was the original Hit Stick,” Clinton Yates, a senior writer for The Undefeated, recalls of Taylor during the NFL’s halcyon days of laying opponents out. “People forget that about Madden: In that era, you could hit the Hit Stick and it would basically force your player to do what is now an illegal hit in the NFL, Which was go after somebody’s head, elevate from the feet, and decleat [them].”

Sean Taylor instilled fear. He turned the middle of the field into dangerous ground, giving anyone who dared enter that territory alligator arms. What more could a coach, teammate, or fan ask of their safeties? But as Yates notes, Taylor wasn’t merely a headhunter. He hit with purpose. Those hits were warning shots.

“He was hitting to let you know, ‘I’m here,’” he says. “And not just to settle a personal beef; he knew that a big hit was going to change the momentum of a game.”

Yates, a Washington native and fan, was ecstatic when the team drafted Taylor in 2004 because he was a good football player beyond being a vicious hitter. To Yates, Taylor’s defining moment in the NFL isn’t leveling punter Brian Moorman during the 2007 Pro Bowl, nor the 2007 game against the Packers where Taylor could’ve picked off Brett Favre five times had he not dropped three potential interceptions. It was a play that guaranteed Washington a playoff berth in 2005.

“I think it was probably that scooped fumble against the Eagles,” he says. “Because he picked it up, he dodged a dude, then went full speed ahead and dove into the end zone. That showed so much of his football capabilities.”

New York Giants v Washington Redskins Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Mia Khalifa — sports pundit for Complex’s Out of Bounds— was drawn to him after her family moved to the D.C. suburbs of Montgomery County, Md. from Lebanon when she was about 10. Her cousins were Washington fans who loved Taylor, so she became a fan as well.

Khalifa’s favorite Taylor memory is her first: a 2004 win over the Chicago Bears in which he had a “gnarly sack” and an interception.

“He was explosive,” Khalifa, who wore Taylor’s jersey to last year’s Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys, says. “He was fun to watch, and he was also a badass. He didn’t give a fuck.”

“There was a degree of authenticity to him that I think parlayed very well with a certain section of the fan base,” Yates explains.

Marshawn Lynch, the IRL Truck Stick, is a close parallel. There’s a similar energy: a fire in their playing styles, an indifference toward convention. It’s a defiance that’s defined them but has also been wielded against them; Taylor especially.

Taylor’s aggression occasionally came across as recklessness. Those hits that became his M.O.? They earned him his share of unnecessary roughness penalties. That intensity? Sometimes it crossed the line, perhaps most notably during a January 2006 NFC Wild Card game against the Buccaneers; he was ejected for spitting in Michael Pittman’s face. (People remember that before they remember the fumble he returned for a score.)

What’s more, Taylor was judged for non-football incidents like his 2004 DUI arrest (the charge was ultimately dropped) and a 2005 incident in which Taylor was arrested for assault after getting into an altercation over two ATVs that were stolen from him. (He pleaded guilty to lesser charges; it’s noted in his episode of A Football Life that Taylor, the son of a cop, called the police initially.) To some, these incidents mirrored the recklessness they saw on the field. Hell, they underlined it.

For the many, many D.C. fans who worship Taylor, however, his behavior often reflected that of a young man standing up for himself in a world that taught him he had to do that to survive. Yates saw Taylor as an anti-bully — the dude who never really wanted to fight but never backed down when tested.

“He wasn’t trying to bully people, outside of the confines of the football field where he was paid to do it, but he very much struck me as a dude who caught a lot of heat just for being who he was,” Yates says. “But he knew how to dish it out and chose when to do it, and that’s why I think he connected to our generation. Because you had to make a choice as a kid: Am I gonna be clappin’ these guns in the streets, or am I gonna hold my own and try to make a life for myself? And it felt like Sean was the latter.”

Taylor was all about football. He didn’t show out at the charity events. He wasn’t a nightlife fixture. He wasn’t an outspoken star or charismatic anti-hero. He was as evasive and justifiably mistrustful of the media as Lynch, but he never garnered the marketability Lynch has only acquired in recent years because brands realized the potential in celebrating the people’s champ as the people do. The closest Taylor came was the Eastern Motors commercials that anyone who’s spent significant time in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia is familiar with.

Despite his reputation as a shit-talker on the field, he was reserved in public. People appreciated that dichotomy, and he showed a different side when he did speak. As Yates notes, it was normally about his family — specifically his daughter, Jackie, who was born before the 2006 season. Her birth, he told people, was the catalyst for his maturation.

Washington Redskins Training Camp Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The biggest tragedy about Taylor’s death isn’t that we didn’t get to see if he’d redefine the safety position — or get a gold jacket and bust in Canton, Ohio. It’s that he didn’t get to watch his daughter grow up. He didn’t get to become a husband. He didn’t get to reminisce with his friends, all married and with children, about how wild they were in their younger days. He didn’t get to reach his full potential as a man.

And despite seeing how fatherhood changed him, the media — which had a tendency to color him bad because he was so guarded — latched onto his low moments and blamed him for his own death. Taylor had undeniable knucklehead moments, and without excusing them, I believe it’s fair to credit them to immaturity.

Sadly, the further we get from our youth, the less likely we often are to understand what it’s like to be young. What it’s like to know that you can’t change what’s behind you, but you can outgrow certain behavior and see beyond it. To live, not necessarily to regret things, but to absorb lessons from those mistakes.

But Taylor never got to distance himself from his missteps. He never got to fully mature. He’ll always be 24. He’ll always be on the verge of becoming the best version of himself. And for anyone with an ounce of empathy, that’s still heartbreaking a decade later.

“Everyone felt that,” Khalifa says of his death. “Whether they liked [Washington] or not, everyone felt deeply remorseful for that loss and felt for this organization. He was one of those guys that you had to respect because he was just that good.”

As an Eagles fan, I agree completely.

I went to college in D.C. — enemy territory home to both Washington and Cowboys fans. I watched more Washington games than I did Eagles games as a result, so I saw a lot of Taylor’s brief career. And the more I watched him play, the more I loved the way he played.

Where I might have bristled at him showing Terrell Owens no respect as an Eagle, I appreciated it when T.O. joined the Cowboys. Taylor was an enemy only twice a year: divisional games against the Eagles. The striped socks that got him and Clinton Portis fined in 2005? That was against us. Yates’ favorite Sean Taylor memory? Against us. And the last time he ever wore a Washington uniform? Yeah, against us.

This guy — who was a little older than me, who had unforgettable moments against the Eagles, who I watched play every week — played his final down against my favorite team. So when the now-closed D.C. skate shop, Palace 5ive, released this Sean Taylor T-shirt in 2011, I bought one. I don’t even wear it; it’s a piece of iconography that’s a token of my respect.

The Red Line is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s oldest and busiest public train line. It’s also home to a collection of graffiti so reputable that a D.C.-based band named itself Redline Graffiti. The Red Line’s Brookland-CUA Metro station is also home to a Sean Taylor mural and memorial.

It pays homage to a fallen legend who died doing what he did for a living: defending.

Sean Taylor was a player who could alter the course of the game without touching the ball; a player who made an impact whenever it was in his hands. A player only concerned with doing his job and taking care of his family. A teammate who treated others like they were part of his. A person many of us knew, despite his reticence to speak publicly. That’s why Taylor is revered, even beyond his status as a great football player, by a particular generation of football fans: He didn’t say much, yet we still understood.


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