By all accounts, Sean Taylor shouldn't have survived as long as he did. The bullet that struck him during a botched robbery attempt at his Miami-area home on the night of Nov. 26, 2007 pierced his femoral artery, causing massive blood loss. He underwent seven hours of surgery and reportedly flatlined twice during the operation. Still, he held on.
When Washington went to sleep that night, it was with encouraging news that Taylor had squeezed the hand of a nurse. Maybe he'd survive. Maybe he'd make a full recovery. Maybe he'd even play football again.
When Washington woke up Tuesday morning, four years ago today, the news was different. Sean Taylor, 24 and a rising star in the NFL, the kind of player whose presence around the ball provided the jolt of excitement for which sports fans live, was dead, murdered by an intruder in his home.
The team didn't have much time to mourn; there was a home game against the Buffalo Bills five days after Taylor's death. I was in the crowd that day and like everyone else walking into FedEx Field on that dreary December afternoon, was unsure of how it would feel to watch a game after watching Taylor's funeral on Friday. Would SeanTay's memory loom over each play? How would the team respond after living through six days in which their teammate was shot, survived, died and then was buried? Would we even care?
Once the pregame tributes to Taylor were complete and the team played with a full 11 players on defense after bringing out the missing man formation for the first play, it was like nothing had changed. Life and sports go on. It shouldn't have mattered when the Bills won on a last-second field goal; we knew all too well from the events of that week that there are far more important things than the result of a football game. When the kick went through the uprights though, the loss hurt just as much, maybe more this time because snapping back to reality didn't feel any better.
Somehow, the Redskins won four straight games after dropping to 5-7 and made the playoffs. Then they came within a dropped pass and missed field goal from winning a wild-card game in Seattle. Joe Gibbs may have won three Super Bowls in Washington, but those final six games with an injured team in mourning were arguably his finest moments as a coach.
During the dismal four years that have followed, every Redskins fan has played the "what if" game at least once. What if Taylor hadn't been in Miami the night of the robbery? (He hadn't played in Washington's game in Tampa that Sunday and didn't have permission to travel away from the D.C. area.) What if the bullet had impacted a few centimeters to the left instead of directly into the main artery? What if he had pulled through? How good could a Redskins defense with Sean Taylor and LaRon Landry have been? Would Gibbs have stayed in 2008 to make a final run at a title? What if -- and then you catch yourself.
Because this wasn't a football tragedy, it was a human tragedy. After putting out that 10-man tribute to Taylor on the first play of the Buffalo game, the Redskins filled his position because that's what has to happen in sports. You're forced to move on. There's no time to mourn. As much as Sean Taylor may have seemed irreplaceable in the secondary, someone has taken the field at his position for the last four years. On the field, they're all replaceable.
Sean Taylor's daughter, Jackie, is now 5. He also left behind a mother and a father and a grandmother and siblings and a girlfriend. As a fan, I only lost Sean Taylor, the hard-hitting safety whom I had never met, had rarely heard speak and didn't know much about, other than his prowess in the secondary. Taylor's family lost something real -- a father, a brother, a son.
On this Sunday, I'll watch the Washington Redskins and wonder what might have been. And then I'll think of Sean Taylor's family and ache for them, knowing that they have to ask themselves that question every day.
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