One of the strange things about sports crossing into the realm of real tragedy is how little we really know about the individuals involved. Outside of a handful of athletes who have made their name by giving (willingly or not) fans open access to their lives, the majority of players are, when boiled down to our essential knowledge of them, stat lines. I didn’t know the Sean Taylor that many writers seem quick to praise or denounce, be it the man-child with a penchant for violence and irresponsibility or the young father discovering maturity through love for his daughter. As such, I can’t write about either one; both present their own stories, advance their own marked terms of morality, and probably have their own semblance of truth.
I did, however, know Sean Taylor the football player. He was my age, and he played for my rival high school. He was a running back then. He was also the single scariest player I’ve ever seen on a high school field. He ran AT people, like Marion Barber or Ricky Williams in his prime. He delivered his own hits rather than waiting for the defense to deliver theirs. Were he built differently, or were the league a more creative place, perhaps he could have been a back in the mold of Marion Barber III, but this is speculation. Instead, the University of Miami, and eventually the Washington Redskins, decided to harness his internal furnace of violence at the position for which his speed and size were more ideal: Free safety.
It’s trendy to place people in the discussion of “Best [insert job here] ever” after they’re gone, mostly because ours is a society built on nostalgia that has the negative effect of keeping us from seeing the greatness of the present. While the debate of "best free safety ever" is one that requires too much anachronistic comparison to be worthwhile, I feel like Sean Taylor’s presence as an incredible player of this generation will be missed. Again, I’m not talking about the individual off of the field; that’s something for obituaries and psychologists to discuss. On the football field, the arena in which I was able to view him, Sean Taylor left a mark that deserves to be remembered and revered.
Taylor helped convert the position of free safety from one of passive observation and reaction to one of affirmative contact, turning the role of defensive secondary from addressee to addresser. He forced offenses to account for his movements. He picked where he would attack, whether it was sitting at a specific spot on the field and taking it away from the offense with his speed and agility, or assaulting the line of scrimmage and redirecting the offensive backfield. He could confound opponents with grace. He could destroy opponents with brutality. In short, his whole being was a weapon on the football field. Most defenders snatch highlights from the chaos created by offensive miscues, but Sean Taylor created highlights by creating chaos. As such he was something that only a rarified class of defensive players can claim to be: A master of his own destiny.
That’s how I’ll remember Sean Taylor, no matter how the onslaught of biographical stories and morality tales about guns and wealthy young athletes and violence choose to portray him. One of the flaws of the humanity of our stars is that the whole story of a life is never as clear as any one part of that story. Still, maybe that’s OK. Maybe the notion that we need to judge people through the lens of full knowledge is mistaken. Maybe we’re entitled, as human beings ourselves, to find inside a person’s life the one part that we admire, that we understand, or that resonates with us, push everything else to the side, and hold that fraction up as the nodal point by which we connect to the whole. I remember a few years after Big Pun died, after the rights and wrongs of his entire life were displayed for everyone to see, I was in a car with a friend when "It's So Hard" came on. Listening to Big Pun the rapper, my friend turned to me and said, “Damn, I miss Pun.” Watching clips of Sean Taylor the free safety, I don’t doubt that I, and every fan of aggressive football, will miss Sean Taylor the same way.