LANDOVER, Md. - The message was perfectly clear: Sean Taylor is gone forever, and he is not forgotten.
For all of the No. 21 jerseys, twirling white towels and handwritten signs in the stands Sunday, for all of the red-and-yellow flowers and burning candles at a makeshift memorial outside the stadium, for all of the pregame tributes to the Pro Bowl safety, the most stark reminder of Taylor’s plight came when the Washington Redskins lined up on defense for the first time since he was killed.
Instead of 11 Redskins on the field, as rules allow, there were 10.
When the visiting Buffalo Bills prepared to run their first play on offense midway through the opening quarter, the man who replaced Taylor in Washington’s lineup, Reed Doughty, stood near coaches on the sideline. After watching while Bills running back Fred Jackson gained 22 yards, Doughty entered for the next play — and made the tackle.
The 24-year-old Taylor died Tuesday, a day after being shot at his home in Florida during a burglary; four men have been charged. The shock has yet to dissipate for Taylor’s teammates and the Redskins’ fans, and the grieving process continued on game day, from the cloudy, chilly hours before the kickoff until the rain-soaked end of what turned out to be a 17-16 comeback victory for Buffalo over Washington.
During a pregame video shown in Taylor’s memory, Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels said: “The only way we can honor him right now is to go out there on the field and play. Go out and play football.”
Before entering the stadium, some spectators talked about Taylor in the present tense, as though it all hasn’t quite registered.
“I just love the way he plays,” said Joshua Skeen of Manchester, Md., wearing a white jersey with Taylor’s No. 21.
Skeen’s brother, Jason, wore No. 36, Taylor’s uniform as a Redskins rookie.
Not surprisingly, those numbers were everywhere Sunday, including on black versions of the jersey, on handmade T-shirts, on hats, on wristbands. A trio of teenagers each wrote “RIP .21” on
While tailgating did carry on in the parking lots before the game — with beer and grilled food, with chips and salsa — things were somewhat more subdued than usual. Stereos didn’t blare. People spoke instead of screamed.
“Oh, yeah, it’s quiet,” said Adrian Moore of Springfield, Va., who was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt with a yellow candle drawn between the numbers 2 and 1. “It’s a lot more somber than normal.”
One fan, Joe Yang of Chantilly, Va., painted “Sean Taylor, Go Skins, R.I.P 21” on two of his black SUV’s windows, and “We Miss You Sean Taylor” on the rear window.
“I just feel like we owe it to Sean, we owe it to the team, we owe it to the Redskins,” Yang said. “I just wanted to make sure that no one should forget.”
A short walk away, people approached a memorial to Taylor where the Redskins painted his number on a patch of grass near the team store — which was under orders not to sell jerseys or other items with his name or number this day.
Starting at 7:30 a.m., fans began arriving to look at the display, snap a photo of it and leave objects. The piles kept spreading, with flowers in the team colors of burgundy and gold, leather footballs, dripping candles, and posters with personal messages. And on and on it went: balloons, teddy bears, hats. One little child left a piece of paper with a poem.
James McClendon of Stafford, Va., watched as his 10-year-old son, Dhimani, offered a football with an inscription written in blue ink. Father and son came to their first NFL game together Sunday, to honor Taylor.
Both wore burgundy No. 21 jerseys.
“If I don’t ever come to another Redskins game again, it had to be this one,” the elder McClendon said. “I felt, you know, this would be the best way for us to, you know, say goodbye to Sean Taylor.”
There were plenty of ways in which Taylor was saluted, off the field of play and on.
After making the first of his five catches, Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss — another college teammate — pounded his chest and put up a hand with his thumb and ring finger tucked down and the other three fingers raised. It was his way of saying, “21.”
That number was on patches on the Redskins’ jerseys and stickers on their helmets; the Bills and other NFL teams wore it on their helmets, too. Redskins owner Dan Snyder had the number on his black overcoat; coach Joe Gibbs on his burgundy jacket.
On a facade above one end zone, there was a new sign with Taylor’s name and uniform number in white writing on a burgundy background, with pictures of black ribbons on each end.
The Redskins Marching Band wore black hats and used instruments covered with black sleeves while playing a funeral dirge on the field, followed by a slow, mournful rendition of the team’s normally peppy theme song, “Hail to the Redskins.”
After the public address announcer noted that, “We gather here today shocked and saddened,” the scoreboard showed a 4-minute video filled with still photos of Taylor with his 1-year-old daughter; footage of him playing football in high school, college and the pros; and clips of interviews with him, teammates and coaches.
In one of the most poignant segments, Gibbs, assistant coach Gregg Williams and players spoke into the camera as though addressing Taylor directly.
After Taylor was shown saying, “My favorite part is when we have home games and the fans are cheering,” the crowd roared and waved the white hand towels with the No. 21 they were given as they entered the stadium.
Those tens of thousands of tiny towels swirled around and around, a silent and moving tribute.
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Dec. 2: Redskins coach Joe Gibbs talks about the emotional week the team has faced since the loss of Sean Taylor.
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