Unless you are a sports fan, you may not know that the Washington, D.C., area has headed into that strange zone in which people gather in the public square for prayer meetings that end with emotional renditions of "Hail to the Redskins." In a way, the tragic and mysterious death of star safety -- an ironic defensive position name -- Sean Taylor is similar to the Michael Vick case. Of course, this time the story ended in deadly violence against the athlete, violence that does not appear to have been linked with Taylor's earlier brushes with the thug culture that is so powerful in his hometown Miami area. Click here for The Washington Post's stories on Taylor.
The other difference, and here is our barely hidden ghost, is that it appears Taylor was actually playing the God card for real in the past year or two as he tried to grow into adulthood. It is also impossible to avoid the religion angle in a story that involves coaching legend Joe Gibbs, one of the most outspoken believers in football.
The quote that made it clear the religion element would not vanish was this one:
Taylor's death at age 24 was announced by his former agent and friend, Richard Sharpstein, who had been informed of the tragedy by the player's father, Pedro.
"His father called and said he was with Christ and he cried and thanked me," Sharpstein said. "It's a tremendously sad and unnecessary event. He was a wonderful, humble, talented young man, and had a huge life in front of him. Obviously God had other plans."
This is one of those cases when it really helps to ask the big theological question in order to dig into the news hooks in this story. What was God doing in the life of Sean Taylor, and how would anyone know what was going on, now that Taylor cannot speak for himself?
The victim's father, police leader Pedro Taylor, continues to talk in faith language and, once again, is putting his faith in an active, strong God who is part of this drama. You can see this in the Miami Herald coverage:
... (Pedro Taylor) talked about his son's death. "Whatever took place between he and God at the time, He [God] had it all in control. I'm at peace with God, and God, he makes no mistakes.''
He said he was not angry at the person who killed his son. "You know who you are if you did it, turn yourself in. Vengeance is not mine, it's God's. He holds that in his hands.''
It's hard to avoid quoting this kind of language, even for sports reporters and columnists who are clearly not comfortable with God talk.
One of the most unusual passages I have seen in the coverage so far is this early piece from Post columnist Mike Wise, who deals with many of the early rumors and reports and then kind of raises his hands in existential despair. There are higher issues, he says, writing in the hours shortly before Taylor passed away. But there are no specifics, no articles of faith:
Instead think of Joe Gibbs yesterday -- glassy-eyed, his voice unsteady as he spoke of Taylor putting his baby over his shoulder. He delivered the most emotional news conference of his 67 years on an afternoon when he had the team chaplain lead the Redskins in prayer.
Believing in a higher power, divine spirit, even an unknown force of the universe, was encouraged but not necessary in Ashburn yesterday. Yet on the day Sean Taylor was shot, there was nothing wrong with believing in a kid's will to live. A few minutes past 7 p.m., that's all that mattered.
Yes, there is the issue of Taylor's baby and the relationship with the mother, which lasted for years -- producing an infant, but not a marriage. Is this part of the religion question? Another ghost? What would the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan say?
I realize that the victim, in this case, was rich -- not poor.
But the issues of faith and family appear to be linked. At least the nation's best sportswriter seems to think so. More than anything else I have read, I am haunted by this passage from Michael Wilbon, who opened an emotional column by simply stating that he was not interested in the football side of this story at all. Later, he adds:
Anybody you talk to, from Coach Joe Gibbs to Jeremy Shockey, his college teammate, will cite chapter and verse as to how Taylor was changing his life in obvious ways every day. He had a daughter he took everywhere. Gibbs said he attended team chapel services regularly. Everybody saw a difference, yet it didn't help him avoid a violent, fatal, tragic end.
Faith and fatherhood. Perhaps Taylor was on his way to a story with a different ending, but was having trouble along the way.
This is not to blame the victim. No way. But as Wilbon notes, it is hard to believe that Taylor would be dead right now if he had moved his family to a safer place, if he had cut more of the ties to his wild past in Miami. Was safety part of God's plans for Taylor, his child and the child's mother?