In life, and in death, Taylor was a natural mystery

MIAMI -- The school is not what it seems. It sits on 30 acres of manicured land near condos and bird-watchers. The folks at Miami Douglas MacArthur South, an alternative high school full of inner-city kids and at-risk teenagers, have a saying: Even good kids can make bad decisions.

Nobody really knows why Sean Taylor showed up one day in February. He was like that, often leaving people guessing. He'd done speaking gigs at schools around the Miami area as penance for one of his own questionable decisions, but this trip was voluntary.

He was supposed to talk for an hour, and stayed for three. And when the young NFL star who seemingly had finally figured it all out finished his spiel about staying on a straight path, at least two young men vowed to stay in school, just like Taylor.

"They were really taken by him," says Steve Rummel, the former principal at MacArthur. "They said, 'I'm going to college. I can do this.'

"He touched a lot of them."

Eight months later, Rummel struggles to explain how a 24-year-old man who by all accounts was trying to avoid trouble found it in his home early Monday morning, gunned down while his fiancée and 18-month-old daughter hid under the covers. He's trying to figure out why Sean is gone.

Many of the details of Taylor's death, much like his life, remain a mystery. Shock jocks and hair-sprayed pundits chalk it up as a cautionary tale of a thug life spiraling to a violent end. Police say he may be the random victim of a robbery gone bad.

Taylor's friends are left to try to fill in the holes and defend the memory of a man whose true identity, to most, reveals itself in old replay videos of bone-crushing hits.

"He didn't grow up in some neighborhood where there were drugs being sold on the streets," says former NFL linebacker Ralph Ortega, who coached Taylor in high school. "Sean didn't grow up stealing bicycles or running around with some gang.

"He was an extremely clean-cut, well-mannered kid. And that's what I remember. If there's another truth, fine. But I'd like to hear it from somebody who was really there."

Gulliver Preparatory is not in the 'hood. Kids wear uniforms and drive Lexuses and BMWs past a guard shack that protects them from the grit of the city. Enrique Iglesias and a nephew of George W. Bush went to school here. Some of them matriculate to Harvard, others chase grass-stained dreams. Gulliver prides itself on getting its best and brightest ready, and the price isn't cheap. The school's Web site lists its tuition range from $7,000 to $24,000.

It also considers itself a melting pot of youthful opportunity (the school offers athletic scholarships), which is why the son of a Florida police officer, middle-class at best, could fit in with the doctors' kids and young diplomats.

It didn't hurt that Taylor was 6-foot-3, fast and feared. Legend has it Taylor hit a kid so hard once in high school that the boy's helmet, the face mask and the screws, fell apart. He had gifts that Ortega, maybe biased, says eventually would have made him the standard for all NFL safeties. Taylor led Gulliver to its first and only state championship in 2000. His teammates were together on a trip one night, playing NCAA Football on their PlayStations, when one of them said, "Hey man, someday you're going to be on this game."

Taylor, modestly embarrassed, told the kid to shut up.

"He wasn't cocky, you know, that wasn't him," says former Gulliver teammate Greg Bellamy. "You were drawn to a good vibe.

"He's very charismatic," Bellamy says, still referring to his friend in the present tense. "Very easy to be liked."

His life was a series of contradictions. Maybe Taylor liked it that way. He was tough and intimidating and could level 200-pound receivers on the football field, but when he went water-skiing with his more privileged friends, he was afraid of the seaweed.

He giggled with his buddies about girls, but met Jackie Garcia in high school, took her to the prom, and their relationship endured three years at the University of Miami and 3½ seasons in the NFL.

And unlike many tough-luck stories of south Florida athletes who struggle to get out, Taylor seemingly had stability in his home, with a father who is the Florida City police chief.

They gathered at his house at 5 in the morning in high school, a handful of bleary-eyed teenage football players, because Taylor's dad promised he could make them better. He ran them up and down the streets of south Miami, their arms stretching to touch the back of a basketball hoop.

One Gulliver alumnus credits the elder Taylor with helping him get a football scholarship by showing him how to shave a few tenths of a second off his 40-yard dash through hard work.

When reporters camped out at Pedro Taylor's house this week, scrounging for a sound bite or a morsel of an answer, the Gulliver boys at first didn't know who they were talking about. They always knew Taylor's dad as "Pete."

Pedro Taylor's calming, half-smiling face is shown on the Florida City Police Department Web site, on top of a "Message from the Chief." It says his staff is dedicated to making Florida City the safest play to work and live.

"In public, he's remarkably strong," says family friend Mark Sinnreich. "He's a deeply religious man. He thinks God and Jesus have a bigger plan for Sean."

No, Sean Taylor did not grow up in the ghetto. But he didn't have to wander far to find trouble. It was just a few miles away in West Perrine, an impoverished area in the Village of Palmetto Bay where broken glass and stray shopping carts litter the streets and worn-out rags hang on clotheslines.

There are varied opinions about the exact time when Taylor's reputation plummeted from hardworking son to just another troubled athlete from Miami. He was known to occasionally spit on his opponent, but friends say Taylor did it because he was taught in youth football that paybacks were mandatory.

He was quiet and distrustful of the media, but that didn't necessarily sully his image.

Hanging out in West Perrine did. Taylor was a celebrity, a first-round draft pick for the Washington Redskins and an $18 million man. One day in 2005 he parked a pair of brand-new all-terrain vehicles in front of a friend's house in a sketchy neighborhood. They were stolen, and Taylor lost his cool.

An ensuing confrontation with a group of young men boiled over to guns and threats, and Taylor's SUV was sprayed with bullets. He eventually faced three aggravated assault charges and the possibility of more than 40 years in prison.

The case was high on drama -- prosecutor Michael Grieco resigned after Taylor's lawyers said he was using the fame to promote his side gig as a nightclub DJ -- but low on punishment. Taylor pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and was given 18 months probation. He agreed to speak to 10 schools on the importance of education and donated money to each institution. He stayed away from guns. His only mode of protection in the late-night hours on Sunday was a machete that he kept under his bed. His former lawyer, Richard Sharpstein, still maintains that Taylor was a victim in the case.

But what was a man who seemingly had it all doing in West Perrine? A friend who declined to be named says Taylor spent his first couple of years in the NFL trying to shake hangers-on from his childhood. He described them as people who weren't necessarily friends but wanted to hang around with an NFL star for his fame and money.

In an interview with reporters in Arizona this week, Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle, a friend of Taylor's since they were 6 years old, said some former friends were out to get Taylor, who was trying to live a more stable life by focusing on his girlfriend and daughter.

"...I know he lived his life pretty much scared every day of his life when he was down in Miami because those people were targeting him," Rolle said.

Roughly a year ago, Sharpstein had a conversation with Taylor about getting out. He was settling in as one of the Redskins' marquee players and had an in-season home in Ashburn, Va. Why couldn't he just take Jackie and the baby and move to D.C.?

"But he loved Miami," Sharpstein says. "I don't think I ever had a serious, 'You must move from Miami, Sean,' talk. It was just sort of like, 'Stay out of the old neighborhoods and don't let people set you up,' stuff like that. 'You're going to be taken advantage of because you're rich and people are jealous of you.'"

In the middle of the 2006 season, Taylor did move. He quietly packed his belongings and retreated from a rowdy, young end of the Redskins' locker room to a spot next to Renaldo Wynn's stall. Taylor never really told Wynn why he did it.

His new locker was in the middle of hard-core veterans, God-fearing men with scars and wisdom about the ways of the NFL. Wynn was considered a clubhouse leader, a defensive end with a wife and kids and a mother who was a schoolteacher for more than 30 years. When Taylor parked in their end of the locker room, Wynn made a joke about how he was moving from the ghetto to the other side of town.

"Hey man, just needed a change," was all Taylor said.

He was always doing things that even his teammates didn't understand. Like the time he got up and walked out of the rookie symposium early, drawing a $25,000 fine. Outside, maybe Sean Taylor didn't make sense. But on the football field, everything did.

In these days of last memories and unanswered questions, friends flash back to Taylor on the football field before practice, in the cold rain, smiling. He never complained, they say. He was just happy to be in the one place he could be under a helmet and reveal himself.

"He was radiant, you know?" says Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders. "One of those really popular guys you loved to be around. So positive, so energetic. You enjoy coaching when you have an opportunity to be around someone like that. They make the game, make the day, so enjoyable."

Wynn, who is with the Saints now, finds comfort in the laughs. He thinks about the time Taylor was ejected in the playoffs for spitting and stewed in the locker room, where Wynn's mother was waiting while her son was being worked on by the trainers.

She doted over Taylor, who was about to explode. She said, "Baby, it's going to be OK." For months after that, Taylor would ask Wynn how his mom was doing.

"I think he got it when a lot of guys don't get it," Wynn says.

"You could definitely notice the change. It was quite extreme. He always talked about his daughter. He always talked about stuff that was just about life. He'd say, 'I'm like a sponge trying to suck up as much wisdom as I can.'"

They met at Gulliver Prep on Wednesday morning, old friends and young faces, to say goodbye to Taylor.

Bellamy, a hulking former lineman who's now an assistant coach at Gulliver, rocked back and forth as tried to maintain his composure and sum up a man who was ultimately not what he seemed.

Sometime Monday, Bellamy's mom called to tell him Taylor's house had been broken into. Bellamy assumed his friend wasn't home because of football. But Taylor didn't make it to the game at Tampa Bay because of a knee injury.

They'd see Taylor pop in occasionally at Gulliver to visit, and when he'd leave, young men would ask Bellamy what they needed to do to be the next Sean Taylor. That, he can answer. But like everybody else, he's haunted with questions.

"I was kind of wanting to have a conversation with him," Bellamy says. "I didn't get to tell him how much the kids really look forward to him coming down. That's the one thing I kind of regret.

"I wish I would've known he was in town."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.