Reformation Wasn’t Enough To Save Taylor

By Jerry Brewer
Updated: December 2, 2007

SEATTLE — Just when he learned how to live, Sean Taylor died. It’s the most tragic of endings. It feels like watching a man walk away from a duel, only to be shot in the back.

Taylor, the incomprehensibly gifted Washington Redskins safety, was trying to turn from violence, but it found him anyway. His life ended last week after a showdown with an intruder, Taylor wielding a machete, the gunman shooting him in the leg.

And so a bizarre break-in has turned into the new hot topic, with issues ranging from race to the burden of celebrity filling up air time and column inches.

Ultimately, however, it’s a sad commentary on reformation.

We all like to say we’ve changed, but it’s a process far more difficult than stated. We declare transformations too soon, and the result is usually disappointment.

This time, it’s death.

Taylor was on his way to change, and because he was playing fantastic football, we went ahead and declared him converted. He was no longer the reckless player who drew fine after fine from the NFL for late hits. He was no longer the guy who pulled a gun two years ago during a fight over his stolen vehicles. He was no longer the guy who once saw men fire 15 bullets into his sport-utility vehicle.

He had a 1-year-old daughter, Jackie. He had newfound composure on the football field. He had not made any off-the-field headlines recently.

“It’s hard to expect a man to grow up overnight, but ever since he had his child, it was like a new Sean,” Washington running back Clinton Portis told Washington reporters last week.

But New Sean died the way we expected Old Sean to die.

Even though he was moving on, he never moved past his old life.

If police in Miami are correct, Taylor died just for being rich and famous, which could happen to any athlete or celebrity. Four men, all between 17 and 20, were arrested Friday for playing roles in Taylor’s death. Police are calling the homicide a robbery gone wrong.

It doesn’t explain why Taylor felt the need to sleep with a machete by his bed. It doesn’t explain the peculiar timing of the incident, either. Taylor just happened to be spending a night at his Florida home when this attempted robbery occurred. He’s the most unlucky man in the world or a victim of a crime more hideous than reported.

Let’s assume, since authorities are saying they have two confessions, that Taylor had fatally poor timing. Then the story loses some of its sensational appeal but turns even sadder.

Because just when Taylor became “normal,” random crime killed him. His new life was just as dangerous as his old one.

We never learned whether Taylor could complete his transformation, whether he could remain behaved. He was 24 and starting to get it. Unfortunately, there are too many others who don’t want to get it. So a star football player becomes the latest young, black homicide victim.

As a young black man, every death is personal. Every time one of us dies, people trot out the troubling statistics and tell us how much we’re destroying our kind. Every time, friends who aren’t black pepper me with questions, as if all black men have some great insight into why so many of us die young and viciously.

I remember the first time death became personal. It was about five years ago. My parents called with shocking news.

“Remember Donald?” they asked.

Yes. I went to high school with him.

“Remember Terry?” they asked.

Yes. My younger brother went to high school with him.

“Well, Terry shot Donald in the head.”

Donald was an athlete whose talent I coveted, a pitcher who could’ve been special. Terry was a shy kid with a stutter, and my brother once poked fun at his speech, which caused a fight I had to break up.

Now Donald was dead, and Terry was headed to prison.

Since then, I’ve gotten four more calls about peers getting murdered. Who knew Paducah, Ky., my small hometown, could know such crime?

No one is safe, because we’re lost in a twisted, treacherous world. There’s a culture of violence, and it defies race, athletic ability, money and even good intentions.

Taylor wanted to be good. Little Jackie needed him to be good. The Redskins were paying him millions to be good.

He strayed from bad, ran from it as if he were being timed in the 40-yard dash. In the end, however, bad still tracked him down.

It found him in a suburban mansion, not on the mean streets. It found him while he was protecting his girlfriend and daughter, not his street cred.

And it killed him, with one bullet to an artery in his leg.

Taylor bled to death.

New Sean, Old Sean, all of him.