MIAMI — D’Mauri Jones couldn’t have imagined the reception he’d get. The former Miami wide receiver, who now works as an artist full-time, wrapped up his latest work in mid-October and headed to Twitter to share it with his couple hundred followers.
“Sean Taylor Limited Edition Masterpiece,” he wrote. “I was inspired by the passion and love he had for the game.” He added a photo of himself standing next to his painting. Immediately his phone started buzzing.
Jones does well for himself. He’s been able to sell all his paintings and make a good living off his work. Nothing took off quite like the painting of Taylor.
“It was bigger than what I had thought,” Jones said.
SB Nation wrote about Jones’ work. The tweet picked up more than 200 retweets and another 700 likes. He had a bidding war for the painting before the end of the day. He even plans to donate a print to the university’s athletic hall of fame.
Jones never really thought about trying to paint anything Miami football-related. He started on the Taylor painting essentially on a whim — a friend suggested he try a Hurricane, so he chose his favorite former player.
— D’Mauri K Jones (@Dmaurijones_) October 23, 2017
Taylor was one of the main reasons Jones chose to go to Miami. Growing up in Leesburg, Fla., Jones fell in love with the Hurricanes — and particularly their defenses — of the early 2000s despite playing wide receiver.
“I knew when I was young I wanted to go to Miami because of him,” Jones said. “He was an aggressive player. He just had like a certain swagger with the visor. He’s very flashy at the same time as he’s playing aggressive. I think every player wanted to be like that.”
Even 10 years after he was murdered in his home, nearly every player still does. South Florida is currently home to one of the best crop of defensive backs in the state’s — and maybe nation’s — history. Most of them were just 7 or 8 years old when Taylor died and don’t really remember him playing. Most of them also will call Taylor one of their most important influences.
“I think everyone watches his YouTube highlights,” said Al Blades Jr., a 4-star Miami cornerback commit from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “He was a freak specimen. Tall, big, fast, could cover from sideline to sideline. That’s what you want in a safety and I think what a lot of people don’t understand is he was smart.”
This is mostly how Taylor lives on, through pregame YouTube sessions and conversations about your favorite plays by the late superstar. His legacy lives through artwork like Jones’ and photos as Twitter headers or iPhone backgrounds. Find a football player in his teens or 20s who wears No. 21, No. 26 or No. 36 and chances are it’s because of Taylor. If he’s a defensive back, chances are he’s also trying to do some sort of loose Taylor impression on the field.
In South Florida, of course, he means just a little extra to football players and fans of all ages. Taylor was one of them, coming up on the same youth league fields and playing with the same swagger the Miami metropolitan area is known for.
Miami has produced plenty of legends. No one resonates quite like Taylor.
“He’s just that guy, man,” said Nadab Joseph, a 4-star cornerback from Miami Norland Senior High School in Miami Gardens, Fla. “He’s always been that guy.”
Sean Taylor and the helicopter man
On April 24, 2005, P.K. Sam achieved a lifelong dream. The wide receiver from Florida State was taken during the fifth round of the 2004 NFL Draft. He was heading to the New England Patriots.
Sam watched this draft from home, waiting in front of the TV while ESPN read off late-round picks and flashed quick highlights of players relatively unknown to the NFL audience. About 24 hours and nearly 160 picks earlier, the Redskins took Sean Taylor with the fifth overall choice. Sam’s name was finally called as the 164th pick, and ESPN took the chance to call back to the most famous play he was part of.
“I was like, Dang, I didn’t even get the chance to celebrate and there goes that highlight again,” Sam remembers.
Sam and Taylor were both sophomores in 2002 when Miami hosted the Seminoles in early October. Sam ran a standard dig route from left to right about 15 yards down the field. Maybe he drifted a little too far down the field. For the most part, though, he did everything right to get into open space against the Hurricanes’ cover 2, man-under defense.
The throw went a little behind Sam, who reached back and bobbled the ball into his body. He was about half a second away from an excellent catch in a top-15 matchup. Taylor wouldn’t let it happen.
“My dad always told me just to keep your eyes on the ball,” Sam said. “I don’t think my dad ever thought there would be a Sean Taylor back there.”
Sam never saw Taylor coming. The safety flew in headfirst, planting his left shoulder into the wide receiver’s side. Sam flipped through the air, legs briefly pointed to the sky as he did a full 180 and landed on his right shoulder. For the next few weeks, his friends and teammates in Tallahassee, Fla., would call him the helicopter man.
Of all the standout plays Taylor made during his storied career in Coral Gables, Fla., the hit on Sam is perhaps the one which still resonates most. More than his 2 interceptions against Florida State the next year, with one returned for a touchdown. More than any of the other bone-crunching hits he delivered.
“I watch videos. When he hit the Florida State guy going over the middle, got him spinning around. That was a big hit,” said Gilbert Frierson, a 4-star Miami cornerback commit from Coral Gables (Fla.) Senior High School. “That’s a go-to play right there.”
Blades agrees: “I like the hit against Florida State coming across the middle.”
There are two plays everyone points out pretty unanimously when they discuss their favorite Taylor highlights, and the hit on Sam is one of them. Even hundreds of miles away at Centerville (Ohio) High School, where Sam is the wide receivers coach, he hears it from his players whenever they come across the play.
“Any coach that wants somebody to play safety,” Sam said, “he’s the guy [they reference].”
The Taylor highlight packages are a staple not just for wannabe safeties to study.
American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., has only been seriously tested twice this season, both times against Fort Lauderdale’s Cardinal Gibbons High School. Andrew Chatfield, a 4-star weakside defensive end, is one of American Heritage’s most important defensive players, a relentless pass rusher with a knack for delivering monster hits in the backfield. He may wind up as a linebacker at the next level. He’s most certainly not a safety.
The Patriots went on the road to face Cardinal Gibbons in October. Bus rides are the perfect time for Chatfield to go through one of the most important parts of his pregame routine: a few minutes diving into the Sean Taylor YouTube rabbit hole.
“I always watch him before the game. I just love how he played. I kind of try to be like him a little bit,” Chatfield said. “I’ve got to watch him before games. … He’s a dude I look up to.”
Added Tyson Campbell, a 5-star cornerback for American Heritage: “He’s the type of guy you watch before a game just to pump you up.”
They clearly aren’t alone.
One YouTube highlight reel called “Sean Taylor at THE U!!!” has more than 1.3 million views. A 15-second video of Reggie Wayne shying away from a hit by Taylor during the Pro Bowl — soundtracked by Ludacris’ “Move B****” — has another 1.2 million views. Another extended highlight package titled “R.I.P Sean Taylor’s Hardest Hit Ever!!!” has 1.1 million.
It’s a professed pregame tradition by players of all ages and all across the country. NFL players who were only teenagers when Taylor died do it. College players at Taylor’s alma mater do it before games in Miami Gardens, Fla. Even in Ohio, Sam knows his players are just as entranced by the highlight packages as he was back before he faced Taylor for the first time.
“I had seen the highlight tapes of him in high school,” Sam said. “I got to experience it first hand.”
Like plenty of other former professional athletes, Brian Moorman has some of his most notable jerseys framed and displayed in his home. The former punter has plenty of accolades from his 13-year career — two Pro Bowl appearances, two times on the All-Pro first team, a spot on the NFL’s all-decade team and a place in Buffalo’s record books with an 84-yard punt.
Most of his jerseys are hung in standard fashion, with the backside facing out to display his name and number. Only one is flipped the other way.
“There’s a hole in the jersey,” Moorman said. “Facemask paint is still in my jersey. There’s a fleck of yellow paint in there.”
Moorman didn’t really have a choice on the play which led to this. The fake punt Bill Belichick called for him during the 2007 Pro Bowl was pretty similar to the ones his coaches called for him with the Bills — if he had room to run it, he could tuck it and go; if the opening wasn’t there, he could hold up and punt. It was the Pro Bowl, though, and Moorman didn’t want the Buffalo coaches to think he was giving New England secrets. No matter what was there, Moorman was going to head for the sideline and the first-down marker.
He figured about the last thing anyone would expect would be a fake punt. The last thing he expected was to be the victim of almost certainly the biggest hit in Pro Bowl history.
“That’s like my 15 seconds of fame,” Moorman said.
Moorman wasn’t your typical punter. He was also a track star at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, and his dash down the sideline felt like one of his runs in the 400-meter hurdles, an event where he won three Division II national titles.
He was going full speed. Taylor was going full speed. Their collision made for one of the most iconic moments in the history of any all-star game. A few yards short of the first down, Moorman was lifted off his feet. Taylor flew in headfirst and nailed Moorman right in the left shoulder, ripping a hole in his Pro Bowl jersey and flipping the punter on to his back.
Moorman and most of the players spent that night sitting around the pool at the Aulani, the team hotel in Kapolei, Hawaii. SportsCenter played on the TVs scattered above the bars, playing the standard loop of highlights.
Every 15 minutes or so, Moorman heard a collective, Ooooh!
“Everyone made that noise,” Moorman said, “and I was like, Oh, they showed it again.”
The play — because of the ferocity of the hit and the mercilessness considering the setting — has come to define Taylor’s brief NFL career just as much as any of his actually meaningful plays.
“I think it was the all-star game,” 3-star Miami cornerback commit D.J. Ivey said when asked about his favorite highlight of Taylor’s. “He hit the punter.”
The hitting was often what defined Taylor during his career, and the big blows, above all, are what remain as his greatest on-field legacy.
The 2007 Pro Bowl was Taylor’s only chance to take the field in the NFL’s all-star showcase. He displayed promise during each of his first two seasons, even scoring what turned out to be a game-winning touchdown during the playoffs of his second year in the league.
The 2006 NFL season was a true breakthrough for the free safety. Taylor led the Redskins in tackles and was involved in several of Washington’s biggest plays that year, including a return of a blocked field goal to set up a game-winning kick against the rival Cowboys.
Still, the iconic play nearly didn’t happen. Taylor was named a Pro Bowl alternate after the season and was only added to the game when Eagles safety Brian Dawkins pulled out because of an injury.
“His passion for the game was strong,” Frierson said. “It didn’t matter who he played against, what was going on in the game. He made a big impact. When they needed it, he was the one that made the big play — big hit, interception, anything he had to do.”
‘Right outta Gulliver’
The legend of Sean Taylor, for all intents and purposes, began at a school with a high school enrollment of only about 600 students. By the time Taylor was a sophomore, it was already clear he was going to be a superstar safety, but he wanted to go somewhere he could play on both sides of the ball. Miami Killian High School wouldn’t let him. Gulliver Schools in Pinecrest, Fla., did.
For the next three years, Taylor helped transform Gulliver Prep from a school with no football reputation into a destination.
“He put football on the map at smaller schools,” Gulliver athletic director Mark Schusterman said. “He changed the perception.”
Every school in the country wanted Taylor, who hit harder than any high schooler should and also ran with legitimate track star speed. He was a true two-way player during his senior year, starting at both safety and running back. Even with the workload, Taylor broke a 30-year-old Florida record by scoring 44 touchdowns while leading the Raiders to their first state championship.
The Raiders are still one of only three teams from Miami-Dade County small schools to win a state championship.
“Because of him,” Schusterman said, “it became something to play here.”
As much as Taylor means to defensive backs across the country, his story resonates just a bit more in South Florida. Down here, players rush for the No. 26 he wore for the Hurricanes rather than the No. 21 he donned during his brief prime in the NFL.
Those who worship him in Miami, even those who never met him or don’t remember watching him play, feel a special kinship. Everywhere else in the country, safeties try to play like him. Down here, playing like Taylor just means playing the way everyone is taught.
“He came right outta Gulliver,” Frierson said. “He’s got that South Florida swag.”
Said Blades: “They can relate to him. … He embodies what Miami is because he played with a carelessness and a savage-type attitude that a lot of kids want to play like.”
At Gulliver, Taylor’s memory lingers across the whole campus. Schusterman’s office prominently displays a framed newspaper from the day after the Raiders’ state championship with Taylor, of course, featured front and center. The football stadium was renamed Sean Taylor Memorial Field in his honor in 2009. His half brother is even the star point guard for Gulliver’s basketball team.
Every Friday night when the stands fill up at Sean Taylor Field and the Star Spangled Banner plays, it’s another chance to remember Taylor. As the song winds down, the students all point their index fingers in honor of the No. 1 which Taylor wore for the Raiders.
One final reminder for anyone on the field who somehow forgot: It’s time to play like Sean Taylor.