I wanted Winslow.
I remember the 2004 NFL draft. Joe Gibbs took control of my Washington Redskins and needed a tight end like those who fueled Washington’s offenses during his three Super Bowl victories. Kellen Winslow Jr. out of Miami seemed like the perfect fit. Instead we took Sean Taylor — a loose-cannon safety and teammate of Winslow.
I saw the future. I could see Taylor threatening someone with a pistol over an all-terrain vehicle. I could see Taylor skipping a mandatory rookie symposium. I saw Taylor ejected from a crucial playoff game, leaving a hole in his team’s secondary, because he felt like spitting at an opposing player. The environment at the University of Miami taught players how to get into trouble, and Taylor was good at it.
I did not, however, see this one coming. I, like the rest of the sports world, thought of Sean Taylor as an individual who was maturing. He was a new father playing with discipline on the field.
Sean Taylor was a good person whose death was nothing but tragic. I believe that.
But it seems his murder may have been the result of some wrongdoing on Taylor’s part — even his lifelong friend, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle, said as much yesterday. Why else wouldn’t Taylor have called the police when someone broke into his house and left a knife on his pillow a week ago? Why else would he sleep with a machete under his bed? It appears Sean Taylor’s attacker may have had a reason to target him.
So why do good people do bad things? Their environment. While Taylor’s death is mostly the fault of those who murdered him, blame resides elsewhere as well.
To start the blame trail, look at my hoped-for selection in the 2004 draft, fellow Hurricane Winslow, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns. When he wanted to be a “badass” and pull tricks on his motorcycle in a parking lot, Winslow crashed and tore his ACL, keeping him off the field for a year and leaving him with cartilage damage that still keeps him from playing at full speed. Winslow learned how to be rebellious and how to crash motorcycles in the same place where Taylor learned how to threaten people with pistols, as he did in 2005 when Taylor believed someone had stolen his all-terrain vehicle.
Miami is a football factory. Much of its success during the 1980s came as a result of a rebellious mentality — head coach Jimmy Johnson ordered his team to show up to the national championship Fiesta Bowl in 1987 wearing army fatigues. The team cared about big hits more than winning, which helped them win.
But the ’Canes lost their way. They went from warriors to thugs. Their players now retain the “me first” mentality without the winning tradition. They transfer their rebellious passions into their personal lives.
The results have been tragic. Winslow almost died. Taylor died. Defensive lineman Bryan Pata was murdered last year.
While Taylor’s college experience may have conditioned him to be rebellious, the Redskins could have changed him. I know it sounds unreasonable to say that teams should be involved enough in the personal lives of their players to keep them out of trouble, but it’s not.
There are two teams that pursue players who are also upstanding citizens and have an uncanny ability to remove “attitude problems” from players who bring baggage to the team. Both teams are pretty good at winning, too.
The Indianapolis Colts pride themselves on their players’ characters. Leaders like Dwight Freeney, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison show teammates how to behave as professionals. The team operates like a machine, and none of the players steps out of line.
The New England Patriots, on the other hand, use their role models to keep problem players in line. Over the off-season the Pats acquired receiver Randy Moss, thought by many to be more pest than asset at this stage in his career. They drafted safety Brandon Meriweather, who, while at the University of Miami, bashed an Florida International University player with his helmet. Somehow both have behaved admirably in New England.
Maybe these teams are simply lucky. Maybe they instill a sense of pride in their players that keeps them out of dangerous situations. These teams do something right, and other teams around the NFL (that’s you, Cincinnati) should take a lesson. And so should NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell could do more to avert tragedies like the one this week. He recognized that the league has problems with players who break the law and has sought to address them. But he addressed the effects by punishing players after mistakes instead of trying to find the source of the problem first.
By suspending players who commit crimes, Goodell only deprives players of their right to work and inspires a fear of police reports. He does not prevent players from committing crimes.
Sean Taylor may well have been doing something illegal or, at the least, wrong. Would he have gone to the police when the kitchen knife was left on his bed last week if he had not feared an investigation by the police and a suspension from the NFL? Maybe. Maybe not. But the code of conduct policy didn’t help Sean Taylor.
Very little helped Sean Taylor. Very few attempted to mentor him and guide him in the right direction. But with some change in officials’ behavior at every level of football, we may be able to limit the list of NFL players murdered in this decade to just Darrent Williams and Sean Taylor. We can’t save them, but there is hope for the future — if people are willing to change.
Collin Gutman is a sophomore in Pierson College.