The NFL, while marketed as players that go that war against one another, friendships and bonds are created that never end. Whether as rivals or college or professional teammates, the friendship tree in the NFL runs deep. So word early this week that Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins had been shot and killed hit the Vikings and the other 31 teams in the NFL.
Vikings offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, a college teammate and friend of Taylor's, woke up early Monday morning to see he had 26 voicemail/text messages on his phone from people letting him know what happened. Like most of his college teammates and those who knew Taylor well, he was shocked as the news unfolded in recent days. While Taylor had some publicized run-ins with the law and the NFL early in his career, he was one of the last people McKinnie would have thought would have met such a violent end to his life. As McKinnie put it, Taylor was a player who largely kept to himself and a close inner circle of friends (including McKinnie). He wasn't the kind of player that drew a lot of undue attention to himself and not the type that craved the spotlight.
"Sean was quiet. He wasn't one of those loud people. He just loved football and wanted to be the best."
McKinnie was quick to share the news of Taylor's death with head coach Brad Childress, who was in his office at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday when he got a text message from McKinnie. Anyone who has dealt with tragic news or death knows that there is no time constraint on when bad news comes and, when your cell phone goes off either very early in the morning or very late it night, it's rarely good news.
"I heard the phone and said, ‘Now who in the world is text messaging me at 5:30 in the morning?'" Childress said. "It was Bryant McKinnie, who had just gotten a call. I hit him back a couple times and then picked up the phone and called and talked to him. The thing that we talked about is when I walk back into that meeting room on a Wednesday and give guys two days off I am genuinely glad to see those 53 guys, because whether you have children as I explained to them, and some of them have young kids, or whether you have teenagers or young adults in their 20s, people that do understand laying in bed at night doing a mental inventory of ‘OK, they are all in bed or I have got one that is still out there somewhere.' So I do the same thing with those 53 guys and some of the guys can relate to that that have children. We talked about Sean, we talked about his child, we talked about his girlfriend, and certainly about his family, even his parents who always think that you are going to outlive your child and we talked about just the fragility of life, that there is no bartering for it, whether it is somebody running a stop light or someone coming into your house. You just don't know, so you need to live all the days to your fullest and make sure that you are ready to meet your maker at any time."
Taylor's death struck home with the Vikings, who themselves suffered a tragedy in 2001 when Korey Stringer collapsed and later died during training camp. Center Matt Birk, who was on that team with Stringer and has a locker next to the encased tribute locker that bears Stringer's jersey, said there isn't a standard mode of operation to deal with a tragedy of the magnitude as the death of a teammate. Players come and go from the NFL all the time and careers can end in an instant. But ending a career and ending a life are two very different things.
"I don't know how you do it – if there is a template or a blueprint that (you can follow)," Birk said of mentally and emotionally coping with a tragedy like Taylor's or Stringer's. "Sometimes things happen in life that you can't necessarily understand or comprehend. How do you stay focused? I don't know. It was hard for us and I'm sure it's hard now for (the Redskins)."
But, as teammates of Stringer learned when he died, the circle of friends runs deeper with many players than simply their pro teammates. The loss is felt throughout the league, and McKinnie is one of those players suffering. While Childress said that McKinnie was doing much better Wednesday than he was earlier in the week, there has been a loss in the family where Taylor had been a little brother to Big Mac.
"(McKinnie) has had a chance to speak with all of his teammates that knew and interacted with Sean," Childress said. "Obviously Bryant has a home in Florida. He was a junior when Sean came as a freshman and so he got a chance to see him grow. He got a chance to see Bryant become a first-round draft pick. There is that almost little brother-type nature to it, so it's very difficult for him."
Understandably, the death has hit McKinnie hard – from the pain of losing a friend to the senselessness of it. The police have yet to identify any suspects or a motive for the killing. McKinnie has reached out to a friend on the Miami Beach police to get more information, but at this point there only seem to be more questions than answers.
McKinnie has refused to allow himself to wallow in grief. He's mad and wants to try to take the bad news and make something good out of it in his own life – on and off the field.
"I've just been angry about it, honestly," McKinnie said. "I'm going to use it as motivation and just go out on the field probably with a little bit more of a chip on my shoulder."
When asked to elaborate, McKinnie said turning bad into good is something he will try to do the channel the pain he's feeling.
"I don't know, just anger," McKinnie said. "I'm going to try to take the negative energy and turn it into something positive."
Those who were teammates of Stringer's know the roller coaster of emotions McKinnie and the Redskins players are going through, because they went through the same thing six years ago. It doesn't go away in a day, and while "the show must go on" Sunday for the Redskins and those who loved Taylor, there will be a scar that remains for many of them long after the initial shock of this tragedy subsides.
"It's a tough deal losing a teammate," Birk said. "The only thing I can say is that it puts everything else in perspective. It makes you see that a lot of things that you think are important really are not."
Sean Taylor Tragedy Touches Vikings
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