Sean Taylor

Sean Taylor's death at 24 leaves his teammates in the position of struggling with grief while trying to return to normal -- which means playing football. (Getty Images / July 31, 2006)

There is no prescribed path, no blueprint Mike Hargrove can give Joe Gibbs. Dealing with death in sports is not in any coaching manual.

In the aftermath of the shooting death of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor, Gibbs has to pull his shattered team together and get the Washington Redskins ready to play a game in four days.

"All of us here are going to work together, go forward together, and I think each person here has to deal with it in his own way," Gibbs said during a news conference at the team's practice facility in Ashburn, Va., yesterday. "I don't know how we'll deal with it, except we'll all do it together."

Taylor, only 24 and one of the NFL's best defensive players, died yesterday morning at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital from a gunshot wound to the upper leg. Shot by an apparent intruder at his Palmetto Bay, Fla., home early Monday morning, Taylor is the first active NFL player in modern history to be slain during the regular season.

On what is normally a day off for the Redskins, they were only beginning to work through their grief yesterday.

"Sean was a dear friend to all of us. We're all like a family, and it's like we lost a family member. In this tragedy, we all have to pull together and stay strong for each other," Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell said before he was overcome by emotion.

Hargrove has been there before - twice, in fact. He was manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1993 when a spring training boating accident outside Orlando, Fla., cost the lives of two pitchers, Steve Olin and Tim Crews, and nearly killed a third. As manager of the Orioles a decade later, he watched pitcher Steve Bechler die of heatstroke after taking an ephedra-based diet supplement.

One thing Hargrove learned is before the games begin again, before there can be any healing, there has to be time to grieve.

"You have to allow the proper time to be taken, and those needs are greater than the needs of the clubs," Hargrove said. "You still have a period in which you have to perform, but that never has a chance if you don't allow people the room and space to deal with it as they can. You cannot force-feed people to do anything."

The sudden loss of life of such a young teammate will settle on different members of the organization in different ways, depending on their relationship with Taylor, a sports psychologist and expert on traumatic death said yesterday. The grieving process can be treacherous, filled with swings of anger, depression and vulnerability, and each person on the team will have to confront the issues individually.

"One of the most important things is to realize there is no one right response," said Dr. Deborah J. Wilson, a sports psychologist and associate athletic director at George Mason University. "People have had different relationships with Sean, and that will affect how they respond emotionally to this.

"The way an individual feels today might be quite different than the way they feel tomorrow. Many people are just going through the shock of it all. Once they're past that, there's going to be some people who are angry, some who feel disoriented. Most of them, to some degree, are going to feel the vulnerability of life."

Dr. Marcella Marcey, a psychologist who launched her career working with the families of homicide victims in Oxon Hill and now has a private business in Fairfax, Va., said the grieving process can be drawn out and full of anxiety.

"You just get these weird reactions with grief," Marcey said. "You get periods of high anxiety out of nowhere. Sadness can hit out of nowhere. You'll be on the field, playing as a team, and somebody else will be playing in [Taylor's safety] position. It's like the empty space at Thanksgiving dinner."

The expression of emotion in small circles is a catalyst for healing. After counselors were brought in at Cleveland, Hargrove applied a personal touch.

"We had a big, private, players-only and coaching staff meeting," he said. "We sat around and pulled chairs in close and we just talked. We all talked about how we were feeling, and if somebody couldn't go any further, someone else picked up."

In August 1979, New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed when he crashed his private plane while practicing takeoffs and landings at an airstrip near his Ohio home. The entire team attended his funeral in Canton on Aug. 6, when his best friends, Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, gave eulogies.

That night, in front of a national television audience, Murcer drove in all five runs as the Yankees beat the Orioles, 5-4, at Yankee Stadium.

Former Orioles general manager Jim Beattie was a rookie pitcher who had just been recalled by the Yankees the day Munson died.

"It was kind of the logical reaction of putting baseball behind you for a while and then using it as a distraction," Beattie said.

Beattie remembered that teammates grieved openly.

"You try to get your mind distracted, but even that doesn't work," he said. "You see another catcher doing something and think, 'That should be Thurman doing that.'"

Hargrove said Gibbs will know when to move forward from the tragedy.

"I certainly don't think people should be left alone and let them wallow in their self-pity, but there comes a time that you realize now you have to take some steps forward," Hargrove said. "Joe is a good man. He'll know when it is time to start moving forward."

ken.murray@baltsun.com
dan.connolly@baltsun.com