Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins football player who was murdered during a middle-of-the-night burglary at his home on November 27, 2007, was known to the world as an aggressive athlete, once telling his pastor: “I just get paid to put them on the ground,” with “them” being his opponents on the playing field.
Less known until his December 3, 2007 funeral in Miami, Florida, an event televised nationwide, was that Taylor, 24, was attending the Perrine Seventh-day Adventist Church in Miami, and that Pastor David L. Peay, Sr., who once led the congregation there, had baptized the young athlete.
“Sean’s mother and father are Seventh-day Adventists. Sean’s grandparents are Adventist. The family is Adventist,” Peay, now the pastor of Miami’s Tabernacle Seventh-day Adventist Church, said in a telephone interview with Adventist Review two days after the funeral.
Taylor, shot by one of four intruders in his home as he attempted to protect his 18-month-old daughter and her mother, had, according to media reports, at one point in his life wandered somewhat from the Christian standards of his youth. Drafted by the Redskins in 2004 and in the third year of a seven-year, $18 million contract, his off-field reputation caused some to wonder. Indeed, a few initial comments in the media after his event — comments widely criticized by Taylor’s family and by Redskins fans — erroneously suggested that his lifestyle contributed to the tragedy.
That was not the case. At the time of his murder, Sean Taylor was running, but with God’s crowd at the Perrine Seventh-day Adventist Church in Miami. Peay believes he was making a run towards heaven — and away from his former ways.
During a late night conversation last October with Peay at an International House of Pancakes restaurant in College Park, Maryland, Taylor reaffirmed a decision he’d made earlier in 2007 to return to the Adventist Church and to the Lord.
According to Peay, Taylor said, “Pastor, I love going home to see my daughter. I’m not with all that other stuff anymore.”
It was the birth of Jackie, his daughter, in 2006, and the influence of “Mother Clarke,” Sean’s grandmother and the Taylor family matriarch, that helped Taylor get his bearings and renew his Christian commitment, Peay said. At the time of his death, Taylor was engaged to Jackie Garcia, mother of his child and Taylor’s high school sweetheart. Though he’d given up a criminal studies major at the University of Miami to “turn pro” and play for the Redskins, he was eyeing a career after life on the gridiron.
According to Peay, Taylor was “realizing his responsibilities. He told me, ‘I’m studying now’ for [a] post-football career. His decisions were drawing him back to what he knew to be true. Sean’s life and the things he was saying were nothing but positive things.”
Those positive things could have been a crowning conclusion to a spectacular football career. At age 6, his uncle Michael Outar recalled in his eulogy, Sean was put onto a local football team.
“’Uncle Michael, what do I do?’” Outar said his nephew asked him. “I told him to hit the guy with the ball. And that’s what he did. Over and over and over.”
At the funeral, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, recalled that, in 2004, “Sean was our first draft choice. I thought many times over that four years, how many times God must have looked down and said, ‘Man, I made a great football player.’”
Buck Ortega, a high school football teammate of Taylor’s, saw a spiritual dimension in the rising star: “Being such good friends with Sean, and a lot of the conversations I had with him, I can draw one positive thing from this situation: I knew Sean had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I will see my friend one day again in heaven,” he told the funeral congregation of 2,000.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also mourned Taylor’s loss: “He loved football, and football loved him back. He made an impact on all of us.”
Those positive impressions of Taylor were largely unknown to the public, however, until it was too late. Taylor wasn’t fond of press interviews, and his defensive position didn’t always put him in the spotlight. As Mike Wise, a columnist for The Washington Post put it after Taylor’s funeral, “The hard truth: We know more about Sean Taylor in death than life. And there is something so wrong about that.”
In an interview, Washington Times Redskins reporter David Elfin said Taylor was the “best athlete on the Redskins. He was a very good player; his teammates on defense liked him.”
However, Elfin said, it was only after the attack that took his life that fans and the scribes who covered the team got to know Taylor’s human dimension: “I think it’s sad that a great player was probably a pretty good person in the end and we didn’t know it. He was a shy person and didn’t let the media in. We really never got to know Sean.”
One man who, apart from his relatives, may have known the most about Sean Taylor is Peay, who had been close to the family for many years.
“Sean was baptized at Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida City,” Peay recalled. “His family basically worshipped at Bethel. When I came to Perrine, a number of them came to worship at Perrine. The relationship just grew, and as the relationship grew, they had a number of young people in the family. A rapport developed. [We were] pushing all the kids to do their best, and the parents were very supportive of the ministry.”
That relationship continued as Taylor, a finalist in 2003 for the Jim Thorpe Award, a trophy given to the nation’s best defensive back, contemplated his breaking into the professional game. He told Peay that he wanted to provide for his mother, Donna Junor and “Mother Clarke,” his grandmother.
In July 2007 Peay was back at the Perrine church for an evangelistic series, and Sean Taylor was in attendance, with his grandmother.
“When the appeal was made to give your life back to Christ, Sean raised his hand,” Peay said. After that event, “Sean [was] coming — nobody is making him come — in [weekly to] worship on his own accord. As he comes out of the church, he hugs me, and whispered in my ear, ‘I know what it looks like, but I’m not far.’”
That late-night session with Taylor in October, while Peay was in Maryland for a board meeting of “Breath of Life,” an Adventist media ministry, confirmed where Sean Taylor wanted to end up. Taylor confided his level of comfort in dealing with his longtime pastor.
According to Peay, Taylor said, “We have three chaplains on our football team, and I can’t talk to them the way I talk to you.”
Peay replied that it was because “I know you, from where you were to where you are now.”
Then, he said, “we had prayer, and I hugged Sean. I told him, ‘Hugging you is like hugging a rock.’” The men laughed. It would be their last time seeing each other.
After Taylor’s death, Peay recounted that conversation to the player’s family and remarked, “Sean was making decisions, and God … will count them to Sean as being righteous.”
That expression was also heard in Peay’s sermon, which had a nationwide, if not trans-national audience via cable broadcasts on networks such as ESPN. In the Washington, D.C., area, many local television stations aired the services live, and the Post newspaper carried streaming video on its Web site. Much of the capital city came to a halt to watch the event, with many supporters of the Redskins team still stunned that a man so young and so athletically gifted could perish so suddenly.
After a stream of speakers suggested, contrary to Adventist belief and Bible teaching, that Taylor was now a “guardian angel” presently “in heaven,” Peay forthrightly set out the fact that Sean Taylor was awaiting a resurrection from the dead. Peay also chastised those who suggested Taylor’s lifestyle led to his demise: “Sean was making right decisions. He gave his life making right decisions. He laid down his life for his family. Sean was doing what he was supposed to. He wasn't in the street. He was home,” Peay said.
And in a reference to Adventist pioneer Ellen G. White, “the servant of the Lord,” as he called her, Peay noted “God judges us off of the trend of our life; Sean was making decisions for the right.”
Most people did not realize that Taylor had a connection to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but in a crowd that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the dais was shared by Adventist Church leaders such as Pastor Peay; Pastor Hubert Morel, Executive Secretary of the Southeastern Conference, and former Perrine pastor; Antowyn Mells, current Perrine Church pastor, and Lucious Hall, pastor of the Florida City/Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights and the Tabernacle Seventh-day Adventist Church Mass Choir provided the music, which helped transform the nationally televised memorial into a church service where saving souls was paramount and forgiveness was requested.
Said Peay, “the four young men that were involved – or allegedly involved in taking the life of Sean – as much as some of us would like to handle matters ourselves, the fact is Jesus is looking to save them too.”
The sermon received the congregation’s rapt attention, and is said to have impressed Gibbs, a noted evangelical Christian whose 2002 book, “Racing to Win” (Multnomah) made no secret of his faith and its impact.
Now, Peay said, the task is to help Sean Taylor’s family heal, and to make sure young people learn the right lessons.
“We want Sean’s memory to be a positive one. It’s time to grab and hold onto the truth and push on,” he said. “God is no respecter of persons — it is clear that God is trying to call his children home.”
— With additional reporting from John Devine, Southeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.