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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The best high school football player I ever saw

Rivalry football games can be fun to cover. Lord knows how many rivalry games I've covered over the years -- from Toms River South-Lakewood (started in 1920) to St. Augustine-Palatka (started in 1921) though my experience with that latter game was a one-sided affair in 2009 (St. Augustine killed Palatka, 62-6).

In 2000, the rivalry between private-school based Gulliver Prep of Miami and public-school Key West was a strong one, especially in baseball. That spring, Gulliver beat Key West for the District 16-3A baseball championship.

And though the two schools were not in the same district in football that fall, the rivalry proved to be a fierce one nonetheless. Such was the case on Friday, September 8, 2000 at Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium.

I was one year into working at the Key West Citizen and had pretty much understood how things worked there. In that fall of 2000, I got to cover Key West High's football team. The year before, I pretty much had the night off while my assistant covered Key West High's games. It was all good and dandy, but I was really the person in charge of the place as the sports editor and now that he was gone and moved on to another venture, I got to take over the job of covering all the Conchs' games both home and away. It also didn't hurt that we did not have a Saturday newspaper, so there was no pressure to write a story and get a paper out that night. This was before the Cooke family who took over ownership thought we were ready to publish seven days a week, a bad mistake in judgment as far as I was concerned.

One project that was new to me for the 2000 high school season was not only putting the preseason tab together, but I was in charge of putting together an eight-page tab for every week of the season. All I know was the Citizen was going to sell this sport to the hilt and it was my duty to make sure the paper looked something close to beautiful. And for the second week of the season, the highlight game was the one at Tommy Roberts between Gulliver Prep and Key West.

Just the week before, Key West showed up at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and destroyed Class 6A Stoneman Douglas High, 41-13. These Conchs were a veteran team, led by senior quarterback James "Rock" Osborne, senior wide receiver-cornerback Colton Butler, senior lineman Patrick Lewin and junior linebacker Justin Duck. This was a very good Key West High team.

And the team the Conchs were facing was pretty darned good, too. Quarterback Buck Ortega was a senior and the son of former Miami Dolphins player Ralph Ortega. He was being looked at seriously by the University of Miami. Markus Jones was a solid running back that helped to balance out the offense.

But the best player on the field for either side was a senior named Sean Taylor. Taylor was a running back who also could play wide receiver, but his talent was as a cornerback, the young man Gulliver put on the other team's best receiver. But Taylor had not played the week before and Gulliver suffered an opening-game loss.

Now the 1-0 Conchs and the 0-1 Raiders were about to get it on at Tommy Roberts. I had heard so much about Sean Taylor. His coach, Steve Howey, told me he was being recruited by a number of schools -- Miami, Iowa State, Iowa, North Carolina State and Florida. You don't get mail from the big boys unless you're really, really good. So I was looking forward to this matchup since I never had the opportunity to see the game the year before, mainly due to the fact that my megalomaniacal assistant was persistent about covering Key West High football, so I let him. This is the same guy who told me "not to change the statistics" from the big Key West-Glades Central game in '99 because the statistician who covered Key West High "has done their stats for years!" 

Well guess what big guy? So have I! My attitude basically to my big boy assistant with the little boy attitude was "f*ck yourself." I honestly couldn't wait for him to move on, finding out later that I beat him out for the sports editor's job that summer. So working with him for the short amount of time that I did was a very uncomfortable experience.


With the door wide open now for myself to go cover this team without his aggrevation to deal with, I was looking forward to the Conchs' season. The opener in Fort Lauderdale was an awesome display of great balanced football on the offense and defense. This game against Gulliver was going to present a challenge and find out how good this Key West team really was early on.

Arriving early at Tommy Roberts -- which was no more than about five minutes from the apartment complex I was living at on Duck Avenue with my girlfriend at the time -- I could see the stands filling up on the Conchs' side. If there is one thing that those Key Westers are known for, it's their hometown pride. Tourist town? Absolutely! I tell anyone who thinks about visiting Key West to go and enjoy the experience of a lifetime. But this town comes out for its own and does so in a very boastful away. It's one of the things I took away from Key West when I left eventually in June 2002.

Those fans were there to watch their Conchs in action. They were also there to watch this great player in Sean Taylor. How good a player could he be?

From my view in the press box, I got to see the pre-game pomp and circumstance of the two teams coming out in dramatic ways, the coin toss and the loud, positive display put on around me and below me from the Key West High faithful.

And it was obvious from the start the Conchs' defense of assistant coach Pat Freeman was ready. Each time a running back touched the ball, there was a Conch defender there to lay him out or stop him from getting any momentum. I found out later from head coach Greg Kremer that six players were "halfway to three-quarters healthy" due to a flu bug that was going around at the school.

What kept the Conchs from doing any damage was the punting of Peter Simon, who was averaging 33 yards per kick. But the Conchs were playing a beautiful game of ball control. With Osborne calling the signals and the running backs doing their job, they were chewing up the clock and keeping Ortega from doing his job offensively. In the first 24 minutes of the game, the Conchs picked up 11 first downs. You'd think they would dominate this matchup.

The problem, though, was the Conchs kept coming up short on their drives. And this included the first drive of the evening ... and how Gulliver scored off of it.

Osborne had taken the Conchs down the field masterfully on that first drive and had taken them to Gulliver's 38. It looked like a well-oiled machine rolling along. But from the 38, Osborne rolled to his left. He spotted an open receiver back toward the middle, so awkwardly, he fired a pass.

And there was Sean Taylor. Deion Sanders would have been impressed with what happened after he picked the pass off. Taylor started heading toward the Conchs' sideline, but realized he had no blockers and a pair of speedy Conchs in front of him. So he back-tracked. He weaved his way around a couple of teammates who were getting in the way of Conchs players, then managed to find the sidelines. From there, Taylor, who would also win the state 2A 100-meter dash later in the spring, turned on the afterburners. No Conchs player was going to stop him and even if they did, Taylor found blockers to run past.

Taylor hit paydirt. The touchown went for 78 yards, but it may as well have been close to 110 with all the running he did on that particular play. Simon kicked the extra point and the Raiders had a 7-0 lead.

For the rest of the first half, Gulliver's offense was anemic because the Conchs' defense was simply frustrating Ortega and both the passing and running games.

But the scoreboard read Gulliver ahead 7-0 after one half of play. And as I talked to the longtime help working in the press box, I can see there was a combination of both concern and confidence. The touchdown really was "a fluke," they felt, and the way the defense was playing, there was no doubt Key West would figure it out on offense eventually. And I felt it, too. The problem I was having was how long could the Conchs keep Ortega and Taylor down on offense. This Gulliver team was far from mediocre. It sure didn't look like a run-of-the-mill football team that would go 6-4 at best.

The third quarter, though, was more of the same as the first half. The Conchs continued to clamp down on the Raider offense. Though not quite visible, Ortega was becoming frustrated. Key West's defense and Freeman had done their homework and were keeping this battle to a 7-0 score. Defense was going to dictate this affair.

The Raiders didn't pick up their first first down until Jones got loose for an 11-yard gain with 3:37 to go in the third quarter. In the first half of the game, Key West ran 39 plays -- 39 plays! Gulliver ran exactly eight. Gulliver had a grand total of minus-18 yards on offense. The Conchs were more than doing their job on defense and yet, they still couldn't score. Even with Jones' 11-yard gain on one play, the rest of the quarter saw the Raiders lose eight yards.

So going into the fourth quarter, the Raiders had a total of minus-15 yards. Now all Key West needed to do was find a way to get into the end zone. And they did on the one mistake Simon made punting -- an abyssmal 2-yard attempt that allowed Key West to start at the Gulliver 36 late in the third quarter.

This time, the Conchs were not going to fail. Osborne handed off to both his running backs -- fullback Adron Barnes and tailback Mike Edwards. In five plays, they had the ball at the Gulliver 10. On the next play, Edwards handed off to Barnes, who powered his way through the equally tough Gulliver defense to score. When Max Labrada kicked the extra point, the game was tied at 7-7 with 7:41 left to play.

Finally! There was momentum. Now the Conchs and their defense with a five-man front were playing at even ground again. And once again after the kickoff, they were stopping Ortega and the ground game. It got to third down. Freeman would say after the game that he knew what was coming.

The play Howey called was "143 pass." On the play, the wide receiver on the left side starts out, stops, then starts again like it's a down-and-out pattern. Ortega dropped back to pass and none of the five Conch players on the line were getting to the quarterback. With his protection there, Ortega -- who had completed just one pass for the night for zero yards -- let the pigskin fly.

The pass had to be perfect. The catch had to be in the right spot. That's because even the coverage was pretty darned good by Butler.

But when the young man at the end of the pass play is Sean Taylor, you could pretty much call it game, set, match. Taylor ran underneath the pass with the precision of Willie Mays catching Vic Wertz's 450-foot shot at the Polo Grounds in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. The pass landed beautifully in his hands.

He was gone for a 67-yard touchdown. So, too, was the tie game with 6:36 left.

That sinking feeling came about the entire enthusiastic crowd at Tommy Roberts all at once. And an offense that had struggled all night, committing three turnovers, one that led to the other Gulliver score, was having to try to ramp it up again after they had scored on the previous possession.

One touchdown was needed. And things looked good early on as Edwards picked up a first down to keep the Conchs rolling. But soon enough, the drive stopped thanks to a pair of penalties, forcing Edwards to punt it away. Gulliver had the ball at its own 31 with 4:01 left and Key West had three timeouts remaining. The Conchs continued to make stops on the first two plays, forcing Gulliver into a third-and-14 situation at the 27.

I'll be honest -- it was looking good that Key West was going to get the ball back just one more time. Ortega went back and once again, Key West defenders were on him like flypaper. They had Ortega bottled up, but it was only a moment. Ortega slid free and found a hole. When he barreled in at the 41, he had gained the necessary 14 yards for the first down.

It was deflating for the Conchs. They had to exhaust timeouts. And they never recovered. After masterfully holding down the vaunted Gulliver attack, the Raiders found a way to get the job done. They collected three more first downs and ran the clock out for the 14-7 victory.

After having minus-15 yards of offense until the backbreaker touchdown from Ortega to Taylor, the Raiders finished the game with 98 yards, including just 31 yards on the ground in 28 attempts.

The Conchs, who had 236 yards of offense for the game, did everything to win the game -- except outscore Gulliver's Raiders. The dejected looks walking away from the midfield handshakes after the game pretty much summed it all up. Fans were equally as dejected. They had this so-called "state power" within its grasp and couldn't reel the Raiders in.

But that's football ... one play can decide a game.

"Key West's defensive game plan was excellent," Howey said afterward. "I know if I were them, I'd be proud of the way my kids played defense. They were sending a lot of people at us. We're glad to come away with the victory."

And then Howey stated the obvious to me afterward.

"Taylor can do it all. He's a big-time player. The two touchdowns he scored tonight were both beautiful."

That was an understatement. When it was all said and done, I came off the field realizing I did see something special that night at Tommy Roberts Stadium. Key West went on from there to finish that season 7-3 and earn a postseason spot where the Conchs got creamed in their first game against state power Rockledge.

And Gulliver? They took that unimpressive performance that they made into a victory and turned it into a winning streak. The Raiders would win 14 straight games and finish the season as the state 2A champions, going 14-1.

As for Taylor, he stayed in the city of Miami, played for the Hurricanes and became an All-American cornerback as part of two Miami teams that went to national championship games, winning in his freshman year against Nebraska. Taylor declared for the NFL draft after his junior season and was drafted in 2004 by the Washington Redskins. Though a problem child to begin his career, Taylor was starting to figure it out as a player. His future -- as I saw it when he was a senior in high school -- was pretty darned bright.

But he got injured in the 2007 season while tied for the league lead in interceptions with five, forcing him to miss two weeks as he recovered from the injury. Back home in Miami in the early morning of November 26, 2007, Taylor and his girlfriend, the niece of actor Andy Garcia, were awakened by intruders in their home. Taylor went out to find who was there and was shot in the femoral artery by one of the suspects. Taylor was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, but had lost a significant amount of blood and had gone into a coma, reportedly his heart stopping twice during surgery. He came out of the surgery that afternoon, but it didn't look good.

Taylor was pronounced dead on November 27, 2007 at 3:30 a.m. He was only 24 years old.

I've seen a lot of good football players on the high school level over the years. I saw Keith Elias star at Lacey High School. I saw Joey Struyf at Marathon High dominate like a man among boys until injuries set him back at Florida International. And one night in 2001 in Riviera Beach, I saw a Suncoast High two-way senior star named Devin Hester dominate Key West like I've never seen a player dominate a team in my life.

But the best high school football player I have covered in 28 years was Sean Taylor. He had mad talent both offensively and defensively. He had swag, too, but not ever over-the-top swag. I knew when I left Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium that September 8, 2000, I saw a player who was going to dominate the sport for years to come until a callous act ended all that.

I'm proud to say I saw him in person do the kind of damage that he did that night in a rivalry game.

It was truly amazing to watch.



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