Honoring their fallen

LANDOVER, Md. – The message was perfectly clear: Sean Taylor is gone forever, and he is not forgotten.

For all of the No. 21 jerseys, twirling white towels and handwritten signs in the stands yesterday, for all of the red-and-yellow flowers and burning candles at a makeshift memorial outside the stadium, for all of the pregame tributes to the Pro Bowl safety, the most stark reminder of Taylor’s plight came when the Washington Redskins lined up on defense for the first time since he was killed.

Instead of 11 Redskins on the field, as rules allow, there were 10.

When the visiting Buffalo Bills prepared to run their first play on offense midway through the opening quarter, the man who replaced Taylor in Washington’s lineup, Reed Doughty, stood near coaches on the sideline.

“It was important for the team to know that Sean was with us that one last time on the field,” Doughty said. “He’ll always be with us, but that was special.”

After watching while Bills running back Fred Jackson gained 22 yards, Doughty entered for the next play – and made the tackle.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs wasn’t aware ahead of time that players were going to honor Taylor that way; assistant coach Gregg Williams said his defensive coaches and unit decided Saturday night to do it.

“We were going to let him ride with us one more time,” said Williams, who has described Taylor as being like a son to him.

The 24-year-old Taylor died Tuesday, a day after being shot at his home in Florida during a burglary. The shock has yet to dissipate for Taylor’s teammates and the Redskins’ fans, and the grieving process continued on game day, from the cloudy, chilly hours before the kickoff until the rain-soaked end of what turned out to be a 17-16 comeback victory for Buffalo.

“I didn’t show up to play this game, I showed up for a tribute for my friend, to send him out right, and we found a way to mess it up,” said cornerback Fred Smoot, who teared up when he looked where Taylor usually plays and didn’t see him.

Before entering the stadium, some spectators talked about Taylor in the present tense, as though it all hasn’t quite registered. Many wore Taylor’s number – on burgundy, white or black versions of the jersey, on handmade T-shirts, on hats, on wristbands. A trio of teenagers each wrote “RIP 21” on a cheek.

“You look around and see all the ’21s,’ you see his face on some of the posters,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “I thought of Sean every second.”

While tailgating did carry on in the parking lots before the game – with beer and grilled food, with chips and salsa – things were somewhat more subdued than usual. Stereos didn’t blare. People spoke instead of screamed.

“Oh, yeah, it’s quiet,” said Adrian Moore of Springfield, Va., who was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt with a yellow candle drawn between the numbers 2 and 1. “It’s a lot more somber than normal.”

A short walk away, people approached a memorial to Taylor where the Redskins painted his number on a patch of grass near the team store – which was under orders not to sell jerseys or other items with his name or number this day.

Starting at 7:30 a.m., fans began arriving to look at the display, snap a photo of it and leave objects. The piles kept spreading, with flowers in the team colors of burgundy and gold, leather footballs, dripping candles, and posters with personal messages. And on and on it went: balloons, teddy bears, hats. One little child left a piece of paper with a poem.

There were plenty of other ways in which Taylor was saluted, off the field of play and on.

After scoring the game’s only touchdown, Redskins running back Clinton Portis, also a teammate of Taylor’s at the University of Miami, lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with a message in his good friend’s memory.

After making his first catch, Redskins receiver Santana Moss – another college teammate – pounded his chest and put up a hand with his thumb and ring finger tucked down and the other three fingers raised. It was his way of saying, “21.”

That number was on patches on the Redskins’ jerseys and stickers on their helmets; the Bills and other NFL teams wore it on their helmets, too. Redskins owner Dan Snyder had the number on his black overcoat, and coach Joe Gibbs had it on his burgundy jacket.

“It was a very emotional day for everybody,” Bills coach Dick Jauron said.

On a facade above one end zone, there was a new sign with Taylor’s name and uniform number in white writing, with pictures of black ribbons at each end.

The Redskins Marching Band wore black hats and used instruments covered with black sleeves while playing a funeral dirge, followed by a slow, mournful rendition of the team’s normally peppy theme song, “Hail to the Redskins.”

After the public address announcer noted that, “We gather here today shocked and saddened,” the scoreboard showed a 4-minute video filled with photos of Taylor with his 1-year-old daughter and footage of him playing football. In one of the most poignant segments, Gibbs, Williams and players spoke into the camera as though addressing Taylor directly.

After Taylor was shown saying, “My favorite part is when we have home games and the fans are cheering,” the crowd roared and waved the white hand towels with the No. 21 they were given as they entered the stadium.

Those tens of thousands of tiny towels swirled around and around, a silent and moving tribute.