Even though Sean Taylor had been with the Washington Redskins for almost four years, most of us remember him at "The U," delivering some of the hardest hits you've ever seen. At only 24, Taylor was shot and killed in his Miami home earlier this week, the tragedy having so many veins. He leaves behind a family, including an 18-month-old daughter, friends, teammates and coaches who will be forever changed by his passing.
The Redskins had to make a difficult decision about their game this Sunday. Sean's father encouraged them to play the game – and to play it for Sean.
While I was the head coach at Samford University in 1989, a player of mine, Mark Jones, had a heart attack and died while he was walking off the practice field. It happened right in front of his teammates and coaches. I knelt by his side and prayed as the medical team desperately tried to save him. Mark was a PK (that's what we call a preacher's kid) from Pascagoula, Miss, and went to Samford to become a preacher. We put his number on our jerseys, dedicated the season to him, and dealt with it the best we could.
My father, Bobby Bowden, has had to deal with losing players as well. Pablo Lopez was an All-American offensive tackle at Florida State, destined to be a star on Sundays. Pablo was one of the good guys – always the mediator, always trying to keep his friends and teammates out of trouble. While Pablo was at a school dance, an altercation started outside. He went to diffuse the situation, and found a man confronting the crowd with a shotgun. Pablo stuck his huge 6-foor-5, 300-pound body in front of the crowd and pleaded with the guy not to shoot.
The guy shot Pablo in the stomach. This too was a game week, and my father and his coaches did their best to comfort the team and play out the season in Pablo's honor.
A few years later, Devaughn Darling – another promising young star at Florida State – died after collapsing during offseason conditioning drills.
As I was doing my prep work to broadcast the Army-Navy game Saturday, I realized something. It's hard to describe the emotion that came with this realization – sad, surprised and proud all at the same time – and I'm sure the thought has occurred to me before, but when the Cadets and Midshipmen take the field on Saturday, how many of their fallen fellow servicemen and women are they playing for?
Those of us in the sports business don't think about the impact that losing members of the military might have on the service academy teams on an everyday basis. But somehow they still go out there and play every game with everything they've got.
The men who play in the Army-Navy game aren't going on to play on Sundays. They are going to put their lives on the line to serve our country. On Sunday, the Washington Redskins are going to play their game for Sean Taylor. The NFL will honor him at every game this week, and rightfully so.
When Army and Navy tee it up on Saturday for one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, they'll be playing for the approximately 47 "teammates" they've lost this month alone, and the countless thousands of others that we've lost in the line of duty.
There are no real losers in this game.
Go Army! Go Navy!