American Football: A sad and senseless tragedy

Shot in his bedroom, the murder of Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor has stunned America, writes David Usborne in New York
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The Independent Online

Sean Taylor, a fast-rising star of America's National Football League who played safety for the Washington Redskins, died before dawn yesterday after battling to survive a gunshot wound apparently suffered when an intruder broke into his luxury home in a Miami suburb in the early hours of Monday.

Emergency surgery at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami failed to save the 24-year-old. He had been flown there by helicopter after his girlfriend called police at 1.46am on Monday morning to report the shooting.

His death – and the sheer violence of it – has stunned fans across the United States. Although he had had run-ins with the law early in his career and had been hit with several fines by the league for misdemeanours on and off the field, Taylor had been maturing into one of the sport's most reliable and thrilling players.

His girlfriend, with whom he had an 18-month-old daughter, told police that the couple had heard noises from another room in the house in Palmetto Bay, south of Miami, and that Taylor had moved across the room with some kind of machete-like weapon to investigate when the bedroom door burst open.

Police said they were still investigating the break-in to determine if the motive was burglary or something more. On entering the bedroom, the unidentified man apparently fired two shots with a pistol. One bullet struck a wall, the other pierced one of Taylor's thighs, slicing a crucial artery. Both his girlfriend and the baby were unhurt.

Doctors struggled throughout Monday to save Taylor. While at one point his lawyer and spokesman, Richard Sharpstein, warned that the prognosis seemed bleak and that the volume of blood lost was raising concerns about possible brain damage, the outlook had seemed better by Monday night when Taylor seemed to react to the words of a doctor by squeezing a nurse's hand.

"Everybody was sort of brightened by the response, but he never showed any kind of real response," Sharpstein reflected yesterday, confirming that Taylor had died. "His father called me at 5.15am this morning and said Sean was with God," he said. "He was crying and overwrought with grief."

Taylor was the number five pick overall in the 2004 NFL draft after playing defense for the University of Miami. The Redskins signed him up for a seven-year contract worth $18m (£8.7m). After starting this season well, he was restricted to the sidelines by a knee injury on 14 November. Had that not happened, he would have been in Tampa on Sunday where the Redskins had a scheduled game.

On the field, Taylor forged a reputation for remarkable toughness. Some of his fans began to call him "Tha Hitman" because of his fierce style of play. His passion sometimes led to trouble, however. Early in his professional career he was fined at least seven times, including for late hits and, on one occasion, for spitting in the face of an opposing player.

Nor was his private life free of controversy. After being drafted, he was fined $25,000 (£12,102) for skipping days of an obligatory NFL rookies symposium and soon after was arrested for drunken driving, an incident that at the time became a long-running distraction for the Redskins management.

More dramatic still was an incident in 2005 when Taylor was accused of pulling a gun when confronting a group of men in Miami and accusing them of stealing some all-terrain vehicles from him. Witnesses also said he threatened to kill one of them. He later reached a plea agreement with prosecutors whereby charges were dropped and he agreed to give a portion of his earnings to charitable causes.

Friends and team-mates insisted, however, that in more recent times, Taylor had mellowed, most obviously since the birth of his young daughter, Jackie. Redskins receiver James Thrash said: "He's really got his head on his shoulders and has been doing really well as far as just being a man. It's been awesome to see that growth."

"It's hard to expect a man to grow up overnight," added another team-mate Clinton Portis, a friend from his days playing in Miami. "But ever since he had his child, it was like a new Sean, and everybody around here knew it. He was always smiling, always happy, always talking about his child."

Two car loads of mourners were seen arriving at his mansion, painted in pale yellow and surrounded by a six-foot wall, yesterday morning. Among them was his father, Pedro Taylor, who is a police chief of the nearby town of Florida City. A single bunch of flowers lay outside the driveway gate.

One member of the Redskins team, fellow safety Pierson Prioleau, was permitted to speak to reporters late on Monday, while Taylor was still fighting for his life. "This is not just a member of the Redskins, but we're talking about a dad, a brother, a friend of ours," he said.

The exact circumstances of the break-in remained a mystery yesterday. Police said they had found evidence of forced entry into the house, but they had yet to determine whether it was related to another intrusion that had been reported at the house eight days earlier. On that occasion, the house had been empty and the intruders had apparently rifled through drawers and left a knife on a kitchen table.

"They're really shifting through that incident and today's incident to see if there's any correlation," Mario Rachid, a Miami-Dade detective, said on Monday. Questions were also being asked over any possible connection between Monday's shooting and the incident with the stolen ATVs in 2005, which ended with the other group of men spraying Taylor's empty car with bullets.

For friends, family and fans, it will be the violent nature of Taylor's death – slain by a single bullet at so young an age – that will be most hard to deal with.

"It's just a sad and senseless, useless tragedy, an example of the incessant violence in this town and every other town in America," Sharpstein lamented yesterday. Taylor, he added, was a "wonderful, humble, talented young man, and had a huge life in front of him".

Dark clouds over the NFL

Justin Strzelczyk

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linesman died in 2004 aged 36 in a head-on collision with a tanker truck carrying corrosive acid after leading police on a 40-mile car chase during rush hour. He crashed into the truck after swerving to avoid a tractor pulled into the road to stop him.

Michael Brim

The 39-year-old former cornerback for Phoenix Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals was shot dead in Richmond, Virginia in 2005 after an argument over a woman.

Fred Lane

The running back for the Carolina Panthers had just been traded to the Indianapolis Colts in 2004 aged 24 but never played for them as he was shot dead by his wife, days after being indicted on drug charges.

Pat Tillman

The Arizona Cardinals safety quit the game in 2002 to enlist in the US Army. He was shot dead in Afghanistan in 2004 and was initially hailed as a war hero until it transpired that he was killed in a "friendly-fire" incident while on patrol.