NFL star safety Sean Taylor's tragic death cut short Hall of Fame career


Editor’s note: NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kelli Johnson recalls covering the tragic passing of Washington star safety Sean Taylor, featured on this week's edition of the Sports Uncovered podcast.

Why? It’s a question I’ve asked over and over again since Sean Taylor’s death 13 years ago.

It still feels like a bad dream, a nightmare that left me standing in front of his home in Miami, in a daze, numb, covering the murder scene of not just a star player that I covered in the NFL, but a friend I was just getting to know.  Sean should be here today. He should be watching his beautiful daughter, Jackie, grow up. He should have just wrapped up a Hall of Fame career. 

But just as Sean was beginning to realize his greatness, both as a player and more importantly as a man, his life was tragically taken.

The day we learned Sean had been shot was November 26, 2007. It was after Washington played the Bucs. I was in the Tampa airport about to board a plane home with my crew, when I got a call from work. I don’t remember who called me. All I remember is hearing that Sean Taylor is fighting for his life in a hospital in Miami. I was told to get my bags off the plane and get down there.

At first, I didn’t believe it. And then when we heard there were conflicting reports over whether it was Washington's Sean Taylor or someone else, I immediately thought it had to be the latter. But it wasn’t. When we finally got to the hospital in Miami, the grave reality of the situation hit me and it was devastating.  It didn’t feel real. 

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

The rest of the day and night is all a blur. I only remember when owner Dan Snyder and Sean’s closest friends on the team, Clinton Portis and Santana Moss, showed up. And later around midnight or 1 a.m., when Sean’s dad, Pedro, came out to give us an update. Pedro, or Pete as we came to know him, sounded hopeful after Sean had moved his hand and fluttered his eyes, giving his family and doctors encouraging signs that maybe he had turned a corner.

It was the good news we all needed to finally leave and head to our hotel, with the hope that Sean was going to survive. But somewhere around 4:45 or 5:00 am that morning, after just a few hours of restless sleep, I got another call. The one I was dreading. Sean Taylor was dead. I was frozen. 

It was the beginning of the worst day of my professional career, and one of the worst days of my life. 

Sean was guarded and shy, when he arrived in Washington as the fifth overall draft pick in 2004, and his mistrust in the media only grew the following seasons, after a few off-the-field incidents, including a DUI.

[RELATED: Moss, Portis detail Taylor's shocking death]

I remember him saying that he always felt like the media was trying to get him to say something that would make him look bad or get him in trouble. I tried to explain to him that being available to the media from time to time would only help him. I pushed him to do a few interviews so that fans and the world could get to know the Sean that I had gotten to know. 

That Sean was kind and thoughtful. He was always asking me questions, he was inquisitive. We would chat about food and family and random stuff. And when his daughter was born, man did his eyes light up when he talked about her. All of a sudden, he had a purpose in life: To provide for her and be the best dad he could be. 

When I think about Sean now, I always go back to something he once said. When talking about how seriously he takes his job, he said, “it’s almost like you play a kid’s game for a king’s ransom." And that was Sean. A big kid who loved football and played the game with a reckless abandon and a natural talent few people in this world are blessed with. 

To see him on the football field in his pads was a sight that blew you away. He looked like a linebacker, yet he was a safety, who could fly from sideline to sideline and close in on a pass in the blink of an eye. 

He was so good, so explosive. He could make a huge mistake in coverage and still recover to break up a play. 

[RELATED: Gore felt like he lost a brother when Taylor died]

I’ll never forget his two-interception day of Brett Favre at Lambeau Field, that gave Favre the NFL record in interceptions. Sean’s second pick was just a normal play for him, but to others, it was a jaw-dropping display of his incredible athletic prowess and instincts, with Sean coming out of nowhere to snag the ball down the sideline. It was Hall-of-Fame type talent. His bust would’ve ended up in Canton, there’s no doubt in my mind.

The last sit-down interview I did with Sean before his death happened during training camp of that 2007 season. He had on an army green hat and spoke very softly, but he was relaxed, almost unguarded. And when he flashed that beautiful, shy smile, the one he reserved for only a small few, I thought, this is the Sean I want everyone to see and know. 

The Sean the world was unjustly robbed of at just 24 years old. Why?

He should still be here.

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