Sean Taylor's Death Still Haunts the NFL
There have been few moments in NFL history that rocked the league like the murder of 24-year-old Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor — a senseless act of violence that took the life of one of the brightest young stars in pro football.
Taylor's legacy has continued on in the almost two decades since his death, thanks in large part due to his family, former teammates and coaches, but also due to how he lived his life and his shocking death.
The story of Taylor's life and death has entered a sort of American mythos at this point, where the truth and fiction become difficult to separate. It's part of our culture we reserve for the beloved athletes and celebrities who died too young.
To get to the truth about Taylor and how he lived and died, we need to start at the beginning.
A Star is Born in Florida City
Sean Taylor was born on April 1, 1983, in Florida City, Florida — the same city where his father, Pedro Taylor, would later become chief of police.
Taylor began playing tackle football for a team called the Homestead Hurricanes when he was just 6 years old. The future Pro Bowl safety was assigned No. 66 and placed on the defensive line.
"He asked me, 'Uncle Michael, what do I do?'" Taylor's uncle, Michael Outar, told The Associated Press. "I said, 'Hit the guy with the ball.' That's what he did, over and over."
Becoming a Florida High School Football Legend
Few players in Florida high school football history have been as revered as Taylor, who was a two-way star at Gulliver Prep in Coral Gables — his time there would set the path for his life, on and off the field.
As a senior in 2000, Taylor starred as running back, defensive back and linebacker as Gulliver Prep went 14-1 and won the Class 2A state championship. Gulliver Prep's only loss came in the season opener, which Taylor missed.
Taylor, 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, rushed for 1,400 yards and set the state record with 44 touchdowns and also had over 100 tackles. In the state championship win over Marianna High, he scored three touchdowns. In track and field, he won the Class 2A state title in the 100-meter dash. Taylor was named a high school All-American in football and rated as one of the top recruits in the nation by multiple recruiting services, with offers from all of the nation's top college football programs.
In 2007, he was named to the FHSAA's All-Century Team. In 2009, the football field at Gulliver Prep was renamed Sean Taylor Memorial Field.
Perfect College, Perfect Team, Perfect Player
Taylor didn't have to go far to find the perfect college to play football. The star safety stayed in Coral Gables to attend powerhouse University of Miami, where he was one of only four true freshmen to earn playing time on the Hurricanes' 2001 national championship team — a squad that went unbeaten and is considered by many to be the greatest college football team of all time.
Now clocking in at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Taylor was named Big East Special teams Player of the Week for his performance in a win over Pitt, and his talent forced Miami's coaching staff to find ways to keep him on the field, including making him their defensive back for nickel-and-dime packages. Taylor was also the primary backup for All-American safety and future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.
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Upset of the Century
As a sophomore in 2002, Taylor became a full-time starter and star for Miami, leading the defensive backfield in tackles, interceptions and pass breakups. The Hurricanes ran the table in the regular season and set up a shot at becoming repeat national champions, facing Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game.
Taylor would play one of his greatest games as a Hurricane against Ohio State, racking up 11 tackles and two interceptions … but also ending up on the wrong side of one of the most famous plays in college football history. He intercepted a pass in the end zone but was stripped of the ball on the return, setting up an Ohio State field goal for a 17-7 halftime lead on the way to a 31-24 loss by Miami in one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
Taylor's sophomore season at Miami left many believing he would eventually be a star in the NFL — and his junior year erased all doubt.
He had 77 tackles and led the nation with 10 interceptions in 2003, returning three for touchdowns on the way to being named a consensus All-American and the Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Even more impressively, when matched up with another projected high NFL Draft pick in Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Taylor held him to just three receptions for 26 yards.
Taylor, who also ran sprints for Miami's track and field team, was quite understandably done with college after that and gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the 2004 NFL Draft.
Hurricanes Set Record in First Round of 2004 NFL Draft
Miami set a record with six first-round picks in the 2004 NFL Draft, led by Taylor at No. 5 to the Washington Redskins. Taylor became the first player from the first round to sign his contract, which was a six-year deal for $18.5 million with a $13.4 million signing bonus and worth up to $40 million with incentives — a sucker's deal for Taylor and an incredible windfall for the Redskins. Deals with so many incentives are not only unheard of in today's NFL but have largely been done away with due to the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement.
But it wasn't long after he was drafted that Taylor began making his first headlines for things happening off the field.
Problems With Agents, Problems With Rules
Taylor fired superagent Drew Rosenhaus less than 48 hours after he was selected No. 5 overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. He then hired Eugene Mato and Jeff Moorad but fired them shortly after he realized the God-awful contract they'd guided him to sign with the Redskins. So, he rehired Rosenhaus.
At the 2004 NFL Rookie Symposium — a four-day event that is critical to starting the careers of every player drafted into the NFL — Taylor left after the first day of the symposium but was talked into coming back for the last two days and fined $25,000.
Learning to Deal With Fame as a Rookie
It didn't take long for Taylor to establish himself as the Alpha Dog in the Redskins' secondary, earning his first start in Week 3 and starting 13 games in 2004 as he racked up 78 tackles, 15 pass breakups, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Taylor continued to make headlines away from football as well when he was charged with a DUI in the middle of his rookie season in Virginia. He was clocked going 82 mph in a 55 mph zone and refused to take a blood alcohol test, which resulted in his being arrested. Taylor eventually got the charges dropped after a judge reviewed the video of Taylor passing his field sobriety tests — his conviction for refusing to take the BAC test was also eventually overturned.
That wasn't Taylor's only problem during his rookie season, though. He also racked up $17,500 in fines for unnecessary roughness penalties in back-to-back games and was accused of spitting in the face of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Facing 46 Years in Prison for Gun Incident
Taylor's second year in the NFL was played under the shadow of an offseason arrest in June 2005. Taylor faced felony charges for guns and assault that could have led to 46 years in prison after he allegedly pulled a gun on and then physically assaulted a man, Ryan Hill, who he believed had stolen several ATVs from him.
Taylor eventually pled no contest to charges of misdemeanor battery and assault and was placed on 18 months probation and assigned community service. While the gun incident did little to help Taylor's reputation, it also didn't seem to hinder his progression on the field as he was once again Washington's starting free safety and put up 70 tackles, 10 pass deflections, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 15 starts.
The Redskins made the NFC Playoffs in 2005, but Taylor was ejected from their Wild Card win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for spitting in the face of running back Michael Pittman. After being fined $17,000, Taylor returned to play in the NFC Divisional Round loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
The Most Famous Play in Pro Bowl History
Repeatedly throughout the 2006 NFL season, Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called Taylor the best athlete he ever coached — and watching Taylor play made you understand why he would say that.
Taylor started all 16 games for Washington and finished with 111 tackles, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles and one interception on the way to being named to his first Pro Bowl, where he would be the person behind the most famous play in Pro Bowl history.
Late in the third quarter and with the AFC leading 21-14, Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman made the fateful decision to call his own number and took off on a fake punt. The 6-foot, 147-pound punter from NCAA Division II made one cut up field, and he was obliterated by Taylor, who hit Moorman so hard he seemed to disappear off planet Earth for a split second. It's truly the stuff of legend.
'You Play a Kid's Game for a King's Ransom'
Taylor granted one of his few interviews before the 2007 season and gave the impression of a man who had seen his life change in the previous year, from beating a potentially career-ending criminal case to the most important thing — he now had an infant daughter, Jackie, with his high school sweetheart from Gulliver Prep, Jackie Garcia.
Garcia was also an elite athlete who played soccer at Gulliver Prep and then Miami while Taylor was there playing football for the Hurricanes.
"You get to play a kid's game for a king's ransom," Taylor said in his interview. "And if you don't take it seriously enough, eventually one day you're going to say, 'Oh, I could have done this; I could have done that."
Overall, the impression of Taylor was that he'd been through the worst of it and now, established as one of the NFL's best players, was coming into his prime.
The Murder of Sean Taylor
Taylor was having another stellar season in 2007 when he injured his knee in Week 10 and missed games in Week 11 and Week 12, but he was still leading the NFL with five interceptions.
Then, on Nov. 18, 2007, a break-in was reported at Taylor's Miami home that he shared with his girlfriend and daughter. A knife was left on a bed in that case, but Taylor and his family weren't home.
But on Nov. 26, 2007, Taylor and Garcia were awoken around 2 a.m. to the noises of the house being broken into. Taylor grabbed a machete and went to lock the bedroom door, as Garcia called 9-1-1 and hid with their daughter. The burglars kicked open the bedroom door and fired two shots, with one of them hitting Taylor in his leg in the femoral artery. Taylor's girlfriend and his daughter were unharmed.
Taylor was rushed to a hospital in Miami but had already suffered major blood loss. He died one day later at 24 years old.
An Outpouring of Love for a Fallen Hero
Taylor was hailed as a hero by many — including his girlfriend's uncle, Academy Award-nominated actor Andy Garcia — as he died protecting his wife and daughter.
"Sean's heroic action saved my niece and their daughter," Andy Garcia told The Miami Herald. "It's a testament to his humanity and courage. We will always remember him as a caring and loving individual, especially to his new family."
Taylor's funeral was held on Dec. 3, 2007, at Pharmed Arena on the campus of Florida International University, and it drew 3,000 people. The Redskins set up a $500,000 trust fund for his daughter, Jackie, who also inherited his entire $5.8 million estate.
"I can only hope and pray that Sean's life was not in vain … that it might touch others in a special way," said Taylor's father, Florida City Police Chief Pedro Taylor. "God is always in control. We have no control of life or death. We thank God for all 24 years of having Sean here."
Arrest, Trial and the Aftermath
Within days of Taylor's murder, four men were arrested — Venjah Hunte, 20; Eric Rivera, 17; Jason Mitchell, 19; and Charles Wardlow, 18. In May 2008, a fifth man, 16-year-old Timothy Brown, was arrested. All five were charged with first-degree murder, armed burglary and armed home invasion robbery.
Two of the men had connections to Taylor; Mitchell had mowed his lawn, and Wardlow's cousin had dated Taylor's sister. Several of the suspects identified Rivera as the shooter, and because of his age, the death penalty could not be considered. The suspect had broken in thinking Taylor would be playing in a road game.
The trials wouldn't occur for seven years, but Rivera, who was often seen laughing and smiling during the trial, was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder and armed burglary and sentenced to 57.5 years in prison. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison. Wardlow (30-year sentence), Hunte (29-year sentence) and Brown (18-year sentence) all testified against Rivera and Mitchell and received plea deals.
Commanders, Family Continue Taylor's Legacy
An interesting name popped up on the radars of the best college volleyball coaches in the country in 2022 — Gulliver Prep's Jackie Taylor, a 6-foot-1 middle blocker/outside hitter from the Class of 2024. Of course, she's the daughter of Sean Taylor and Jackie Garcia Haley, who is now married to Shay Haley, one of the members of the internationally known funk rock band N.E.R.D alongside Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo. Sean Taylor's younger brother, Gabe Taylor, is a star safety at Rice University.
In 2021, on the 15th anniversary of Taylor's murder, his family was invited to a home game at FedEx Field for the Washington Commanders (formerly the Redskins) to see his No. 21 being retired, making him the third player in franchise history to have his number retired. His family was also there to witness the opening of the Sean Taylor Legacy Exhibit, which chronicles his life and career. There is also a street leading up to FedEx Field named in Taylor's honor.
The point is: Taylor's legacy will live on. Through his legions of fans. Through his teammates. Through his family.