D.J. Swearinger's routine hasn't changed since his junior year of high school. Before he ventures out to the field on game day, he watches the same blurry video, a montage that turns 10 years old this week. Swearinger even knows the length of the video by heart — it's 3 minutes and 32 seconds of Sean Taylor wrecking NFL offenses, set to "Thuggish Ruggish Bone."
Swearinger wasn't even a teenager when he first became entranced with Taylor: with the range and the power, the verve and the visor. He was only 16 when Taylor was murdered, when he died 10 years ago Monday. But Swearinger got hooked, and now he won't play football without watching that grainy montage of Taylor breaking things.
"Something about him (was) different; it stuck with me 'til now," Swearinger said late Thursday night, after Washington's win over the Giants. " He was the GOAT (greatest of all time) when he was playing. That dominant force that he played with was unmatched. Still unmatched. I'm trying to get there myself."
In the days after the Taylor tragedy, it was obvious that his teammates would carry a scar for life. It felt clear, too, that Redskins fans would never give up on the Taylor mystique, and they haven't. It sometimes feels like there are more jerseys of Taylor than of any current player in the FedEx Field stands, and the 10-year tributes on Thursday night — his number outside the stadium, a video on the big screen — brought on the expected emotions. Here's something I never would have predicted in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy: that a generation of defensive backs would grow up idolizing a man whose pro career lasted just 55 games.
An ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown piece that aired Sunday morning drives that point home. It features Swearinger, who paid a five-figure sum to secure the No. 36, Taylor's first uniform number in Washington. ("Do what Sean do," Swearinger says in the piece. "That's what I say in my head. Whether it's an interception, whether it's a big hit, a forced fumble, being all over the field - just do it like Sean do it.") And Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who wears Taylor's more familiar No. 21. ("As I'm getting ready for the game, the last thing I do before I step on the field is [call up] a Sean Taylor highlight," Clinton-Dix says in the piece. "I envision myself making the plays that he's made already.") And Giants safety Landon Collins, another No. 21. ("I feel like he's always watching," Collins says, closing the piece by imagining what it will be like to one day meet Taylor in heaven. "He can put his arm around me and be like, 'You did it.' ")
These men were all about the same age when Taylor died — 16, 14, 13. As a group, they've helped keep the Taylor legend churning in a way unimaginable during those heart-rending days 10 years ago. None of them plays football quite like Taylor, because no one really does. But they want to.
"It's part tragedy, part triumph in a way," said Ryan Clark, Taylor's former teammate and close friend, who narrates the ESPN piece. "The way he played the game, it's definitely something all these kids now pattern their game after. That type of reckless abandon, the skill, all those things are who they want to be. ... It's an homage, it's honoring him, and I think it's really cool. It makes me feel good that they still talk about him and still love him in that way."
It isn't just that trio, either. There's Steelers DB Sean Davis, a Maryland native, who wore No. 21 at Maryland in honor of Taylor. ("I just loved everything about him," Davis once said.) And Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, another local who grew up a Redskins fan. ("He's with me in the game, on my shoulder every week," Chancellor once said of Taylor.) Former Cowboys defensive back Mike Jenkins wore No. 21 because of Taylor. So did former Rutgers defensive back Lorenzo Waters. I asked Clark how many current safeties see Taylor as the model; "I mean, I think most guys do," he said.
"It's just a testament to how he played, how it looked when he played, how different he was," Clark said. "Because even though the professional recognition wasn't there for him, it was almost like street cred, you know? Even though he's not getting the All-Pros and different things like that, the people who knew ball and loved ball understood how rare he was."
There's surely an element of mythmaking in all of this. Taylor is guarded by that aura of perfection that surrounds so many icons who vanish before they were supposed to. It might seem silly to mention Taylor in the same sentence as Hendrix and Cobain and Tupac and Biggie, but the principle seems familiar: he was a football savant, immaculately frozen in time. As Clark pointed out, part of Taylor's appeal is that we never even saw his peak. We definitely never saw a slowing Taylor beaten badly on a go route. Or a broken-down Taylor taking up a roster spot, or cut for salary cap reasons. Or an overweight Taylor on the charity golf circuit.
At the time of his death, the only emotion was sadness. But if you hadn't yet hit puberty, maybe that sadness is mixed with something like romanticism. Here was a genius, whose life was cut unfairly short. Here was a new sort of football player, one who also happened to be forever young.
"We had never seen anything like it, and as soon as you kind of started getting used to it, he was gone," as Clark put it. "So it was like you never got out of the honeymoon phase with Sean. You never got used to it. And so for many people, it's still almost fake. It's still like the Loch Ness Monster, all these other things we think we see but we never know if we really saw it. That's kind of how Sean was. Because you got to see this glimpse of greatness, and this alien for a very short time, and then it was gone."
Some of the Taylor memorializing has felt complicated. The mixture of tragedy with crass sports-radio takes. The concern that death not be commodified by a league that sells everything. The deification of a kid who was just 24 when he died, before anyone really knew what he'd become as a football player or a person.
So here's a part of the story that feels blessedly straightforward. For a generation of football players, Taylor became the dream. And for them, he lives on in those YouTube highlight reels, and in their uniform numbers, and in their pregame reflections.
"The reason why we play this game when we put on a 21 jersey is because of him," as Clinton-Dix told ESPN.
Then there's Swearinger. He watches that highlight video as he's getting stretched out before every game, because "it just gets me in the mode," the first-year Redskins safety said Thursday night. He knows he isn't nearly as big as Taylor was, "but I try to play as big as him," he said. He knows Taylor's mixture of speed and power is perhaps impossible to recreate — "there's not a guy that can do that right now," he said — but he sees Taylor as the standard, almost like a computer simulation for mortals to chase. There aren't many elements of the whole Taylor story likely to make you smile. A generation of Taylor acolytes might qualify.
"To play in the same uniform that he once did is humbling; it's a blessing every time I put it on," Swearinger said. "It's all about Sean T. with me."