It was Nov. 27, 2007, and Clinton Portis was awoken by a loud knock on his hotel door in Miami, Florida. He could see from his window that it was still dark outside, so he knew he was about to get some bad news.
He sleepily walked over to the door and looked through the peephole; it was Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, just standing there, waiting to tell Portis what everyone in the organization had feared the most.
Portis opened the door, and Mr. Snyder fell into his arms. He didn’t make it, he said, it took a turn for the worse. He was gone.
That didn’t make sense, though. It was only hours ago that the doctors had said he had a great chance of pulling through. There was even a toast to the positive news.
Portis must have been dreaming. He was sleep walking; yes, that’s what it was. There was no way that the Redskins’ most beloved fighter, their cherished warrior, Portis’ brother on the field, was no longer with them.
So Portis went back to sleep, and when he finally awoke the next day, the reality had set in: Sean Taylor was dead.
Later that day and miles away from Miami, a young Landon Collins was in school. It was a Tuesday, and he was just getting back from Thanksgiving break. He loved Taylor; he had watched the University of Miami product make big play after big play, and Taylor had become Collins’ favorite player.
So, naturally, Collins kept up with Taylor’s condition as he was recovering from a gunshot wound to his upper leg as a result of a home invasion.
Then Collins found out that Taylor had died, and he, like the millions who had grown to love him, wept.
“Even though I didn’t know him, he was a guy you always looked up to and continue watching, you wish for the best, you want to meet one day,” Collins said. “It kind of hit me hard, harder than I expected because I didn’t know him.”
That was the effect that Taylor had on people, whether they knew him or not. Taylor’s death sent shockwaves through the NFL, and it rocked both fans and teammates to their core. It’s been 12 years since Taylor’s death, and the moment still resonates with many.
“He was a freak athlete, freak player and also a better person,” said Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins. “I’ll still always remember that day of him passing away. I’ll never forget it, and it’s something I feel Redskins fans and football fans hold dear to them.”
Taylor was recruited by the Hurricanes out of Pinecrest, Florida, a suburb in Miami. The “U” won a national championship in his rookie season when he was used in nickel and dime defensive schemes. After getting his first start in the 2002 season, he grew from being a second-team All-Big East selection to being named the nation’s best defensive back in 2003 and led the country with 10 interceptions.
That convinced the Redskins to take him with the fifth-overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. Portis was also new to the Redskins; he spent two seasons with the Denver Broncos before being traded for a second-round pick. From the moment Portis met Taylor, he knew the rookie was special.
“Just the way he carried himself,” Portis said of what stood out about Taylor. “I think coming in with so much surrounding him after the draft, it was him against the world. And I think it was that mentality and that growth from the draft to [his death], just that growth you got in those years, to be the true warrior, leader and individual that he was.”
Taylor was renowned for the way he performed on the field. He was known for never taking plays off, always looking to hit opponents and having a knack for grabbing interceptions. He started every game he played during his rookie season and had 76 combined tackles, nine pass deflections, four picks, two forced fumbles and a sack.
“My guy played with a lot of passion,” Collins said. “He played with a lot of heart. The man’s accountability, compassion and heart on the field. He played with that each and every game. Watching him play, you knew that he was giving it his all and his last on every play.”
Taylor’s passion for the game extended well beyond Sundays, though. Portis said he was always learning and always trying to improve himself. Portis has plenty of stories about Taylor, but there is one that shows just how dedicated he was to the sport.
“I think Sean had reached a level that was unknown to me,” Portis said.
Every player has to run a conditioning test before each season. Portis wasn’t expecting any of his teammates out on the field; he had already told his coaches that he was running the test by himself, so he was surprised to see Taylor waiting for him wearing a pair of cut up jeans, a blue hoodie and Converse shoes.
“Man, where you been?” Portis remembers Taylor saying to him. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Taylor was there to run his conditioning test with Portis, which he thought was odd, considering that he knew Taylor had already run his test earlier that day. Portis had to run gassers, and Taylor ran with him the whole time to make sure that Portis made his time and he didn’t cheat.
When the test was finally over, Portis was exhausted and lying on the ground. Taylor, on the other hand, was jogging off the field, leaving Portis to wonder: how was this man not tired from running this test twice in one day?
It turned out that Taylor didn’t run the test twice in one day; he ran with every single position group that day.
“I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Portis said. “I didn’t want to do it one time. He had already done it four times and sprinted through it. He actually beat me after doing it his fourth time.”
That extra work paid off, too, because he posted career-high numbers in the next two seasons. In 2006, which was his best statistical year, he had 111 tackles, 85 of which were solo and three forced fumbles.
Taylor was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2005 and 2006. In a game that is not normally known for delivering memorable moments, Taylor delivered one of his most famous plays when he laid out punter Brian Moorman on a fake punt.
“He was full speed all the time,” Portis said. “That was just Sean. To go full speed was the only thing he knew.”
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin remembers watching that play, and he was impressed with how Taylor carried himself during games, regardless of if it counted or not.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I never want to get hit by that guy,’” McLaurin said.
Even now, years after his death, Taylor remains heavy on players’ minds. There’s hardly a day that goes by where Collins doesn’t watch a highlight from Taylor’s career.
“He’s been my idol, he’s the reason I play this game…and play it with so much passion and heart,” Collins said. “I wish he was still here.”
There’s so much about Taylor’s career that has turned into legend: jogging to the facility, wearing sweaters during practice on hot days and almost nothing on cold ones; and going full speed at practice when others were happy to go through the motions.
Taylor remains one of the NFL’s brightest stars, and his influence on individual players and the NFL in general has spread long after his death.
“I think he’s affected so many people around the world,” Portis said. “As I travel, I always make sure to rep his legacy and keep his name alive. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that someone doesn’t address Sean.”