Several months ago, as a highly prominent NFL player was rounding the corner to his suburban home, he noticed an unfamiliar car parked in his driveway. The player slowed his SUV to a crawl, fixed his eyes on a stranger sitting in the car, and reached for his cell phone as he eased down the street past his home.
One U-turn later, the player drove past his house again and finally noticed the familiar face of a reporter who had been waiting to meet him.
"Man, I didn't know who you were," the player said, smiling sheepishly.
Despite his fame, this particular player chooses not to live in a gated community guarded by around-the-clock security. There are no walls or fences around his spacious home. You won't find weapons in his house, save for the potential of a few kitchen knives in a butcher block. There are no dogs inside, either, and only an alarm protects the usual comforts in an NFL household: expensive custom jewelry, plasma TVs, laptop computers, lavish furniture, modest artwork and some of the priciest liquor money can buy.
Standing on his porch, you can see a half dozen other houses nearby, and he regularly parks his $100,000 Range Rover in the driveway. He is an NFL star living in the wide-open spaces of a wealthy suburb, and the sanctity of his home amounts to whatever privacy his neighbors afford him. And until a few days ago, he took that safety and solitude for granted. But in wake of the home invasion and shooting death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor earlier in the week, he's had to ponder his safety.
"It makes you think about a lot of things," he said. "You wonder whether you should buy a gun."
Beyond the tragedy of Taylor's death, this is the pause that has been left behind. NFL players – and maybe all athletes – are left to wonder about their safety. While there still isn't any clarity over the assumed burglary at Taylor's Miami-area home, the incident was more than enough to raise the issue of where athletes live, and how touchable they have become as targets.
Unlike some foreign countries, where wealthy athletes have been high-profile targets for decades – be it kidnappings, robberies, home invasions or acts of physical violence – U.S. athletes have been held a relatively benign existence when it has come to their own homes. But in recent years, as personal information has become easier to attain and mass media has made players much more recognizable, high-profile crimes against U.S. athletes has seemingly increased.
While there are no statistics compiled by any of the major sports leagues to indicate whether athletes are less safe now than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago, there is empirical evidence that suggests athletes are being targeted more often. Consider some of the widely reported burglaries of the past few months and years:
• In September, two men broke into the home of Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson and robbed him of several pieces of jewelry. Robinson was held at gunpoint during the robbery, bound with duct tape, before the robbers fled.
•In July, then Miami Heat star Antoine Walker was robbed at gunpoint during a brash home invasion in Chicago. The assailants took thousands in cash and jewelry, as well as Walker's Mercedes-Benz. During the robbery, three gunmen tied up the NBA star and another individual before making off with his valuables.
• Later that month, New York Knicks center Eddy Curry was tied up, along with his wife and an employee, as his house was looted for cash and jewelry by three armed intruders. The intruders reportedly left with $10,000 and several pieces of jewelry.
• In March of 2006, then Houston Texans cornerback Phillip Buchanon was pistol-whipped and robbed in his home by a half-dozen men wearing ski masks. During approximately 90 minutes in his home, the assailants gathered two plasma TVs, cash, clothing, jewelry and other valuable electronics, then made off in his SUV.
• In January of 2005, the Los Angeles area home of Clippers star Cuttino Mobley was robbed of nearly $500,000 in cash, jewelry and other valuables. Mobley wasn't home when the theft took place.
Those don't even take into account many of the smaller issues that are never widely reported – such as the previous robbery at Taylor's Miami home, which apparently occurred last week, and only came to light after Taylor was shot during the second home invasion.
According to a security official for one NFC team, it's not unusual for a player to seek privacy while reporting a burglary or theft that involves their home or car.
"A lot of guys don't want that stuff in the public," he said. "They don't want to answer questions about it and I think even more than that, they don't want newspapers writing about where they live. That can create an even bigger threat, because then everyone knows where to find a guy."
Clearly, personal details have become easier to track down over the last several years, with the rise of internet services and online private eyes who offer to track down addresses, phone numbers and even vehicle information for a fee. And as the financial and personal information of professional athletes has become easier to attain, teams have attempted to combat the problems by staffing security personnel on both a team and league level.
All four "traditional" sports leagues – NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB – have some kind of infrastructure to protect and educate their players about crime. In the NFL, every franchise has their player development staff as well as security chiefs who are available to work with local authorities on almost every imaginable issue.
After Walker and Curry were robbed, NBA security officials made house invasions a point of emphasis in their seminars with players this fall. They educated players about different alarm systems, as well as more subtle ways to protect their homes, including cutting bushes and shrubbery away from the sides of a house so potential attackers have fewer places to hide.
The NFL has continued to enhance how it handles its players and their growing fame. Every NFL career starts with a mandatory three-day rookie symposium that deals with everything from how players should handle their finances to relationships with women, to keeping a profile that doesn't make them a target financially. The aim of that program – and many of the annual lectures players receive from their own clubs – is to make players aware that they are celebrities, and thus likely to draw unwanted attention.
"You have to think about it," said Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai, who attended the league's rookie symposium in the summer of 2006. "A lot of people can easily follow you home and see where you live. You want to be as safe as possible, but you don't want to be rude to your fans. But you want to have a normal life also. A lot of people don't know that – that we're normal people with regular lives and regular worries.
"It can be dangerous when someone even knows who you are. You have people who want to come up and talk to you because they see you on TV. But when people know you like that, it draws attention. It can be kind of scary. So many people know who you are these days."
And knowing a player's celebrity typically means knowing his financial situation. That marriage of fame and money is what players have to take into account when they are out in public – and now more than ever – choosing the neighborhood they call home. And for those who want to reach out and harm a player, the home is often the most difficult detail to hide.
As Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson pointed out, "You can go to different places and find addresses, and if you wanted to, you could even go to a place and see satellite images of a guy's backyard.
"In this day and age – and it's only going to continue to get more intense – the notoriety and the way information can be put forward into the public domain is remarkable. It's not like when I was playing, or even 10 years ago, when a lot of pro players could walk the streets and nobody would really know who they were. But now with the internet and all the ways people can get to know the players, they become more public."
For as much as the NFL focuses on a player's public profile, there isn't a staple program that deals specifically with homes. While some teams provide guidance about neighborhoods, players are often on their own to decide what is safest for them when it comes to how they live – how to keep their family safe, where to buy a home, or even what to do when an intruder breaks in. And in some neighborhoods, having the right knowledge might make all the difference.
It's hard to know whether it would have in Taylor's case, but as Packers cornerback (and Florida native) Al Harris said of Miami, "It's crazy down there. It's not like here in Green Bay, where you can leave your door wide open and not worry about anybody walking in."
- Antoine Walker