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SEAN TAYLOR WASN'T THE MAN YOU THINK HE WAS-WHATEVER THET MIGHT BE

SEAN TAYLOR WASN'T THE MAN YOU THINK HE WAS- WHATEVER THAT MIGHT BE

SEAN TAYLOR MET ME AT A SUBURBAN Virginia mall in July 2005, ending an almost one-year media boycott. But rather than hash it out over a Red Lobster special, Taylor plopped on a patch of grass, and we started our conversation. With Taylor, you took advantage of any opportunity to talk.

When I learned on Nov. 27 about Taylor's death from a gunshot wound, my mind flashed to that afternoon. During a lengthy discussion that covered many topics, including his mortality, Taylor expounded on the galvanzing moment of his young life-not the time he was accused of brandishing a gun in June 2005, threatening his career with the potential of at least three years' imprisonment. No, he reflected instead on having dodged death that same day, when he was shot in one of the Miami area's most notorious neighborhoods.

Some of the pundits who have assessed Taylor in the aftermath of his murder have framed his passing through the familiar narrative of black men and crime. But anyone who interacted with Taylor realized he didn't fit any archetype. He was, in fact, a complex man with a chameleonlike personality. The same player who spoke with introspection at the mall had been in bleak, crime-infested West Perrine a month earlier, attempting to retrieve two ATVs that had been stolen from him. Why would any NFL player risk his livelihood in that place? Moments after Taylor arrived at a friend's house, shots were fired, hitting the house and the GMC Denali Taylor had parked outside; police recovered roughly 30 bullet casings from an AK-47 and a semiautomatic.

The event shook Taylor. "It made me say, Whoas!" he told me. "I never, ever, ever want to put myself in that situation. If I die, at least let it be in my sleep or an accident or something." He went on. "It's something that makes me think 10 steps ahead now. Getting shot at ain't something nice. It was a shocker. Man, these people don't care if you don't wake up tomorrow."

Taylor-who majored in criminolgy at Miami-was a paradox. Nicknamed the Grim Reaper for his viciousness on the gridiron, he loved the solitude of saltwater fishing. He was an introverted mama's boy who morphed into trash-talker on gameday, the only member of Playboy's 2003 All-American team who declined an invite to the Mansion,a hard-hitting Hurricane who would offer to carry an old lady's groceries. Thug life? Taylor made impromptu appearances at Gulliver Academy in Coral Gables, signing autographs during lunch period.

Most media portrayals of Taylor have lacked such shadings. It didn't help that Taylor-reticent with teammates-was positively close-mouthed with the media. Once he told me the demonizers wouldn't "break" him, pointing to his right biceps, which was tattooed with the words "STEEL Standing."

If you've read the postmortems, you know friends and teammates had seen a change recently in the young man. John Jefferson, Washington's director of player development, has said that NFL players typically mature the most between their second and third seasons, and Taylor fit the pattern. He grew even more after his girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, gave birth to their daughter, also named Jackie, 18 months ago.

He definitely was a different person from the one who, in the summer of 2004, railed against a story in The Washington Post because no one had tried to get his side. Hours later, I introduced myself as the reporter in question and told him I'd tried-through the team-to get a comment. Taylor mumbled, "Okay," and later he respected me for outing myself after being trashed. I never told him that my heart was racing when I did.

During the 2006 season, I was asked to work on a Taylor profile. I phoned several Redskins, who described an affable hard worker with a burgeoning maturity. I asked defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin to tell Taylor I planned to request an interview.

A few days later, my cell phone rang. The caller identified himself as Taylor. I assumed it was a prank, but it wasn't. He was calling from the Redskins' locker room to decline to participate in the story, but he thanked me for the interest. He wanted to focus on team goals, he said, and avoided controversy. "If you're still interested," Taylor suggested, "try me again in 2007. Give me some time, and I'll have a better story for you."