ASHBURN, Va. — As the celebration for a state volleyball title neared its end inside a Florida restaurant, Jackie Garcia Haley presented Jackie Taylor with one last item.
Garcia Haley waited until only a few family members and friends remained because she knew what it would mean to her daughter.
Then, she presented Taylor with the football helmet her father — former NFL safety Sean Taylor — wore more than 20 years ago.
“What is that?” Taylor recalled asking.
Though the helmet had belonged to Jackie Taylor all along, she had not seen it in years. Sean wore it when he won a Florida state high school championship for the same high school where Jackie Taylor won the volleyball title — Gulliver Prep in Miami.
Receiving his helmet punctuated the journey Jackie Taylor had traveled since her father was murdered in 2007, when she was just 18 months old. On this day, it was a chance for her — and others — to embrace his presence.
“My mom got really emotional,” Jackie Taylor said. “Then I just lost it and didn’t really say much about it. I was just crying. My emotions got the best of me at first. Then it really hit me and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It was surreal.”
Jackie Taylor, a standout volleyball player who will play on scholarship at North Carolina, had always wanted to continue her father’s legacy — born at Gulliver, honed at the University of Miami and then with Washington. His life came to an abrupt end on Nov. 27, 2007, when he died one day after being shot by burglars in his home.
“My biggest thing has always been just making sure his name stays alive,” she said. “It’s never felt like a burden, but it’s just felt like a part of me to connect with him.”
JACKIE TAYLOR WAS born in May 2006 — two years after Washington drafted her father fifth overall. Sean was a blossoming player with tremendous traits — a 6-foot-2, 230-pound safety who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds. Former Washington defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said Taylor told him his daughter gave him someone else for which to play.
“He did smile more or laugh more around others,” Williams said a decade after Taylor’s death. “In the first couple years … he wasn’t socializing with a lot of people. He was an individual on a mission in life. But now it was more a family. When he brought her around the players, there was a constant smile on his face.”
Garcia Haley said Jackie Taylor’s arrival gave his life new meaning.
“She was everything to him,” she said. “The birth of Jackie just grounded him more as a person. He always wanted to be a father. I think he felt more complete.”
Jackie Taylor said her father’s former teammates and friends shared stories.
“I heard things like, ‘He wouldn’t let anyone go over [to] the house because you were there; he didn’t want people around you,'” Jackie Taylor said, “I’ve heard stories about how he was very overprotective and cared a lot.”
Sean Taylor was turning into a top NFL safety in 2007. He intercepted six passes his first two years. He made the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season and, according to coaches and teammates, he was playing his best football in 2007. He sprained his right knee Nov. 11 and was scheduled to miss two weeks.
The weekend before he was slated to return, Taylor went home to Florida with Garcia Haley — then his fiancé — and daughter to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family. But on Nov. 26, burglars entered his home and Sean Taylor, armed with a machete, confronted them. Sean Taylor was shot in the leg, rushed to the hospital and later died. Four men were eventually arrested and charged in his murder.
“You learn to cope with the pain because the pain never really goes away,” Garcia Haley said. “You just learn to live with it, and you learn just to continue to fill your life with love. We’re given no choice but to keep pushing forward, but the tragedy never goes away and the pain never really goes away.”
Garcia Haley married Shay Haley — a drummer, rapper, songwriter and producer perhaps most famous for being a member of the funk rock band N.E.R.D. alongside Pharrell Williams — three years after Taylor’s death. Shay Haley has been a strong figure in Jackie Taylor’s life. During her college signing day speech she thanked him and said she was “forever grateful for the everlasting bond we have created.”
She’s forging one with Sean as well.
JACKIE TAYLOR DIDN’T always have a passion for sports. And it wasn’t just her dad who played. Garcia Haley, who started dating Taylor while both were at Gulliver Prep, played soccer for the University of Miami.
“She just felt like there was pressure to be successful at sports,” Garcia Haley said. “So she shied away from that. Over time, once she tried something and realized that when you put time into something you get better, she wanted to take on that pressure. But … I didn’t see it in her as a kid to drive to be great.”
Though she played soccer, Jackie Taylor started as a dancer, but gave it up in the eighth grade.
Her mom wanted her to play a sport to foster friendships and develop connections. She started playing volleyball in the eighth grade, but Garica Haley didn’t know where it would lead.
“I felt maybe because it was such a big part of my life and her dad’s life that she would enjoy something like that. I didn’t see her play sports for three or four years, so I didn’t know if she had developed athletically. She was always very tall,” Garcia Haley said of her 6-foot-1 daughter. “So she was at times kind of clumsy because she grew so fast. It took a minute for it to develop.”
Soon, more similarities to her father started to show.
Sean Taylor was big and fast. He also trained hard. So did Garcia Haley. But she said Sean took it to a different level.
“He just believed in overworking,” Garcia Haley said.
And he was competitive. Garcia Haley described herself and Sean as “feisty” and competitive.
“Have you ever seen the [Michael] Jordan documentary of how Jordan, everything he played, he was competitive, whether it was rolling [some] dice, whether it was playing cards, whether it was playing racquetball, whatever he did, he was competitive,” Garcia Haley said. “If it was in a workout, Sean wanted to finish first. If it was in a running workout, he wanted to finish first. That’s just, it was his nature.”
Jackie Taylor heard the stories about her father, too.
“When it was hot, he used to wear a million layers and when it was cold, he used to wear nothing. I’m definitely not that extreme,” she said. “It was a mentality that the 1 percent have. But I feel like I have the similar mentality of putting in the extra work.”
Four years ago, she dedicated herself to volleyball, spending three mornings a week on the beach for lower-body training sessions before performing drills later in the day.
Her mom told her other players had been playing longer, so she had to outwork them to develop. The arrival three years ago of her high school and club coach, Emilio Rodriguez, added another layer to her training.
“I had to catch up,” Jackie Taylor said.
“At some point it just clicked,” Rodriguez said.
D.J. Williams, one of Sean Taylor’s former Hurricanes teammates, said his daughter shares more than just his physical stature and demeanor.
“When somebody’s a little more reserved and they have that physical stature, that alone is intimidating because you almost want to kind of crack the ice to try to get them to smile, try to get them on your side,” Williams said.
Garcia Haley said at times, when watching Jackie react to opponents, she’ll say to herself, “That’s how Sean would have done it. He really believed in intimidating and getting in the mind of people.”
JACKIE TAYLOR WANTS to make her mark on the volleyball floor, building on her father’s example.
Her father was dominant on the football field. That’s why his legacy in Washington remains strong. The franchise retired his No. 21 and built a memorial to him inside FedEx Field.
Jackie Taylor has returned to Washington for multiple events, including an alumni weekend earlier this season. Fans want her autograph.
“It’s crazy,” she said, “and I’m like, ‘Why? I’m a nobody.’ They’re like, no, no, no.’ I had to practice a signature after I came back for the following time.”
Her mom said that connection matters.
“I don’t think he was able to understand how much the community loved him,” Garcia Haley said. “The reason for her staying connected, it’s been an incredible healing process for her. That aspect of it is the most important for me.”
Taylor’s former teammates helped Jackie Taylor know more about her dad.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really have a connection,” she said. “So being able to participate in those things like that made me feel closer and feel better about certain things.”
She helped start the Sean Taylor Legacy Project, she said, to keep his spirit alive by doing community work and giving back.
“My dad worked really hard to make it something,” she said of his legacy. “It’s always been something I never wanted to mess up or something I’ve never wanted to shy away from.”
That’s what this season was about on the volleyball floor. It’s why Garcia Haley wanted to bring his helmet to the event. It’s also why Jackie Taylor wears No. 1 — Sean’s number in high school — for Gulliver Prep and No. 21 for her club team.
In a group photo taken after the championship match, everyone was gathered in front of the building. After taking the photo someone noticed there were a number of notches on the building that resembled the No. 1. There were 21 of them in the picture. Gulliver also won their state title on Nov. 11 (11/11).
Whether Sean Taylor was physically there or not, they felt his spirit. Their sadness over his absence could be replaced by their joy — and knowing how he would have felt.
“He would have enjoyed this phase of her life,” Garcia Haley said. “In that sense, there’s a factor to it that’s hard emotionally for me and I’m sure for her as well. But he would’ve just been such a proud father.”